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Bob Hoskins, pictured on set in 2007 (photo: James Laurence Stewart)

Lionel Bart's pre-Oliver! stage hit Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be is currently being revived at the Theatre Royal in the East End. I wonder what London audiences today will make of it. Joan Littlewood, the legendary producer who got the original 1959 production together, was evangelical about the need for working-class actors not only to be seen and heard but to be heard in their original voices, untouched by Rada and its belief that only received pronunciation bestowed the authority required of all real actors. The following decade gave us a slew of famous figures from genuinely working-class origins — Michael Caine and Terence Stamp, both London boys, became bona fide Hollywood stars — and finally it seemed that working-class actors had broken out of their "character and comedy" ghetto.

That era is as dead as the notion of Swinging London. Like our political class, acting seems yet again to have become dominated by the privately educated. The bullishly agitprop-spouting Littlewood would doubtless be horrified at the way in which economic restraints and the breakdown in social mobility have led to a remarkable rise in solidly public school performers, and she'd be right.

But it's not the whole story. Of all the changes that have taken place in the capital in the past couple of decades, the gradual disappearance of traditional working-class communities, indeed of working-class identity itself, is the most stark. As an older Lambeth resident says in Michael Collins's wonderful book about London's working class, The Likes of Us, "It's like we were never here." EastEnders, the BBC's series of largely working-class life in the modern East End, is little more than a polite fiction.

What this means is that audiences who are still quite versed in, as it were, the more upmarket costume drama aspects of London's identity will have little familiarity with that group of people who once made up the bulk of its population. No working-class culture, no working-class actors. Fings definitely ain't wot they used t'be.

Bob Hoskins, who died last month, was born far from the sound of Bow Bells (in Bury St Edmunds) but his popular persona was certainly that of the rough but goodnatured cockney. Again, his voice — superficially threatening yet warm, humorous, even innocent, underneath — must strike younger audiences unfamiliar with London's past social terrain as exotic, even a bit corny, rather like Dick Van Dyke's infamous cockney impersonation in Mary Poppins. But it was the kind of voice that surrounded me growing up in the Sixties and Seventies.

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