The rise of the working-class voice in television

By Cecilia McAloon


Despite making up almost a third of the UK workforce, just 16% of workers in the creative industries come from working-class backgrounds. But, according to Gina Lyons, telly needs the working class.

Lyons is a BAFTA Cymru-winning TV producer, she’s been in the industry for 18 years now but it hasn’t come easily. As a working-class woman, Lyons hasn't had opportunities handed to her. She started her career in TV by seeing an advert in a magazine for a TV show called ‘Get Me the Producer’. The 2007 programme was Channel 4’s take on ‘The Apprentice’ but geared towards wannabe TV producers. Without ever having worked in a production role before (and only having had one year’s experience in drama school), Lyons won the programme and a contract to work at Graham Norton’s SO TV at ITV where she stayed for five years.

Even after her unlikely fast track to production, Lyons has had to “hustle twice as hard” to get where she is today. The TV industry hasn’t typically been the most welcoming of working-class voices like Lyons’, but Lyons argues that it can’t survive without them. Today, I spoke to Lyons on behalf of Equality Check to find out just why telly needs the working class (and mums in particular), and, in her opinion, why access for underrepresented voices has improved over the years.

Growing up, did you have a role model who worked in TV?


No. I grew up in a town called Northampton and I didn't know anyone that worked remotely in the media industry. I didn't even know anyone at a local newspaper. I didn't know anyone that had been onstage, or onscreen. It's just an avenue that wasn't even a consideration until I saw the advert and thought, "I could do it".

So what was it that appealed to you about it?


Well, I had gone to drama school because I probably thought that I wanted to work in TV but I didn't know how so like a lot of people I thought, "well I'll be on it". I went to drama school for a year and it was people telling me that I should be a producer when I was there, it was sort of how my mind worked and how I would put things together and put people together. I sort of gathered after drama school and working in London that that was something that I would be good at. Obviously, doing the show ‘Get Me the Producer', it gave me a taste of what it's like to work in TV, that's when I knew I really wanted to do it. Before then I probably wasn't even sure what a producer did.

Do you feel like your identity as a woman who's working-class makes you a better producer?


100%. I think there's more working-class people in unscripted, particularly reality TV. I think that's probably because the execs have realised that they're a better fit to talk to contributors that tend to be from the same demographic. Coming from that background myself as a working-class woman and now a mother, I think as much life experience as you have for scripted is useful. I don't have a degree, I don't know all the words in the world, but I know people and I've lived lots of experiences. I think that's what makes me able to pull out stories from people, especially people that have hardship and are talking about something that's maybe not spoken about too much.

Do you feel like you’re approached to do certain projects because of your particular identity and experience?


I work really closely with writers at the moment. Sometimes they're telling things that they've had experience in and they need to open up and tell people the reality of what that was like. I think knowing that they're talking to somebody who comes from a similar world or has experience of their world and understanding will obviously help them open up more.


I think the same is to be said for documentaries and reality. I think if somebody's talking to a contributor on a reality show, they've got a similar accent or they seem like they're from the same world as them, then they're going to be more open to the programme. So I think it absolutely helps. If you're a middle-class white guy going to talk to council estate children who are from a single-parent household, I know from my experience younger I wouldn't have related well to that.


I read something the other day that said, 'nothing about us without us', and I think that's true. I think if you're going to do something on the deaf community, involve the deaf community. If you're going to do something on the black community, involve the black community. It doesn't mean you have to come from that community but I think if you're going to be talking to people from a group of people it's important to know the world and to be open enough to communicate with them. It's not imperative but I do think it helps.

What are the biggest challenges that women, and working-class women, face when trying to work in TV?


Working class means something different to everybody, I think. For me, working class meant a lack of opportunities, family members in prison, nobody was university educated. When I joined television, I remembered feeling like I was the only person with a voice like mine, with a bit of an accent and didn't quite know all the words that I wanted to say or how I wanted to say something.


I think it's getting better but I do think there's not many women in positions of power. When I look through my CV and see who I've worked for, all the company directors and MD’s were men. I've had two female bosses in something like sixteen years in television. I am quite ambitious but I wouldn't blame somebody for thinking it wasn't the path for them because if you can't see somebody like you doing it, then it's hard to progress in that career.


Also, I think the TV industry isn't built for mums. At the moment I struggle in a freelance world, contract to contract. I have to put my children into full time nursery so before I've even done a day's work I've got to find that money. I work hard and luckily I've done it so far but that's a lot of pressure on a mum.


So we've got no women that look like us in charge, we've got all men who don't know what it's like to be the number one caregiver (which it still tends to be with men and women), add a non-degree into the mix and somebody that may have an accent or somebody that isn't as eloquent as other people… So I think we're off to a rough starting place.

Do you have any advice for people who are working-class and are wanting to work in TV?


When I started in television I was really embarrassed about my roots and where I came from and the fact that I had a brother who went to prison. Now, I'm really proud and would encourage people to celebrate their differences, their cultures, and their different worlds that they grew up in. We don't want to hear stories from the same people anymore. We're all interested in diverse storytelling, different types of people that we learn about in documentaries. So I think people should wear their unique stories on their sleeves now.

