Is artistic nepotism an evil – or a necessity?
Nepotism in the arts is very much alive and here to stay
The other day, I discovered that a talented young writer was publishing her first novel. She seemed to have a good, if not unusual back story; she had been working as a bookseller in the estimable Mr B’s Emporium in Bath and had published her debut collection of short stories earlier this year. And then I caught sight of her name, Naomi Ishiguro. My first reaction was to wonder whether it was merely a coincidence that she shared a surname with the Nobel Prize-winning Anglo-Japanese author Sir Kazuo Ishiguro, but it was not. She was interviewed in The Guardian earlier this year about her writing and was nonchalant about her famous father, saying of his Nobel Prize that “I could barely get to speak to him on the phone because there were all these journalists outside the house”. She also remarked that having a writer as a father made a writing career “feel possible; it doesn’t feel completely mystical” and that “You think: ‘I can make this happen if I want to, it’s just that I’ve got to work hard.’”
There are few issues that lead to such widespread feelings of anger and frustration as the idea of nepotism, especially in an artistic or literary context. For many would-be writers or actors, in particular, the suspicion remains that both industries operate as essentially a closed shop, and entry can only be obtained to the glamorous and well-remunerated professions through having a famous name or similarly high-profile connections.
I still remember the unfortunate saga of the young would-be journalist Max Gogarty, who was commissioned by the Guardian to write a series of blogs about his travels on his gap year. The then-19 year old Gogarty was initially torn to shreds because of the slightly guileless and parodically middle-class way that he presented himself – “working in a restaurant with a bunch of lovely, funny people; writing a play; writing bits for Skins; spending any sort of money I earn on food and skinny jeans, and drinking my way to a financially blighted two-month trip to India and Thailand”, but then it transpired that his father was a freelance travel journalist and occasional contributor to the paper, and all hell broke loose. Had Twitter existed back then, his name would have trended for days.
If nepotism is a major factor in literature, it is even more widespread in the acting profession
Gogarty’s blogs did not in fact end up happening, but he has since had a successful career in the media, working as a commissioning editor at the BBC. There may still be some disaffected keyboard warrior muttering that his success is down to his father, but most people have moved on in the 12 years since Gogarty tried, and failed, to become a freelance journalist. Besides, there have been plenty of other targets since. Netflix’s excellent show Sex Education is one of the freshest and wittiest programmes to have emerged from the platform since its inception, but many were slightly mystified as to where its creator Laurie Nunn had emerged from, given that she had no track record of success before getting such a high-profile commission. There was some clarification in an interview with, inevitably, The Guardian – do we see a pattern forming here? – where the feature’s writer commented, as an aside, “Her mother is the Australian actor Sharon Lee-Hill; her father the British theatre director Trevor Nunn”.
Yet, like Naomi Ishiguro, Laurie Nunn is unapologetic about using her privileged status and well-known family name to further her career. As she said in the interview, “Having family in the arts made me feel, from a very young age, like that was an option for me. I’ve got friends who are in the arts whose family aren’t, and it feels like more of a scary prospect. They definitely encouraged me to follow my passions.” It undoubtedly helps to get noticed if your father is the former head of the National Theatre and the RSC, but it is equally true that her programme is a truly outstanding piece of work. The famous surname may have led to the doors being opened and meetings being obtained, but her own talent is what ensured the success of her career.
Questions of nepotism have been central to writing for generations. While most pre-twentieth century legendary English writers – Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen and the like – did not come from literary backgrounds, the profession was then far more reliant on talented individuals being given opportunities on their own merits, rather than attempting to follow in well-known parents’ footsteps. Perhaps the most notable example of this in twentieth century literature is Martin Amis, whose first novel The Rachel Papers was published in 1973, when Amis was 24.
He has made various comments about how his becoming a writer was nothing more than “entering the family business”, as if literature was a trade like being a butcher or a funeral director, and remarked that it was inevitable that any publisher would want to invest in the second generation of a writing dynasty. His father Kingsley was one of Britain’s best-known men of letters in the early Seventies and continued to be one of the country’s major writers until his death in 1995, so it was widely felt that his fame had smoothed his son’s path into creativity. Not for nothing was the winning entry in a 1980 New Statesman competition for the least likely title for a book “Martin Amis: My Struggle”.
