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On stage in Wigan, a ‘slum girl’ is kneeling at a drainpipe in one of the most famous scenes from George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier. She is a young woman who dreams of studying to escape drudgery, but it’s 1936. Her “grim destiny” is to be at the drain.
Hailed by legend Sir Tim Rice as “good, contemporary and beautifully performed”, community musical Beyond Wigan Pier is how Wiganers are re-imagining a book that for decades tarnished their town as a byword for a grimy kind of poverty.
Yet backstage, life is imitating art. One of the show’s most talented dancers, Lucy Eccles, has just won a coveted place at Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, LIPA. But she can’t take it up.
“There are only 22 places to study dance and Lucy was offered one of them,” her mum Jill, a cleaner, tells me. “But she can’t go. It’s £9,200 for a year’s foundation course and there are no loans or grants available.
“We can’t possibly afford it. It’s heartbreaking. Her little brother is a keen dancer too.”
Lucy speaks quietly. “I am actually heartbroken,” she tells me. “I’ve worked so hard at dancing since I was four or five. Since I was 12, I’ve been dreaming I might be able to actually become a dancer. I can’t believe it.”
The day before the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle feels like the right time to write about our national crisis of meritocracy. And nowhere is that crisis more apparent than in the arts.
“Tory cuts to arts and grant funding have left too many brilliant young people’s dreams in tatters,” says Lucy’s MP Lisa Nandy. “The arts are becoming a closed, elitist world that’s off limits to working-class kids. It’s no wonder that working-class life in towns like mine is so rarely seen on stage or screen. Report after report has highlighted this problem. It’s a disgrace that so little has been done to change it.”
A recent report by Create London and Arts Emergency showed the percentage of people with working-class origins in music, performing and visual arts was 18.2%. In film, TV and radio it was just 12.4%. Yet working-class people make up around a third of the population.
Meanwhile, an inquiry carried out by Labour, Acting Up, led by former actor Tracy Brabin and fellow MP Gloria De Piero, found 42% of British Bafta winners went to private school.
Lucy is so passionate about ballet she is even involved with teaching it to the Wigan Warriors under-19s rugby team to improve their posture. It’s all part of Pianos, Pies and Pirouettes, the community project founded by Donna Harrison and Alan Gregory, who also wrote Beyond Wigan Pier.
Alan, 56, is passionate about working class involvement in the arts. “I don’t want kids to be in the same position now as I was in 1978, unable to achieve their artistic dream, because their family could not afford it,” he says. “Sadly, education cuts mean it is getting harder for people to access things like lessons, learning an instrument, getting to auditions – people are being denied opportunities.”
We are speaking at The Edge, Wigan’s new, 1,000-seater venue.
Fittingly, it is right next to the old Wigan Pier itself. But Alan wants to see local working-class talent rising up to fill it. He has the backing of Wiganer Sir Ian McKellen, who says: “I wish it had been possible when I was growing up in Wigan long ago to have had the possibility of discovering the joys and discipline of dancing.”
Another big supporter is George Orwell’s son, Richard Blair, who narrates the musical that night.
Somehow, Alan has managed to crowdfund a showcase evening for his musical, helped by people such as severely disabled Matthew Unsworth, who swam 13 lengths in April to raise funds for the production.
Any future profits will be used to help local young people fund performing arts studies. Kids like Lucy who are brimming with talent. And Jacob Blackhurst, 17, and Joe Atherton, 16, who struggled with bullying before taking up performing.
“It’s the way I can rise above it,” Joe says. “Singing helps my mental health. But it’s hard for people like us to make performing a career.”
Jacob, the son of a policeman, says his “ultimate ambition is to be Doctor Who – the first one from Wigan”.
But he adds: “Nothing is free and I’ve got a baby brother and a sister, so you can’t just spend money on lessons.”
To truly move beyond Wigan Pier, Alan says the town’s working-class kids just need a fair chance.
“Our musical is a story of class, history, social mobility, people’s dreams – all things that people in Wigan are still experiencing today,” Alan says. “The sad thing is, there’s still a massive lack of opportunity. That’s what we’re trying to change.”
- Help Lucy here: crowdfunder.co.uk/lucys-dream
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