Sunday, January 1, 2012

"The British class divide is not some beautifully costumed anachronism from a bygone era"

Downton Abbey's just the opiate of the middle classes
Retro porn is no cure for Britain's class ills

Barbara Ellen
The Observer, Sunday 1 January 2012

Please give me a moment, I feel queasy; I think I may have over-indulged in festive TV's comforting class retro-ism. Which means Downton Abbey of course. Not that I mind Downton (a decent enough soap), but it appears to have breathed fresh life into the cultural trend for rosy revisionism.

Then came the darker meat of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, depicting a social upstart, cowering in the blessed aura of his "betters", only becoming enlightened when things don't go his way.

All over the country, people were marvelling at how the British class system affected everything, back then, in "the olden days", though, strangely, not giving much thought to how it is still affecting a lot of things right now. Well of course not – one couldn't get a nice box set out of that.

I'm always hearing about how the British are obsessed with class, but I don't think that's so. Generally, people seem more interested in a certain brand of retro-class – class from the past, class at a distance, class that can neither touch nor shame them.

It's the same with the sudden literary fascination with servants' hard times below stairs – the surge of books about the poor, callus-handed maids, struggling up the back stairs with their scrubbing brushes and pails. Egalitarian in their way, they also reflect the ongoing cultural cleansing of class issues.

As in, it's fine to be obsessed with class so long as it's aimed at the very top and bottom of society (those conveniently unimaginable extremes) and occurred at least a century (or more) ago.

This way, we all get to enjoy the exquisite gowns and drawing rooms and tut-tut over the servants' dreadful working conditions, from the moral safety of the 21st century.

All of which obscures the fact that class still very much dominates British life.

Only last week, Lord Glasman said that the Oxbridge-heavy Labour party no longer truly reflected the working classes, while David Skelton, deputy director of Policy Exchange, pointed out that none of the three main parties had leaders, or indeed leading figures, from working-class backgrounds.

Away from politics, the richest still appear to be the richest, seemingly untouched by public anger. The middle classes are struggling, primarily to remain middle class (so much more expensive these days!). And the poorest are (natch!) still the poorest, with even the best and the brightest now stuck like never before, not least with free higher education yanked away and triple tuition fees looming.

This is the truth of Britain as it enters 2012. It's riddled with class inequality and its evil twin, poverty, yet what are we all doing – doping ourselves up on what amounts to stately home porn, fast becoming the sedative of choice, the St John's wort of the masses?

It's understandable enough. Modern class issues are real, depressing and make your brain hurt, while fictional retro-class skirmishes make for great family entertainment. It's not nice to think of the many young people unable to remain in education these days… but, woo hoo, did you see that cute Irish chauffeur run away with Lady Sybil in Downton?

Of course, what do we expect from festive television, where escapism will always trump realism? But would it be too extraordinary for people at least to acknowledge that the British class divide is not some beautifully costumed anachronism from a bygone era? Rather, it's something that's still very much with us and not in a cosy book club discussion kind of way.

At the start of 2012, it seems astonishing that anybody thinks they need to refer all the way back to Dickens or, for that matter, Julian Fellowes, for an education in the rights and wrongs of the British class system.

For those who are interested, it's still going strong, all around you, without a box set in sight.


  1. A very interesting read, but, I still love Downton. With a strong passion.

  2. You fascist Soph!!!! Haha No, I just put it out there to get people thinking again. Don't you think that too many people like a pretty "past"? I know it's gone & can't really be recaptured, but why idealize it this way?