As a Canadian who’s spent a large portion of his adult life in the UK I find the idea of social classes in the British film industry most entertaining.
I’ve long admired the British author Christopher Hitchens. Not only for his quips and sayings, but for his ability to shrink down huge swathes of social mores. He used to tell an Anglo-American joke where an Oxford don asks an American student what he’s studying. “My thesis is on the survival of the class system in the United States.” “Oh, really? That’s interesting—one didn’t think there was a class system in the United States.” “Nobody does. That’s how it survives.”
The same could almost be said about the British film industry’s social classes.
Through the lens of my Canadian upbringing the British class system has always been crystal clear. Everything from royalty to landed gentry to peasants is clearly laid out and has been for a thousand years. To suggest to a North American that there is a class system one can easily become entangled in issues of wealth, power (both political and economic), influence and taste.
The film industry in Britain has shed the shackles of lineage and titles. Although at an early meeting of the British Independent Film Awards the debut BIFA producer was told by a senior executive that he had no right to work in film as he had a ‘public schoolboy accent’. But then that was in 1998.
In fact, British class society has retreated in to a series of racial, religious and economic subcultures which make it almost as difficult to distinguish as class in America.
One British subculture where hierarchy is on not-so-subtle parade is the status obsessed film industry’s obsession with the awards show and in particular at the British Independent Film Awards.
Award shows come in three types: The biggies like the Baftas and the OscarsTM where film royalty is paraded and lauded. Then there are the festival awards from entities great and small. At these events filmmakers circulate hoping to get one of the laurels they can put on their websites and social media. Lastly there are the lifetime achievement galas, like our very own tribute to Terry Gilliam which is strangely a mix of all three.
It should be noted that each of these three feature an after-party for the stylish and self-appointed cool types no matter how humble or grand the event. I was at such an event this summer at the closing party for an independent film festival in Vienna and the afterparty consisted of about a dozen people sitting in a humble late night bar.
The British film industry has a definite class structure. One could use the military class system of the generals of different ranks, the lieutenants and foot soldiers. Or you could use the landed gentry structure of land owners, noblemen and peasants. Or the academic structure of academics, the professionals, doctors, lawyers and accountants followed by the working and uneducated classes.
The British film industry has it’s own syncopated class structure borrowing from differing class structures. The military for the shoot, the academic for the civilly funded film quangos and the landed gentry for the differing levels of celebrity. Like all in the creative industries world wide there is a special class of haute monde unequalled anywhere for it’s taste and decorum.
Nowhere is it easier to observe and analyse the class structures in the British film industry than at the British Independent Film Awards.
The event itself has five sections: The Red Carpet, Dinner, the Awards themselves, the After Party and the After After Party. From my perspective of founder I can say that the class structure is easiest to explain at the dinner. For it is the proximity to the stage that defines rank and royalty. The best views and shortest walk to the stage are reserved for the triple-A list royalty. Our BIFA producers try and mix up this hierarchal cliche by seating the winners at tables at the front, side and back. This means everyone, regardless of rank, will sit next to a winner.
Another class cliche is the red carpet. Arrivals come and are fawned over according to their rank and stature. Those without rank are ushered straight into the champagne reception without the chance to take a selfie.
But for me, the two most interesting times to analyse the class society of the British film industry is the dinner and the After Party. It is here that we can observe the jostling between the different ranks.
You don’t need a degree in sociology to know where the top dogs sit at dinner: front and centre. But the curious thing about the dinner is how the tables of ten are selected. Sponsors and nominees buy tables, but our organisers face the annual nightmare of who to sit at which table and which table to put it next too. You see we are social animals and we find our peers, regardless of the situation. Top dogs stay away from lower ranked for fear of being challenged. Middle ranked filmmakers stay away from their superiors for fear of being humbled or mocked.
The actual dinner itself is a almost a tribal ceremony. Guests gather around their table warmly greeting old acquaintances and new friends. As the waiters serve the food, everyone sits, but now you have the table hopping. Those in the lower ranked tables deke up to the front as if hoping a celebrity ‘general’ in the centre right table will rise and greet them with a man-hug or an air-kiss – the British film industry’s equivalent of knighthood.
The real breakdown occurs after the Awards at the After Party. Birds of a feather is no better displayed than at the After Party. A crush by the guests to break off into the five different social classes. Now it is a tribalistic ritual.
The celebrities hover with their PRs and agents. It’s almost as if they disdain the directors and producers at their level. Who knows what drunken abuse happened in the past?
Financiers sip one last round before heading off with their goodie bags and trophy bride or grooms. The functionaries eagerly press calling cards into anyone’s hands they can – so eager they are to get another gig. The haut monde flaunt their stuff hoping to outdo their rivals. And lastly the tastemakers care for no convention and seem to consciously break all social norms. The tastemakers tend to travel in flocks of twosies and threesies and crash into any of cliques. The rest of the gathering is very wary of the tastemakers. A tastemaker’s power comes from their ability to influence style and with it the coveted fame that filmmakers feed on.
I could break down the nominees and the sub-group the winners but that would be unfair.
It’s shorty after the After Party starts that I am aware of my attire: the expensive suit, the tie and cuff-links. In my position as founder I am able to travel through each of the class strucutres. I’m welcomed into any and all of the huddles. I have to be careful no to be too over-dressed to turn off the haute monde, and dressed suitably conservative so I don’t offend the royalty. It’s through my dress that I identify my class identity. Not too hip and cool to associate myself with the trendies, not too rich to offend the poorly paid functionaries attending, yet conservative enough to be able to approach the top layer of finance and celebrity. It’s at times like this I thank the heavens for the discount malls. It’s about now that I notice a lot of my female colleagues walking barefoot holding their stilettos.
Clutching my business cards I wade into the throng to see what new business I can scare up, what new sponsors might be lurking and what response on the night I can get from one of the few trusted friends at the event.
I carefully avoid anyone whose social graces have been blighted by alcohol. I try and stay clear of the types who spring questions like: ‘What was your favourite film of the year?’ To me the event is best used to try to connect on an emotional level with someone in a position to help with one of my projects.
About an hour I slope off to the smokers corner – with a blanket around my shoulders. It’s here that I often make the best contacts. It’s dark outside, and cold. And the smokers are so desperate for nicotine that they let their social pedigree slip and will talk to anyone no matter how lowly they are ranked.
I wander in and out listening to self-aggrandisement, to flattery and cajoling. I witness all sorts of behaviour from polite and socially correct behaviour to the loud and louche of a tastemaker. While barely acceptable this shows a character unconstrained by the normal conventions of class and willing to cast themselves at the mercy of the social classes of the British film industry. One wouldn’t want to be cast out, now would they?
A couple years ago at the BIFA’s I realised it was getting late. Before heading home, I figured I should make a pass at the one member of the tastemaker class in attendance: the grand dame of British cinema being fêted that evening.
Tastemakers are self made men and women. They are eccentric and hold themselves with a certain disdain for the normal notions of posture or even of decency. Tastemakers have great power for it is they who can bestow a social status on others in a status-starved world. It was unusual to see this person at an event as this. They are known to prefer seclusion in one of their own estates. But there she was. glowing and attended by a bevy of acolytes, servants and adoring citizens of the film world.
I had to wait quite a while for the right moment to introduce myself. I stood there and remembered to my horror that it was actually my job to speak to her as founder of the event to thank her for coming. For a moment I wavered and thought ‘how déclassé’. Suddenly reason returned. I steadied myself to leap in and introduce myself. And during those last few steps I felt like king of the castle. I wouldn’t have missed the moment for anything.