Review

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The Independent Culture
"I'm probably the archetypal Londoner," Amanda Congreve confessed in "The Lady Guns" (BBC1). Behind her you could see the archetypal accoutrements of the average Londoner: the oil-paintings of 18th-century ancestors, the vast Thames-side apartment, the interior decorator fussing over the final details of colour co-ordination. As Inside Story's oblique inspection of the English upper classes reminded you, one of the defining features of the breed is their freedom from self-awareness. Though notionally about women who shoot animals - on the face of it a fairly limited subject - Carrie Britton's film had no problems filling its 50 minutes, using that sharply defined frame to capture larger themes: the nature of the British countryside, the persistence of social hierarchies, the importance of "tradition" to those who inhabit its upper decks.

This wasn't exactly an invention she could call her own - the shooting party has always been a useful device for directors (fictional and documentary), bringing different social groups together and casting over the whole an enlivening whiff of sudden death. These days it is also an institution under the gun itself - threatened by animal-rights campaigners, a fact which lends the activity an air of elegiac, embattled righteousness. "We've got to stand up and be counted to protect this lifestyle," said one veteran huntress, eyes alight with a sincere kind of patriotism. They don't see themselves as the idle rich, blasting birds out of the sky with a brisk unsentimentality, they see themselves as an endangered species without which the country would be poorer. If hunting is banned, she continued, "we'll all end up as a terribly grey nation, with no colour and no tradition in life". She did not look very much like a woman dedicated to multi-culturalism - to the colourful traditions of travellers, say - but then, other people's colour and tradition was not exactly what she had in mind.

This was not, though, an unequivocally hostile portrait. Britton asked some slightly nagging questions about the morality of killing wildlife, but the point was briskly handled by the woman who contrasted the fate of the average pheasant with that of a battery-hen. Anyone who wants to get sanctimonious about game shooting had better swear off the chicken Kievs first. And in her footage of the hunts themselves, you could sense a fascination that wasn't entirely sociological - a recognition that the ritual might offer pleasures that weren't just brutal, from the satisfying brassy pop as a spent cartridge is ejected, to the chilly beauty of English woodland at dawn. There were plenty of social ironies, if that's what you were looking for: the hugger-mugger of the beaters' hut, with a Constable on the wall and Lady Fiona's daughter being given money by an ancient retainer, and the Deterdings fussing over their table placement as if the fate of nations depended on it. But if this had been a shoot, several of the birds would have got clean away.

Earlier in the evening, Short Stories (C4) had offered a view of British class from the underside, profiling three people with elevated pedigrees and humble lifestyles. Their stories were very different, from classic black-sheep behaviour (Sophie, erotic dancer and relative of the Duke of Hamilton) to perished bloodline (Tony Hamilton, landlord of The Pickled Newt in Southampton and grandson of a baronet), but Dominic Allan's aimiable film managed to conceal the gaps between them. I'm not sure that it was possible to draw any conclusion from the material he'd assembled, the whole issue being rather less volatile than you might have thought from its description on paper. All the parents involved seemed fairly contented with the course their children had taken, having, in at least two cases, initiated the downward slide themselves. "It's going to upset a lot of people, it's going to buck the system," said John, pub musician and son of a distinguished judge, but this was wishful thinking. I doubt whether the system had even noticed.

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