A lot has changed since Amol Rajan’s 2019 documentary How to Break into the Elite. We have lived through a pandemic, Brexit, two monarchs, three prime ministers, and we have learned who Paul Mescal is. But when it comes to class, nothing has changed. The UK is still preoccupied with the absurd signatures of class boundaries, where everything from your accent to your shoe colour can be weaponised.
According to the first episode of Rajan’s two-part documentary How to Crack the Class Ceiling (BBC Two), despite all the lip-service paid to merit-based inclusivity, the surest path to success seems to lie in resembling Jacob Rees-Mogg. Rajan’s approach is impressively meticulous at countering narratives around benefit scroungers and diversity being prized over talent – and uses case studies, statistics and academic research to uncover just how much rot is in the country’s foundations.
The bulk of the programme comes from his meeting with an impressive group of young people from working-class backgrounds. There is Chris, hoping to join the civil service; Seth, who wants to become a journalist; Paige, who needs a pupillage to become a criminal barrister; and the delightful Adnan, who wants to work in the City. Each has excelled academically, but they find themselves fighting for job opportunities. It’s heartbreakingly bleak to watch hundreds of their job applications get turned down, and to see them slowly crushed by the archaic ideas of what success looks like.
In between the plights of these bright young things, Rajan zips through a series of academics, industry professionals and the two privately educated Oxford grads who turned their experiences in banking into the sharply observed BBC hit Industry. The frantic pacing and tone err a little on the side of breezy. At times, with its cutesy graphics and upbeat music, it speaks to the British tendency to depict systemic oppression as twee. But the show does mostly cohere, thanks to Rajan’s empathy and versatility, providing genuine warmth even when engaging with cold hard data, and an appropriate steeliness when questioning the powers that be.
Rajan also doesn’t treat the working class as a monolith, and brings in a diverse range of ideas around race and gender. One academic explains how a successful technique in a job interview with someone from a higher class can be “caricaturing difference” – highlighting your lower status and asking an employer to buy into being part of a “rags to riches” story. While that approach is arguably a little demeaning it also turns out to be a gendered one, as we learn that working-class women are more likely to want to conceal their backgrounds. At one point, we hear DJ Footloose AKA Mark Robinson explaining the motivation that race and class played for him when he became a barrister after representing himself against an assault allegation. He impressed the prosecution so much that after the trial had finished, they handed him his wig. Robinson, aware of just how vulnerable a position he was in as a working-class black man in the justice system, joined the profession so others like him could have such sterling representation.
Where the show has an unenviable task is building to a satisfying conclusion. What options do Adnan and co have in a classist society? The documentary’s only suggestion is, sadly, to try to assimilate. The academics he meets are appalled but pragmatic, believing it is good to have the information for how to play the broken system. One professor resorts to giving advice on how to work around classism to her MBA students with the preface “pardon me while I throw up in my mouth”.
Ultimately, the programme cannot leave us with a better recommendation than the words one of its academics offers to those entering the civil service: “Get a sense of what you need to get ahead, but don’t internalise the notion that what you are assimilating to is superior.” This is tonally messy, particularly as it seems this group may have been selected to provide a few glimmers of hope and to depict a series of up-hill battles, not insurmountable mountains. But by the end, there is nothing twee any more, and it is less about cracking the “class ceiling” and more a grim reminder of those being crushed by it.