There is a rule of thumb that all TV producers seem to follow when focusing upon the extremes of the British class system. The upper classes must be shown to be a charming, eccentric but essentially decent bunch who have lost their influence, power and riches and now have to make do by pimping out their castles and palaces to tourists. At the opposite end of the social spectrum the ‘underclass’ must be portrayed as foul mouthed, living in squalor, prone to crime, drink, drugs, prostitution and reliant on welfare handouts yet proud, patriotic and potentially ‘saveable.’
BBC2’s ‘Posh People’ and Channel 4’s ‘Skint’ both broadcast last night (Monday 24th November) were timed to clash with each other, so that viewers could perform their own crude ‘compare and contrast’ class analysis. Here’s mine.
‘Posh People’ followed Tatler magazine staff as they waltzed from one ‘society function’ to another; – a polo game, a fashion shoot, a royal Ascot meeting, a horsey side-saddle race, an arty happening and such like. People like Lord Glasgow showed off his stately pile that had been in the family since the Norman conquest. He jokily referred to one of his illustrious forebears who once threw a servant through and plate glass window at a party and told his host to ‘put him on the bill.’
We also got the standard shot of Oxford’s notoriously riotous Bullingdon Dining Club (y’know Dave and George and Boris and co whose photos have ‘mysteriously disappeared from circulation) who also indulged in thuggery, vandalism, whoring, drugging and debauchery but ALWAYS paid for any damage. Not to pay would be ‘bad form’ you see.
Whereas in Grimsby we visited a derelict trawler yard, a deserted fisherman’s alehouse, several unkempt households with fierce dogs and pregnant cats, bongs and grafittied walls. We met petty, pothead criminals on tags, drunken ex-sailors watching DVDs of the good old days, potty mouthed but patriotic fishwives defending the fucking Queen’s honour and a youth club pastor who gave the kids somewhere to expel their energy.
The kids who visited the ‘Shal’ (Shalom) youth club were as energetic and rowdy as their Bullingdon opposites yet were likely to end up on tags, in jail or crippled from a joy riding accident like their older brothers and sisters. Social mobility is a revolting term to throw at these young people, barely able to write, never mind afford 9k a year uni fees. What has changed from the times of Kez for those left behind in the undertow of the great meritocratic wave that washed across the land under New Labour? We’re all middle class now eh?
When words like ‘austerity’ ‘recession’ and ‘depression’ are used, media types always fall behind tried and tested formats that other media types then attempt to explain in terms of quack psychology and pseudo-political theory. Up will pop ‘Spirit Of The Blitz’ type nostalgia documentaries attempting to forge a sense of national unity, relentless royal propaganda packaged as history or culture, knit yourself a mansion, bake yourself a holiday home 50s hausfrau ‘lifestyle’ shows presented by minor aristocrats and WI types.
There will also be a glut of ‘reality’ show that are no more real than TOWIE or Made In Chelsea . Shows like this and many other that demonise one part of society – the poor – whilst delighting in another – the rich.
There will subtle or not so subtle editorial subliminal messages sent out and on ‘Skint’ it was obvious as a drug addled prostitute sobbed at the birth of her kitten while her own son was placed in care that a POINT was being made. You could just hear the viewers muttering ‘pity you never cared for your own kid as much as you for that kitten.’
Such examples of snide and cruel editing are often lost on the subjects themselves. ‘Informed Consent’ is a subjective and abstract notion to someone who is too busy getting men ‘to shoot their muck’ to make ends meet (as it were).
On ‘Posh People’ the sub-text followed the usual unwritten rules; there was no context offered other than that of the subjects apart from the thorny issue of ‘relevance’ – are posh people ‘relevant?’ a timid voice asked Tatler hacks at the end of programme 1. Relevant to who, relevant to what? The BBC’s line is that old money toffs (y’know ‘old money as in 1066 n’ all that) may be anachronistic and isolated from the real world but that’s not THEIR fault.
But it IS their fault. They have choices and they can refuse to follow the same ancestral paths mapped out for them from birth; boarding school, finishing school, Oxbridge, career in law, the city, on the ‘farm’ (as a custodian) or even as editor, fashion editor, contributing editor or can lad for The Tatler. The cycle of privilege, elitism, snobbery, power continues from generation to generation even if they admit a few new money billionaires to their select parties to sneer at every decade or so, be they Americans, Arabs, Russians or Nigerians.
These people have the luxury of opportunity. Those growing up on East Marsh in Grimsby will turn in a different cycle mapped out by poverty, poor education, benefits or low pay, pay day loans, prison and drug/alcohol abuse. Ah, but they have enough money to smoke weed, to feed dogs, to buy beer don’t they? They have choices too, say the self-appointed ‘Squeezed Middle’ of law abiding, pension paying, mortgaged to the hilt millions who watch these programmes in order to swoon at the toffs and sneer at the chavs.
Anyone who dares to have a pop at the toffs and their media propagandists are accused of suffering from ‘class envy’ but I don’t envy these people and their shallow, insulated existence, I pity them for their arrogance and their insolence as much as I pity the fishwife with the union flag tea towel and the royal tea mug for allowing such a state of inequality and injustice to exist in the 21st century.