There remains a sense that the well-connected are able to walk into the best roles without difficulty
If nepotism is a major factor in literature, it is even more widespread in the acting profession. There have always been major dynasties whose members have usually found themselves in high-profile work from a young age – the Fondas and the Barrymores in America, the Redgraves and the Foxes in Britain – and, given how frustrating it is for many would-be actors who cannot obtain work, there remains a sense that the well-connected and usually privately and Oxbridge-educated are able to walk into their pick of the best roles without difficulty. To take a small cross-section of some of Britain’s most successful actors working today in the forms of Benedict Cumberbatch, Kate Beckinsale, Samuel West, Daniel Radcliffe, Rory Kinnear, Harry Lloyd and Hattie Morahan, every single one of them has parents who are either respected actors (as in the case of Beckinsale, West, Cumberbatch or Kinnear), directors (Morahan) or involved in the entertainment business at a high level; Lloyd’s father Jonathan is the President of the leading talent agency Curtis Brown and Radcliffe’s parents are leading literary and casting agents.
In America, the situation is little different, and arguably even worse. One watches the rise of Maya Hawke, Kate Hudson, Dakota Johnson, Jaden Smith, Lily-Rose Depp and many others and simply accepts the inevitability of the multi-billion-dollar film industry bestowing some of the best roles going to those with famous parents who are already intimately involved with the business. This has been the case ever since John and Lionel Barrymore both began their careers in the early days of cinema, ensuring that their well-known names would continue within the industry, most notably in the case of Drew Barrymore. For all of the industry’s outspoken talk of “equality” and “fairness”, most recently expressed in a quota that all Academy Award-nominated films will be expected to fulfil, nobody has seriously attempted to argue that the children of celebrities and actors should not be given special treatment. It seems that nepotism is alive, well and here to stay.
Perhaps my life would have been easier if my surname had been Stoppard or Mantel
The question remains as to how bothered we should be by its existence, and what can be done about it. On the one hand, it is obviously deeply unfair and frustrating that the literary and acting industries, especially, exist on a basis where a famous surname and a well-known family seem to be increasingly a prerequisite to begin a career. Yet of the British actors who I cited above, all of them (with the arguable exception of the warden of woke himself, Radcliffe) are regarded as some of the outstanding performers in their field, acclaimed for superlative work on film, television and stage. It is possible to make the argument, as Laurie Nunn did, that having grown up around actors, writers and directors, they had a confidence and level of experience beginning their careers that their fellow thespians lacked, which explains why their careers have flourished while many others have not. It would, likewise, have been surprising for the daughter of Kazuo Ishiguro not to have been raised in an atmosphere of respect and curiosity for literature, hence both her career as a bookseller and now her first steps into her own writing career.
Nepotism is an ugly word, and many will argue that it is an ugly and unfair situation that we are in, which needs to be reformed. As someone who began his own journalistic and writing career without a famous name or a leg-up from a well-known relative, I can’t deny feeling that there would undoubtedly have been times that my life would have been easier if my surname had been, say, Stoppard or Mantel. But most writers, and many actors, have made their careers without such benefits. It is undeniably true that there is an assumption that the children of the well-known, who are often born into great wealth and privilege anyway, can simply take their seat at the table without having to struggle for it, but they will not be able to stay at the table if it’s only their name that has got them there. Take, for instance, Jason Connery or Kimber Eastwood, neither of whom ever had a career that lived up to those of their famous fathers.
Talent will out, in the end. If it is hereditary, so much the better, but the average cinemagoer or book purchaser is only so impressed by a well-known name. In the end, we would be better off being less exercised by the advantages (unfair or otherwise) that the well-known seem to enjoy and instead concentrate on ensuring that those without well-known parents can also have access to these most difficult of industries to break into. Otherwise, we run the risk of a lack of diversity so staggering that even the Guardian might have to stop running interviews and first-person pieces featuring the children of the famous (including the writer Bella Mackie, daughter of its former editor Alan Rusbridger) – and who knows what dearth of content will ensue then?
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe