So farewell then, you sofas and cardigans

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The Independent Culture
Yipee! The suspense is over. The Millennium Dome, we learned this week, will feature hugely expensive exhibits sponsored by, among others, Boots and McDonalds. The shiny new epoch, for which most of us can hardly wait, will be marked in the right way: with a Happy Meal and a headache pill. An ideal British Saturday: a couple of hours in a shopping centre and a takeaway.

Actually, looking at the plans, I couldn't restrain a small shiver of hope that the Dome might turn out to be magnificent after all. But this is based on nothing more concrete than the naive assumption that if you spend so many millions on the exhibits (let's face it, the tent can't have cost much) then you must get some sort of bang for your buck. It may be kitsch, and it may be ghastly to think that the whole thing is being driven by high street sales combines, but perhaps it will have its own kind of panache: the glamour that comes from conspicuous expenditure.

None of it seems like a good idea; but the Dome isn't selling itself as an idea. It's a special effect, and visitors will be invited not to learn anything or think much (except to wonder which of the attractive McDonalds catering concessions to go to) but to be stunned for a minute by the sheer scale. This may not be so different from the reaction medieval architects were looking for when they threw up those colossal cathedrals. The Dome is going to be a place we wander around with craned necks; we will be entering the world according to gawp.

WE OUGHT to be semi-pleased, at any rate, that someone is at least trying to lift our eyes, not lower them. These are hard times at the BBC, and they won't have been made easier by the announcement that while the corporation has not given up on sitcoms entirely, it is renouncing the middle-class sort that has for too long been its staple fare. Peter Salmon, the Controller of BBC1, promised to "take out a contract on suburban sofas and knitted pullovers".

Richard Briers, in the Independent, wrote an understandably aggrieved riposte, pointing out that he had done most of his best work in knitted pullovers. Perhaps he should have put up a stouter defence of middle-class values. One of the reasons why the bourgeoisie is such good fodder for comedy - whether it be golf slacks and tea cosies, or lawnmowers and family saloons - is that it so wonderfully open to satire. Anyone can have a go, because with our increasingly slippery class signals it can mean whatever and whomever we wish. Aristocrats use it to mean social climbers with big cars and small drives. Working-class people think of it as tight-arsed and snobbish. But the most caustic of all the satires is that deployed by the bourgeoisie itself. Those of its sons and daughters who wish to be thought bohemian bandy the term with more zeal than anyone. "Bourgeois" is merely a smug catch-all for everything they hope they are not.

This is, in its way, a thoroughly bourgeois virtue. Those at the top and bottom of the social heap have their pride, but the middle-class is proud, above all, of its willingness to find itself ridiculous. It has been scourged, after all, for a couple of hundred years now, and hasn't stopped carrying a torch for decent manners, hard work and thrift - the essential if uncharismatic engines of prosperity.

Naturally, when we laugh at ourselves, we bourgeois types secretly presume ourselves to be not like the others, not like those dreary masses we find so pooterish and comical. Meanwhile, we conduct an awful lot of our politics and entertainment on behalf of "ordinary" people - a nicely double- edged remark, coming as it does from those who feel themselves a cut above the ordinary when it comes right down to it.

So it will be interesting to see what new sitcom the BBC devises. Presumably it will be some strange parody of what John Osborne and others brought to the theatre as kitchen sink drama. That was a real novelty; but what could one possibly call today's working-class sitcom: satellite dish drama? The real irony is that anyone should be targetting blue-collar subject- matter at a time when blue-collar life is losing its shape and coherence, and being absorbed into middle-class scenery.

It's a lounge-class, Boots and Big Mac world, and the bickering-but-lovable types in Only Fools and Horses are every bit as much a caricature and a fantasy as the the velveteen sofas in Margot's polished living room in The Good Life. If we are not careful, we will be presented, in the name of greater verite, with a view of working-class life about as modern as a lawks-a-mercy RSC wench.

Hobson's choice

Number of steel cargo containers into which all the heroin consumed in a year in the US could fit: 1

Number of cargo containers processed by the port of Los Angeles in an average month: 130,000

Number of Britons a year affected by Economy Class Syndrome - potentially fatal blood clots caused by sitting in cramped seats during long-haul flights: 30,000

Percentage of tourists visiting Dublin for stag or hen parties: 1

Percentage of potential tourists deterred from visiting Dublin by stag and hen parties, according to a report commissioned by property owners in Temple Bar: 13

Type of cousins who met, at the end of the 19th Century, when Europeans came (back) to Africa: 5,000th

Number of personal computers in New York City: 5.6 million

Number of personal computers in India: 3 million

Hours of French television stored every year in the new Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris: 17,000

Percentage of medieval churches in Britain whose interiors - wall paintings, stone monuments, carved oak and brasses - are being destroyed by bat droppings: 60

Amount spent on hair colourants in the world last year: $5.3 bn

Average annual spending per person in Pakistan on haircare: 17 cents

Estimated maximum number of hairs in a man's full beard or on a woman's legs and underarms: 15,000

Cost of plastic surgery to create a nose like Liz Hurley's or Andie McDowell's, "definitely the most wanted noses of the moment: narrow, very lean and sometimes with a gentle slope": pounds 2,700

Number of days a cockroach can survive without its head: 9

Average percentage by which London house prices have fallen in the last six months: 15

Compiled by Will Hobson

SOURCES: New York Review of Books, Observer, Independent, New York Review of Books, Outlook, Financial Times, Yorkshire Evening Post, European, Focus, Cosmopolitan.

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