In a time of British decline, acting is one of the few world-beating skills we have left. From high to low, we are masters at raiding the dressing-up box and putting on a show. Pieces on why British actors succeed in Hollywood have become a staple of the entertainment press for good reason.
The prosaic answers credit their training in character acting and their relative cheapness. The best look at our love of pretence. We have a monarchy that pretends it is happy and glorious while we pretend to believe it; a House of Lords that pretends to be noble while its seats are on open sale; and adversarial political and legal systems, whose participants pretend to oppose one another, while they privately agree. The British sense of humour tends towards the absurdist and the ironic, styles that reject realism. Above all, as the theatre director Richard Eyre observed, the British make exemplary actors because “role-playing [is] second nature to a nation obsessed with class distinction and inured to the necessity of pretending to be what you aren’t”.
Now an actor leads a nation of actors. Boris Johnson has been putting on a show since 1984, when Neil Sherlock, the only man to defeat him in a close election, taught him that he must master the arts of pretence. Sherlock was a state school boy, running to be president of the Oxford Union. Johnson was an Etonian and a Tory, who thought he had a right to the job.
Sherlock, who went on to become a special adviser to Nick Clegg, remembers how Johnson’s then girlfriend, the fashionable Allegra Mostyn-Owen, invited Sherlock to her rooms and begged him not to stand in the way of “my Boris”. Sherlock asked what made Johnson think he was fit to run the Oxford Union, or anything else for that matter.
Well, Mostyn-Owen replied, he was in charge of Pop when he was at Eton. As he was a lad from Woking, it took Sherlock a while to discover she did not mean Johnson sold lemonade in the school canteen but that he ran a society called Pop for prefects. Unmoved by her pleas, Sherlock fought a fierce campaign that targeted Johnson’s snobbery and entitlement, and won.
Defeat changed Johnson. At the next union election, he no longer relied on the old-school network but posed as a friend to the middle classes. His rightwing politics vanished, as he played the part of a centrist. His new persona secured him victory. Ever since then he has played whatever role would persuade editors to hire him or voters to elect him. The result is an empty vessel. There is nothing there.
One appealing response to the belated discovery by the Conservative party that its leader is a hollow man with no ideas beyond his own advancement is to burst out laughing and ask, what kept you? “Scratch an actor,” Laurence Olivier said, “and underneath you will find another actor.” If you put your life or your country in the hands of people who make it up, you will find that there is only more makeup beneath the makeup, however hard you scrub.
The second is to blame him on a make-believe British culture. If the British do not pretend, our voices betray us. They reveal birthplaces, class backgrounds, sex and race. This is a small country with an extraordinarily large number of dialects: between 30 and 40, depending on who you ask. If you speak with a broad accent, the middle and upper classes dismiss you as stupid. English is also a second language for about a billion people. But migrants find it is not enough to know English. Unless they speak in an English dialect that marks them as middle class, they too will be dismissed. As Johnson was bloviating last week, the Social Mobility Foundation was campaigning against “class polish”.
When working-class people enter professional occupations, they find their polished counterparts earn £6,000 more a year. Polish projects self-confidence. Polished voices become “the self-presentational markers of a privileged class background” and are enough to keep pay for their owners high and for their colleagues low.
Social mobility allows the possibility of reinvention, which can be liberating. But for many the requirement to mimic middle-class manners feels like an assault. Alex Baratta, a linguist at Manchester University, and his colleagues, reported on working-class teachers, who were told by their superiors that they would never advance in the profession unless they dropped their glottal stops. The knowledge that their careers depended on hiding their roots and identities humiliated them.
The need to pretend has led to the revival of Victorian elocution classes. The UK has hundreds of “accent softening” or “accent reduction” voice coaches who train people to modify their dialects as if they were actors preparing for a role. (Tellingly, many accent softeners trained at drama schools.)
“Are you a native speaker who wants to sound more polished?” asks one with a nod to the Social Mobility Foundation. We can “help non-native speakers of English as well as native regional speakers, who feel that their accent is holding them back in either their personal or professional life”, explains another. I don’t know whether their existence is a cause for shame. I interviewed an accent softener called Rachel Preece for this piece and she argued that you could no more succeed if your listeners could not understand what you say than if your readers could not understand what you write. But I can tell the difference between the actors at the top and the bottom of British society.
Our elite acts out caricatures from deep within the national consciousness: the gentleman amateur, who knows more than the “so-called experts”, the aristocratic swell, who is the ordinary people’s friend, the John Bullish voice of common sense, who cuts through the nonsense. Ever since university, acting has given Johnson and his contemporaries a status they do not deserve.
By contrast, the immigrant paying £50 an hour for accent softening or the Liverpudlian trying to disguise scouse vowels are forcing themselves to learn new roles so they can get the rewards they were always entitled to on their merits.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist