Television is meant to be for everybody – but it isn’t. How can it be when, after nearly a century, it remains predominantly male, stale and middle-class? For decades, the industry has been talking about nurturing working-class writers at scale, rather than actually doing it. The lack of working-class voices – particularly female ones – has become so bad that the BBC admitted just two years ago that “often those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are depicted negatively, fuelled by stereotypes and seen as the object of ridicule” on screen.
But now, finally, working-class women are spearheading a big shift. So exciting is the rollcall of recent and upcoming TV shows written by working-class women that when I list them for Kit de Waal – whose BBC drama My Name Is Leon is among them – she utters two words of pure relief: “Thank fuck.”
My Name Is Leon is an adaptation of De Waal’s heartbreaking 2016 novel set against the race riots in 80s Birmingham. Its journey to the BBC began after Lenny Henry – who recorded the audiobook – contacted her, asking: “Has this been optioned yet? It needs to be!” She trusted Henry to take the helm, and the adaptation now airs on BBC One next month.
It follows mixed-race, nine-year-old Leon, who is growing up in the care system but never stops dreaming of reuniting with his mum and baby brother. While planning to run away with the 50p coins he pinches here and there, he makes an unlikely friendship with an allotment worker called Tufty, through whom he learns more about his identity. “All them see is your skin,” he tells Leon in between teaching him about plants and how to dance. “Don’t ever let anyone tell you what you can’t be.”
As a Brummie who grew up “poor, black and Irish” and worked in family law for many years, De Waal knows such territory well. “The biggest myth is that you don’t want to be working class – that you’re desperately trying to be middle class,” says De Waal of one of TV’s most enduring tropes: a person wanting to “escape” through social mobility or a lucky break. It’s something that has its roots in a lack of working-class writers, and which De Waal shuns, trying instead to celebrate working-class life.
Regardless of the TV genre, having such a celebratory writer makes a huge difference. While working-class characters are too often reserved for crime shows – and their frequently negative stereotypes – in the right hands a detective show can feel pleasingly representative of the real world. “Sally Wainwright, who cut her teeth on the soaps, is very good at exploring working-class lives on Happy Valley,” says De Waal. “Yes it’s a police procedural, but it is much more than that – it isn’t about this ‘desperate’ family.”
Ofcom’s latest Diversity and Equal Opportunities in UK Broadcasting report found that in 2020-21 the proportion of women in the television industry was 47% (though only 16% of these are 50 and over). When it comes to class disparity, however, socio-economic background isn’t even a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. Nonetheless, Ofcom has included it for the past three years, confirming that things haven’t improved much today: workers are nearly twice as likely to have attended private school compared with the UK benchmark, while 59% have grown up in homes where the main earner had a professional occupation. And, with 72% of all staff working in TV being white, there is a serious lack of working-class Black, Asian and minority ethnic voices.
So many working-class stories are refracted through a middle-class prism that Lowborn author Kerry Hudson was shocked when the BBC commissioned her to write about poverty. The recently aired Skint is a series of monologues written, performed and produced by people with experience of poverty – curated by Derry Girls’ Lisa McGee. Hudson’s script told the frustratingly all-too-real story of mother-of-one Hannah (played by Emma Fryer) who is one of the UK’s hidden homeless, despite having a job and being in a loving relationship. “Zero-hour contracts means zero chance of anybody renting to you, so we were stuck in that place with the drifters and dirty, damp studios,” Hannah says, before explaining they were kicked out after she became angry when another lodger stole her son’s first birthday cake.
“I don’t think putting on a collection of monologues is an easy choice by any means,” says Hudson, admitting she was initially sceptical. “I think most people living [or who have lived] in poverty would be slightly cautious working with production companies, because we’ve seen how horribly wrong it can go.” But, she says, “they did it with real integrity – making sure people got their first credits, which is a way of trying to address the social imbalance in TV. And Lisa wanted our real experiences to shine through.”
The more working-class people there are behind the scenes, the more it will encourage to tell their stories. Netflix is adapting Coming Undone, the memoir of Terri White, which details what happened when the magazine editor ended up in a psychiatric ward in New York. It unflinchingly unpicks her formative years of abuse, poverty and alcoholism, and the working-class team adapting it played a huge part in it ever reaching our screens.
“Would I have got through the door if it wasn’t for [the show’s executive producer] Kate Crowther recognising my story?” says White. “I don’t know if a middle-class man would have had the same reaction to my book.” It is an undeniably brutal story, but White is adamant it’s not to be treated as a “misery memoir” (another reliable trope), which is where having Crowther helps again: “She saw the black humour, she recognised all the nuances in it – and I think that was definitely informed by her class.” And with Billie Piper announced as the lead, it’s set to be big: “She’s completely fearless,” says White. “Incredibly empathetic, incredibly intelligent – it’s a bit of a dream come true.”
Taking more creative control like this is one way of ensuring that working-class stories are told in a truthful way. Candice Carty-Williams, who has been working on two scripts since 2019, has no qualms about going at her own pace. Queenie, based on her bestselling novel of the same name, is coming to Channel 4 later this year. It follows a twentysomething journalist in London whose life starts to unravel when she takes a break from her long-term boyfriend. Upcoming BBC drama Champion is her other highly anticipated project, a love letter to Black British music in south London, centred on a brother and sister who are both trying to become rap stars. “I probably annoy a lot of people but it’s the reason my work does well,” she says of her approach on both shows. “I have a vision for it and I see it through.”
The world of TV is tough if you are not moneyed and even worse if you’re Black, says Carty-Williams, who worked in the predominately middle-class publishing industry before her success with Queenie: “I’ve had to really push back on a lot of things, make sure the tone is right, make sure the white characters aren’t pushed to the forefront so the Black characters are just in the background – these are all things I’ve been ensuring don’t happen.”
Carty-Williams feels that, despite the recent wave of female-led, working-class TV shows, the industry still isn’t treating working-class talent seriously. “I think it’s on its way, especially with subscription platforms offering more space. But I also know what it is like being in the industry and how it works. It still seems that executives take this idea or a story from someone who is working class, then that is written by moneyed people and put on the screen.”
This is something all the women interviewed are very clear on: they couldn’t have worked in TV without the time and finances afforded by their already successful careers. “The system enables you to tell the story when you get a bit more comfortable and you’ve got some money to see it through,” says De Waal, explaining that developing a script and getting it into production can take years, and there isn’t a monthly wage during that time to keep you going. Is it still only possible for people removed from their working-class experience to write about it? Sure, there are writing schemes to take advantage of but, as Hudson says, it’s little wonder the “worthy poor person” trope is still going strong when the system itself still operates that way.
“Would I have written a book and done this if I hadn’t had a successful career in magazines first? Probably not,” says White. She does, however, make a point of referring to writer Cash Carraway, who is beavering away on Rain Dogs, the BBC adaptation of her memoir, Skint Estate: “She powerfully wrote about poverty while living in poverty – she wrote about not having to be free of situations to write about it. I think that’s really important.” How can this become less of a rarity? “I don’t know the answer to that.”
My Name Is Leon is coming to BBC One in June