Em: And so, we discovered that Ralph Little isn't working-class. So, yeah, I know you probably all need a minute, we needed a minute!
Seleena: He never like shouted that he is, but also, it’s just assumed init. He’s Antony!
Em: I mean we want him to be one of us you see, so that's why I wouldn't question it, because he's Antony. Alas, he went to private school and the thing is when we were looking into it, like we’re some sort of personal private investigators, we notice…
Seleena: …We went on his Wikipedia…
Em: …We really dug deep, Wikipedia, and it’s there and his parents were accountants, so
anyway now that we've ruined your day, will hope to bring it right back up with some lol’s.
(Ledger and Laverne Daye, Poor Lass Podcast Ep.15, 2021).
Some of the best loved British comedies have been written and star people from working-class backgrounds, for example Only Fools and Horses or The Royal Family, well excluding Ralph!
However, the overwhelming success of these shows has not significantly paved a way for others into the industry. Neither has it signalled a notable increase in people from these backgrounds making more comedy programmes, until more recently. There is a growing body of research that recognises issues of social and economic inequalities as an often-overlooked barrier to arts and media participation. (Friedman and Laurison, 2020; Deery and Press, 2017; Jarness and Friedman, 2017; Savage, 2015; Lockyer, 2010; Brook et al., 2020). The Panic Report (2018) highlighted significant inequalities in the arts and media workforce, finding just 12.4% of people working in Film, TV and Radio were from working-class backgrounds (Brook et al., 2018 p.12)
With attention on diversity rising, for some broadcasters over the past 6 years there has been several comedies produced, written and starring people from working-class backgrounds. Raised by Wolves, written by Caitlin & Caroline Moran ran for two series between 2013-2016. It was then
cancelled by Channel 4 as ‘it would not be recommissioning the show due to its commitments to
new programmes’ (Jackson, 2016). Caitlin has been vocal about representation in comedy saying the programme was the ‘only TV series in Britain by and about working class women, which is pretty damn poor when you think about it’ (Radio Times, 2016).
There has been a move towards collecting workforce class diversity statistics from major television broadcasters. For the first time in 2019, Ofcom reported on social mobility. Some major broadcasters made no contribution to the study as ‘only three of the five main broadcasters are
collecting any social mobility data’ (Ofcom, 2019, p.10). This highlights how different broadcasters view the importance of this issue. There is a lack of available data around how improvements in the diversity of the workforce affects programming and audience satisfaction. The BBC is committed to authentic portrayals believing that ‘portraying different identities and communities in a genuine, knowledgeable way is central to enabling audiences to truly connect with the BBC's content…(having a) variety of voices who speak directly to audiences.’ (BBC, 2020 p.11)
This research will seek to find answers to the research questions: does an audience’s own class background affect which shows they choose to watch? How do they react to these programmes featuring and written by working class people and why? I will argue there are some fundamental
differences that are affected by people’s class origins. Class and comedy are complex areas to study and categorise, through the course of this research some larger questions were unveiled such as, do
people prefer to watch programmes they relate too? Do people care who is writing and acting in the comedy they watch? I believe more research in this area would further enrich understanding of comedy audiences and class identity.
Historically, Britain has a long-term tradition of class awareness. Through the nineteenth century, class had a significant impact on electoral reform established from long standing tensions in society. Initially the distinguishers between class groups were heavily linked to ideas of poorness being the result of lacking in morals and uncivilised behaviour. These ‘prevailing attitudes’ led to the research or segmentation of class to initially have ‘strong moral assumptions at its core’. Making attempts at classifying class groups ‘bound up with ways of demarcating morally suspect working class groups and identifying the scale of their deviation from respectable norms’ (Savage, 2015 pp.36).
Through the twentieth century as the labour market changed and managerial progression became available, meaning there was real potential for individuals to move between social groups. This meant further distinctions between classes became apparent and were played out prominently in politics. This led to sociologists attempting to understand the boundaries between middle and working class with objectivity, removing moral judgments. (Savage, 2015 pp.39)
A significant thinker in this area was Pierre Bourdieu, his theories offer the framework for many contemporary studies on class. He stated that in order to understand class there were more factors at play than shared social space or individual indicators such as wealth. He asserted that believe these in isolation do not inherently mean people will identify with each other or act collectively. (Bourdieu, 2010; Grenfell, 2012). Bourdieu set out three key concepts connected to class: Economic capital, Social cultural and Cultural capital (Bourdieu, 2010; Savage, 2015) Economic capital, how much money someone has access too. Social capital focuses on the range of people who make up an individual's chosen friendship groups and include those who have access to power, prestige and social kudos. Cultural capital encompasses the culture you engage with, in and consume. Bourdieu first developed the idea of Cultural capital, investigating differences in educational achievement between children from different social groups. He found that where a child’s parent had cultural resources these were invested and developed in their child. Access to high forms of culture, often involves having the capacity to invest time and resource in them, for this reason he argued certain types of culture had more weight in terms of status and, therefore, capital, This Bourdieu described as ‘legitimate culture’ (Bourdieu, 2010). Lived experience of low economic and social capital is unlikely to give you the luxury to devote time to pursuits that have no practical purpose, Bourdieu explains this:
Can only be constituted within an experience of the world freed from urgency and through the practice of activities which are ends in themselves, such as scholastic exercises or the contemplation of works of art. (Bourdieu, 2010 pp.47)
This framework gave context to Friedman and Laurison’s (2020), study of class and workplace progression, The Class Ceiling. They found that around 10% of people from working-class backgrounds were employed in Britain’s higher professional and managerial occupations. Yet those who did, earnt 16% less than colleagues from other class groups (Friedman and Laurison, 2020).
Using Bourdieu’s three concepts they were able to delve into the possible reasons for this.
Friedman and Laurison (2020) also considered people’s own class backgrounds as key factors of their present class identity and considered the job categories of the main household earner of participants positioned them in terms of class. This was supported by John Goldthorpe’s National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification, NS-SEC (Friedman and Laurison, 2020 pp.263). Studies such as this have shown that segmenting individuals across their class backgrounds, alongside the concepts of different capital can yield useful and accurate data. This theoretical framework also fed
into best practice in workforce data, supported by the Social Mobility Commission (2020) and OFCOM (2019)
Traditionally in broadcasting, audience data segmentation has been conducted using Social Grading A, B, C1, C2, D, E (UK Geographics. 2014). This system is grounded in market research and is commonly used by Newspapers, Television and Radio. These categories are worked out using
people’s professional positions, how many staff report to them, age and region. The usefulness of this categorisation has been called into question as consumption has become more individualised (Marketing Week, 2007) finding collective patterns based solely on these categories when considering the theories of Bourdieu previously discussed, appears reductive, as it negates the nuances of cultural capital among audiences.
A recent journal suggested there are complications with self-identifying (Friedman et al., 2021). Friedman found that many middle-class people misidentify as working-class. He stated that ‘despite the significant advantages enjoyed by those from middle-class backgrounds, there is strong evidence that such individuals tend to downplay such privilege.’ This group strongly believed in the idea of meritocracy as a key factor for career success over the role of coming from a privileged background.
He found that across this group they ‘reached back further’ than their own experience ‘into their
extended family histories.’ These narratives framed individual’s understanding of their ‘sense of self’ to which they then ‘simply do not see themselves as privileged.’ (Friedman et al., 2021) This research suggests that the social capital of being working class has gained acceptance and has arguably been appropriated by a number of middle-class people, seeing it as something to be proud of rather distinguish themselves from. This suggests that working class culture now holds status outside of itself. This research adds to what is already a deeply problematic area to define, however it has real implications for those who genuinely experience the impacts of inequality, especially in the creative sector and in turn, how people are represented. If people who have not experienced these barriers are identifying as working class this possess the possibilities for further disentrancement of actual working-class people, when culture is appropriated it continues the oppression of the non-dominant culture, however if you see yourself as working class, when you have been afforded the privilege that comes with being Middle class does that leave the possibility for individuals to legitims questionable choices and decisions that might actually be harmful to working class people.
