'Posh' British actors spark concern over elitism

LONDON - The backgrounds of Oscar hopefuls Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne have fuelled a running controversy ahead of Sunday's awards ceremony over whether acting is becoming an elitist profession in Britain.

Several industry legends have weighed in on the debate.

Michael Gambon, famous for playing wizard Dumbledore in the Harry Potter film series, sees no problem in the trend.

"The more Old Etonians the better, I think!" he said, referring to the prestigious alma mater of Prince Harry and Prince William that costs over £34,000 (46,000 euros, $52,000) a year to attend, well over the British average yearly salary.

"It's to do with being actors and wanting to do it. It's nothing to do with where they come from," Gambon told Radio Times.

Redmayne, nominated for Best Actor for his performance as astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything", was a classmate of Prince William at Eton.

"The Avengers" villain Tom Hiddleston is a fellow alumnus, along with "Homeland" star Damien Lewis, Dominic West of "The Wire", and 19 British prime ministers including David Cameron.

The school has lavish drama facilities, including a 400-seat theatre with an orchestra pit and revolving stage, and puts on over 20 productions a year - some of which go on to be staged at the Edinburgh Fringe arts festival.

Some have expressed concern that connections and wealthy parents tip the balance in favour of the privileged, especially when it comes to costly drama schools and living through months of auditions and unpaid work.

Theatre actress and James Bond star Judi Dench has said that she regularly receives letters from aspiring young actors begging for financial assistance.

"Anyone who's in the theatre gets letters countless times a week asking for help to get through drama school," Dench told the Observer.

"You can do so much, but you can't do an endless thing. It is very expensive." Dench lamented the demise of the repertory theatre, where an acting company performs different plays in rotation but featuring the same cast, saying it left young actors with expensive acting school as their only option to train.

'No working class' 

The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London or RADA, which has Kenneth Branagh and Ralph Fiennes among its alumni, costs £9,000 a year ($13,800, 12,100 euros) to attend, according to its website.

Living costs must be added to this, as well as the ability to cope financially with low and unreliable wages after graduation.

An established actors agent in London, who asked not to be identified, told AFP that declining numbers of actors were from working class backgrounds.

"I absolutely think that there has been a change over the years," the agent said, saying working class hopefuls were less likely to gamble on an acting career than alumni of elite schools.

"These boys are educated to be the elite.

"They completely expect success, whereas for a working class kid with no connections, it seems so out of reach," the agent said.

Actress Julie Walters, who is from a working class background, told the Observer that she wouldn't have the same opportunities today.

"I don't know how you get into it now. Kids write to me all the time and I think: I don't know what to tell you," Waters said.

"Working-class kids aren't represented. Working-class life is not referred to. It's really sad."

'Prejudiced wazzock'

Chris Bryant, the UK's shadow culture minister for the opposition Labour party, caused a storm after complaining that British culture was dominated by people such as musician James Blunt, an alumnus of the elite Harrow School which, like Eton, is an all boys establishment.

Blunt replied in a letter to Bryant calling him a "prejudiced wazzock" and saying his background had been a disadvantage in the music industry and that he had worked hard.

Cumberbatch, also up for Best Actor honours for his performance as mathematician Alan Turing, is an alumnus of Harrow along with Blunt as well as Winston Churchill and six other prime ministers.

In 2012 he complained about "posh-bashing", calling it "so predictable, so domestic, so dumb" and added it made him want to move to the United States.

His former drama teacher at Harrow, Martin Tyrrell, told Radio Times that it was clear from age 13 that Cumberbatch would be an outstanding actor and that his schooling was of "no importance".

"I don't think anyone ever bought an education at Harrow in order for their son to become an actor."