If somebody sent me a CV and they said I'm working-class, or I'm an orphan, or I'm not university-educated, or I've been working in a call centre since I was 16, if they said anything like that I'd think that they were interesting and I'd want to interview them. So I think it's changing now and hopefully I think people are changing. I think the people at the very top still haven't changed but it's a conveyor belt, it soon will.

What sorts of changes have you noticed?


If you look at the hit shows over the last two years, they're not made or written by the same types of people that have been doing it for years. Comedy's changing: shows like 'I May Destroy You', Michaela Coel, all her work with 'Chewing Gum'. Shane Meadows, what he's done and the world that he's showing.


Also, there's a rise of reality TV which, bar 'Made in Chelsea', tends to be working-class people, regional people. You can't make a show like 'Love Island' with a bunch of Oxbridge graduates, it just wouldn't work, they wouldn't be able to get stories out of the contributors because the contributors wouldn't trust them. The rise of reality TV has definitely encouraged more diversity behind the camera.


The comedy roles used to be very much Oxford, Cambridge but it's changing now. Some of the comedians I work with had jobs and just gave it a go one day. I think the rise of the working-class voice has been prevalent in comedy. People feel they need to be highly educated to write down a script, but they don't anymore. We've got spellcheck and script editors, lots of people to help them. We just need somebody who's a good storyteller. You can now take a working-class comedian off the circuit and pull out their story which is unique and funny and interesting and never been heard before. And that's what I'd try focus on. I think that's certainly where people would be finding these unique voices that are making great scripts.

Are there changes in the industry you'd like to see in terms of more schemes?


I think there should be a scheme to get mums in television. They multitask like bosses and they're often the person in the household that budgets. I think a production manager's job works really well with being a parent, especially if a company allows them to work from home.


I generally think we're all a bit f***ed with parenthood, with motherhood because we are a freelance world. I didn't get any maternity leave. I went back to work when both of my children were four months old because I couldn't afford not to so I was literally onset with my boobs leaking. It is the way it is really. When I worked in comedy entertainment, we'd have like six weeks to make six episodes and it just wasn't enough. How do you get childcare if you've got a six-week contract?

So have you had anyone to look up to who's a mum in TV?


Luckily I joined Telly Mums. Cheryl Woodcock, a couple of years ago she set up a group called Telly Mums. At the start there were a hundred of us and now we've got thirteen hundred members who are all mums working in TV. When I first had my first daughter, I could probably count two or three mums that I knew from television. So collectively we're all coming together and doing something about it now.

Do you have any advice for women who want to work in TV and have a family?


Just have it all. Make sure that they try and have it all.


You have to have lots of string to your bow. There's always the main job, but don't be shy to build a second job that you don't really shout about because that's what got me through having two children. I took several digital jobs and I did casting and I would do it from home and then in my spare ("spare") time I would work on the scripts that I was working with. You have to hustle twice as hard if you have children but it is possible.


The thing is we do this job because we love it. The four months this year that I've made the scripted show were the best four months of the year. Right now, I'm trying to find teachers for a campaign for the department of education - it's not the dream job but it keeps me going for another week. My advice is just hustle twice as hard.

Being someone who is visible as a working-class woman in TV, do you feel like a role model?


No. I never feel like a role model, I also tweet a lot of crap so I wouldn't want to be seen as a role model. But I'm on a couple of schemes this year. I'm on an Edinburgh TV's Woman to Watch and I got into this year's Women in Film and TV and with both of them you become a mentor as well. So I'm very keen to pass the baton if you like and keep encouraging other people. If someone reached out to me and said, "I'm thinking of working in TV, can you help me?", I'd be absolutely all over them because there's enough space for everyone and I want to see more people that sound like me in telly.

Do you ever think it's harder for women, that they have to hustle more?


Life's harder for women, isn't it? They have periods and babies and menopause. I remember feeling that I was really freelance whereas a lot of the boys that I worked on a show would then get kept on as development in between gigs. Development teams in general seem to be a bit male-headed. In a way, especially years ago, there's been women in production and men in editorial. So I think sometimes the fact that we're trying to prove that we're creative, we're always starting a little bit behind everyone else in terms of how we're viewed.


I think men in comedy do particularly well. I've had people that I've probably made more telly than them but they've got the head of comedy job somewhere. So from my experience, yeah, it's been a bit harder. I don't know whether it's because I'm a woman or if it's because I'm working-class, I don't know if it's because I'm a mum, I don't know if it's because I'm an idiot. I don't know what the reason is but I seem to be doing a little less than my male counterparts.

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About the author:


Cecilia McAloon

Cecilia has a double first in English Language & Literature from the University of Oxford. Before joining Equality Check, Cecilia co-founded an award-winning film production group and worked at the Oxford University Filmmaking Foundation. Cecilia has a long-held passion for ED&I and hopes that her work at Equality Check will have a lasting impact on creating equal opportunities for the UK workforce.