Who makes culture has consequences for the way individuals and communities are represented. In television, for example, we see a huge distance between commissioners of particular genres such as reality television focused on welfare and poverty, and the subjects of those shows. This genre is very popular, but it has been criticised for its sensationalist, distorted, and unfair representation of working-class communities. (Brook et al., 2020 pp.75)
‘Comedies low cultural status’ often sees the study of it left in favour of more serious forms of culture (Creeber, 2015 pp. 89). Any studies that do take place which seek a deeper truth of comedy, indicate it is doing something else more meaningful at the same time as being funny, ‘for being funny is not of itself worthy, and certainly not worthy of understanding.’(Mills, 2008 pp.20).
Friedman suggests ‘the vast majority of comedy scholarship has assumed the manner in which
audiences read and interpret different types of comedy.’ He warned of the danger of doing this as ‘it ignores the wealth of research that highlights the complex, mutable and active ways audience receive and decode forms of culture’ (Friedman, 2014 pp.25-26)
Mills, (2008) discussed the lack of research into comedy audiences, stating the themes of
representation are often ‘removed from the experiences of its viewers’ (Mills, 2008 pp. 137). He found studies theorised around everything but the audience. In reference to audiences and race, Mills discussed research highlighting that White viewers of the Cosby Show, found the programme progressive, stating that: ‘if the characters were white, they’d be the same’ e.g., they found them
relatable, ‘whereas for black audiences that was precisely the problem’ This emphasises the importance of understanding comedy audiences in more detail and not assuming their position, particularly through the lens of predominant groups. (Jhally and Lewis, cited Mills, 2008 pp.138)
Mills (2008), suggests that historically humour theory has been split into three schools of thought: the concept of Superiority, the idea that humour is found in obtaining ‘sudden glory’; Incongruity, where humour is the result of ‘the clash of incompatible discourse, which are themselves socially
constructed and learned’; and the concept of Relief, which suggests that ‘humour functions socially and psychologically as a vent for repression and, by extension, questions social norms’ (Creeber, 2015).
The cultural currency of a ‘good’ sense of humour is explored by Friedman (2014) in his study Comedy and Distinction. He argued that taste distinction in British comedy contributed to the accumulation of cultural capital, defining groups that ‘prefer ‘highbrow’ comedy and reject
‘lowbrow’ comedy, from those with low resources, who prefer ‘lowbrow’ comedy and have not heard of most ‘highbrow’ comedy.’ (Friedman, 2014 pp.162) He suggests that within an art form that is generally regarded as less important, ‘liking the ‘right’ kind of comedy does act as a partial status marker’ (Friedman, 2014 pp.162)
Lockyer (2010) discusses the ‘comical treatment of the chav’ in the sketch show Little Britain. Not unique to this specific programme, ‘Stereotypes, as a representational strategy are often used in
television comedy to ensure immediate recognition of groups and individuals’ (Lockyer, 2010 pp.3). However, the cultural and representational issues raised in this research is that of power. In this example the stereotypes play into the notions of cultural capital with working-class culture being
‘perceived to be lacking in distinction’ and mocked. Lockyer (2010) also argues these problems and discussions are further evidence that television comedy is a space for discourse through ‘which concerns, anxieties, and questions about class and class identities are discursively constructed and contested.’ (Lockyer, 2010 pp.1)
Deery (2017) questions ‘If pronounced inequality has become more widely recognized and recognized as serious and injurious, how is this difficult mattered transformed into entertainment?’ (Deery and Press, 2017 p.53) Again, highlighting the importance of not assuming audience’s perspective. This also appears to contrast with the experience talked about by writers and performers from working-class backgrounds. Joseph Gilgun speaking about Brassic commented, ‘You know, the show is an unapologetic comment on what it is to be working-class, We’re not all
miserable. Some of the happiest people I know have got fuck all’ (Nicholson, 2019). It also contradicts the concept on which the BBC have based their aim of authentic portrayals.