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Opinion

The Gathering creator: 'It's class, even more than ethnicity, blocking fair representation on TV'

Helen Walsh, writer of Channel 4's The Gathering, responds to the recent YouGov survey about the lack of working-class creatives in the film and TV industry

Eva Morgan and Sonny Walker in The Gathering

Eva Morgan and Sonny Walker star in The Gathering. Image: : James Stack / Channel 4 / World Productions

A recent YouGov survey revealed that just over 8% of creatives sustaining a career in film and television hail from working-class backgrounds. Statistics for on-screen representation of ethnic minorities is better, but with significant room for improvement.

As a brown-skinned kid from a working-class Northern household, I rarely saw myself represented in the books I read or the films and telly dramas I’d watch. The brown characters I encountered were generally baddies – gypsy thieves in The Famous Five or pickpockets in Indiana Jones. Working-class voices were the preserve of Coronation Street. Everything else seemed cut-glass and alien.

My Malaysian mum worked long hours as a district nurse. In school holidays, the library doubled up as free childcare, and it was here that a 1950s American novel set in the Brooklyn docklands spoke to me on a personal and visceral level. Last Exit to Brooklyn was the first book that made me feel seen. Perhaps it was the otherness of Selby’s novel – the intersectionality of class, race, sexuality and gender (and its throbbing racism, homophobia and misogyny) – that brought it searingly to life in my young head; or perhaps it was the conversational, syncopated prose that bounced off the page.

There was no ennobling or fetishising or mythologising these working-class characters. The depictions of street culture I’d seen on television tended to lionise working-class characters as entirely dignified, and principled and stoic in the face of life’s iniquities, but real life isn’t like that. Selby’s characters were flawed, vulnerable, unlikeable and scheming, and all the more compelling, to me. After Last Exit, there was no looking back. The book brought it home to me that working-class writers could have a voice and be heard.

After university (I was the first person in my family to go) and months of hustling, chasing up, hearing nothing back and exhausting every tenuous contact I’d ever made on the rave scene, I finally landed two interviews in the same week. The first was an absolute dream job – a junior staff writer at a classy, high-end men’s fashion and lifestyle magazine, with a clear pathway to writing features. The catch? A starting salary of £7,000 that automatically ruled out any applicant who wasn’t supported by affluent parents.

It’s still the same today, if not worse – aspiring, low-income writers are expected to work for no or low salary, in order to get a start.

I took an assistant’s job at a major film and literary agency, which paid three times the salary and enabled me to make the move to London. Idealistically, I figured that the job would give me access to publishers and editors, but it quickly became apparent that the job was to be predominantly secretarial – well-paid, but very limited.

It was at the agency that I fully woke up to the institutional class prejudice of the creative industries. Every week, scripts would land on my agent’s desk that I would devour and try to push to the top of his pile. These were regional working-class voices telling singular, authentic stories, but none of them ever got a look in. Typically, they’d fall into one of two camps. Either these scripts and novels were too working class (i.e, so well-drawn that they’d alienate middle-class readers) or not working class enough (by this measure, gatekeepers were looking for the next Billy Elliot or Full Monty, wherein big-hearted, simple-minded working-class folk set aside their differences to overcome supreme challenges).  

Unless scripts and stories leaned into middle-class notions of working-class life, they were unlikely to progress beyond the slush pile.

Actors Eva Morgan and Sonny Walker and writer Helen Walsh at the Liverpool Premiere of Channel 4 drama The Gathering…
Actors Eva Morgan and Sonny Walker with Helen Walsh at the Liverpool Premiere of The Gathering. Image: Paul Greenwood / Channel 4

So, when it came to writing The Gathering, I was keen to resist any romanticising of my working-class characters. I was fortunate to have a leadership team at World Productions who were similarly committed to championing working-class and regional talent, on and off the screen. From getting the green light for The Gathering, Simon Heath (a Brummie) and Laura Cotton (a Taffy) put together a group of key creatives whose backgrounds made them best placed to tell this story as authentically as possible. Gareth Bryn, our lead director, came to Liverpool as a teenager and fell in love with the city’s kinetic energy. Hailing from Prestatyn, he was keen to resist the gritty blue palate of social realism in favour of a visual language that reflected the glamorous, pulsating Liverpool he had come to know and love.

We were adamant that we would only cast native Liverpudlians to play Liverpool characters and working-class actors for working-class roles in The Gathering. All of this led to an electric atmosphere on set. Everyone was committed to the authentic realisation of the worlds and precincts we were depicting. I personally loved the way Gareth Bryn and his director of photography, Richard Mot, depicted Kelly’s house. Her estate is in an area of high social deprivation but, resisting the easy tropes of gritty hardship, the palate they created glowed with warmth, love and hope.

There has been a growing discourse about the lack of Black and Asian voices and faces in the industry, yet the conversation misses a glaring point – that it’s class, even more than ethnicity, that presents the biggest obstacle to fair representation. If you grow up in a middle-class Asian or Black household, with all the access and financial advantage that brings, the truth is that you’re able to take career risks, with a safety net should your aspirations not pan out.

By contrast, a working-class Black or Asian kid just doesn’t have that option. In the most basic, practical terms, those young creatives have to work to pay the rent. Writing is what they do when they’re not working – creativity takes time, and time costs money. Caught in that reality, I jacked the agency job in and moved back to my mum’s so I could pen my first novel. I worked night shifts at a call centre and sold ads at the Liverpool Echo during the day and wrote on days off. After working at a film and literary agency I’d established a good few contacts but, without them, I wouldn’t have known who to send my novel to, and would no doubt have given up. Brass was rejected by multiple publishers before finally being taken on by Canongate, a publishing house historically committed to publishing marginalised voices.

We had a similar commitment to class authenticity with The Gathering, fully challenging viewers’ preconceptions about society and privilege. Top Boy, Save Me even the BBC’s new Rebus portray alluringly visceral working-class worlds. It’s a start, but for a meaningful landscape of real diversity, we need many more commissions of authentically working-class talents.

Helen Walsh is creator, writer and executive producer of Channel 4 drama The Gathering. The final episode of The Gathering airs 29 May at 9pm on Channel 4 with all episodes available to stream now.

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