Tuesday, July 26, 2005

 

British class system according to Channel 4

It was a good idea of Channel 4 to run a series on class. I always enjoy marvelling at our peculiar stratifications and their concomitant attitudes and behaviour. Each programme focused on a particular class and gave it a full hour. But the approach was different. The first argued that the white working class-once seen as the brave salt of the earth who stopped Hitler- is now hugely vilified as comprising illiterate, beerswilling 'chavs'. The second, presentted by the cerebral historian Tristram Hunt, argued that the city based middle-class had been a thrusting, reforming sociual group in the nineteenth century, fighting the aristocracy for control over the country's direction and working for social improvement and 'progress'. He concluded that, once the middle class had won some of its battles but moved out into the suburbs, it retreated behind privet hedges and the doors of its semi-detached houses. Social progress had been exchanged for Delia Smith dinners, private education, two foreign holidays a year and social passivity.

Which left the upper classes and Mr James Dellingpole, allegedly a journalist. He had been to Oxford and admired the upper classes enormously but had failed to break into their closed circle, something which had clearly upset him. Like Evelyn Waugh he seemed to have a huge crush on toffs, the more blue blooded the better. He desperately admired their 'backbone, spunk and honour'. So he forayed forth into a Mayfair party, Channel 4 cameras at his back, and tried to elicit comment from the various aristos who stalked the event like elusive rare fauna. He did manage to corner the odd startled specimen. Earl Spencer and Prince Michael both snubbed him awfully but did it so politely he seemed not too dismayed. His problem was that: he was poorly dressed -more M and S than Saville Row; his voice also signalled clearly he was not of their tribe; and, just maybe,(though this is no more than conjecture as I have no idea of Mr Dellingpole's ethnic provenance) his appearance might have sparked off negative reactions in a notoriously anti-semitic social grouping. In other words, they saw him as an awful oik who was trying to crash their exclusivity. His approach was too crude and transparent. They were bound to see him off the premises. But was he dismayed? Any sensible person would have been and given up at that point. But he wasn't and, luckily for him, things improved a bit after this disastrous start.

He decided to try the Cresta Run in St Moritz where, I was amazed to discover, a closed group of aristos have risked life and limb since the last century. This was where the film became not no much sociology as social anthropology. The toffs wore plus four tweeds to ride their bob sleighs. One explained: 'This form of dress worked OK when we started and so, on that basis, we haven't changed it.' Seems like that statement sums up the attitude of the British aristocracy and provides their epitaph at the same time. James delcared he would try the Run, whatever the dire dangers to various parts of his body. Visibly scared, he survived and, generally, was treated with a modicum of respect by the toffs. Next came living in the fast lane. For this he shacked up with Channel 4 favourite, Charlie Brockett of jungle fame. Charlie, a convicted felon of course, proved too nice a guy to be anything other than charming and James was allowed to drive a Ferrari as well as exchange good natured banter with the fraudster peer. But I suspected throughout that James secretly wanted to be stepped on, to be humiliated rather than merely humoured.

But the real object of James's dreams, it seemed, was to ride to hounds. This he arranged to do with the Cotswold Hunt and, with great commitment and assiduity learned how to ride. He eventually issued forth with the 'unspeakable' though never quite made contact with the 'uneatable'. But he survived again and, though condescended to by all he met, was not treated too badly. He concluded his gallop around Burke's peerage with a wistful soliloquy on the wonders of this vanishing breed, regretting the loss of this selfless group of noble spirits, warning that we'd miss them once they had gone.

I have seldom seen such a witless programme on such a key topic. Instead of analysis and insight we got a pathetic prostration of a yearning aparently self- loathing inadequate before a collection of parasitic, selfish, useless people with whom the French revolutionaries better knew how to deal.

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