To mere civilians, the gates around the creative industries – acting, writing and TV – seem sky-high and reinforced by maximum-security locks. All the while, it can often appear that those with the right lineage have a guaranteed seat in the front row.
Those on the receiving end of rarefied genes cry: ‘It’s only an in! We’d be out on our ear if we weren’t talented.’ At the same time, the unlucky majority uninvited to the party could tell you the cold truth through bitter experience: it is getting the foot in the door that is the crucial – and hardest – part.
The latest in a very long line of such beneficiaries is Boris Johnson’s daughter Lara, who inevitably made headlines this week as writer of, and model for, an article on the new breed of shapewear in Tatler, where she is contributing editor.
Her name blares from one of the cover lines – a strange thing for a relatively unknown 28-year-old writer. Of course, she may be a very talented journalist. Though perhaps having the daughter of the serving Prime Minister modelling underwear was the driving consideration in the editor’s prominent placement.
But the Johnsons know all about the power of a shared name. Boris gave a ministerial job to his brother Jo before he resigned six weeks later because he was ‘torn between family loyalty and the national interest’ (in what kind of functioning democracy does ‘family loyalty’ even come into it?). Boris later rewarded Jo with a peerage.
We used to debate whether journalism was a profession or a trade. I sometimes wonder if it is closer to a hereditary monarchy.
The most recent general election night coverage was the BBC’s first not to include a Dimbleby since the early 1950s.
Alan Coren’s son Giles got his break on The Times ‘because my dad was a famous columnist on the paper and that was how it worked back then, and sometimes still does’. Flora Gill, daughter of the late writer AA Gill, succeeded in getting her first radio show opposite her mother, ex-home secretary Amber Rudd.
Look at the parade of celebrity progeny hoovering up plum jobs in the arts and it seems the advantage of proximity to a dynasty becomes undeniable.
Take TV names such as Jack Whitehall, the godson of actors Nigel Havers and Richard Griffiths, a talented comedian, no doubt, but – he has admitted – one also helped by the copious industry connections in his family. His first telly role was in a series starring Havers and produced by his theatrical agent father, who also secured him a private audition for the Harry Potter films: ‘My Dad, being an agent at the time, said: “This is nonsense, Jack, we’re not sending you off to some open audition. They never find anyone from an open audition. I’ll get you a one-to-one because I know David Heyman’s [the producer] mother, I used to work with her.”
Try finding a major TV drama not showcasing what Grazia magazine has called ‘celebrity spawn privilege’ – the extra stardust seemingly sprinkled on those related to high-powered names. There was Normal People (its star Daisy Edgar-Jones is daughter of the head of entertainment at Sky), Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor is daughter of Coronation Street’s Sally) and The Pursuit of Love (Emily Mortimer is daughter of dramatist Sir John Mortimer; Freddie Fox is godson of Sir John and son of actors Edward Fox and Joanna David – also cast in the show; Beattie Edmondson is daughter of actors Ade Edmondson and Jennifer Saunders; and Dolly Wells is daughter of actor John Wells. Mortimer also handed roles to her own mother and two children.
Are we really saying that acting ability is hereditary? Or are producers just fishing in the tiniest of available talent puddles?
In politics too, the same names crop up through the generations. According to the House of Commons Library, there are 50 MPs related to current or former members. Labour’s Hilary Benn and the Tories’ Geoffrey Clifton-Brown are the descendants of no fewer than four ex-MPs apiece. Could it be that local parties might be seduced by a political dynasty too when selecting their candidates?
In whatever field, no public figure can heartily insist their children made it on merit while also bestowing them with acres of column inches thanks to frequent joint interviews in which they wax lyrical about each other.
And you can’t boast about opening up your profession to working-class or ethnic-minority talent AND keep it in the (usually wealthy and white) family
Of course, it is not the fault of the recipients of the charmed monikers. The blame lies squarely with those offering the work to a growing army of famous family members – as everyone else is left to fight for the scraps.
I am not even saying that they aren’t up to the job. The point is that this is a zero-sum game – every role that gets handed to someone with special access is one not even open to the hordes of just-as-talented nobodies trying desperately to get their opportunity.
It would help everyone – the ordinary folk bashing down the doors and the children of the creative elites who feel unfairly judged for their inheritance – if organisations were clear that no strings can be pulled.
All companies should have a basic transparency policy in the same way that staff have to declare other conflicts of interest. Anyone trying to jump the queue should be told plainly to join the back. And – on the specific occasions where unfair preferment does occur – we should never defend a kind of low-level corruption as a natural and noble parental impulse any more than we would argue for tripping up your child’s rival at a sports day.
Most of us are sick of hearing the nation’s most gilded class claiming to be liberal and progressive defenders of equal opportunities, while crowing about privilege-checking – for everyone but their own lucky darlings.