TELEVISION / Talking out of his class

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
MAKING a documentary about the British and class can only be compared to shooting the proverbial fish in a barrel. Is there anything more to be added to this strip-mined topic that the famous Sixties John Cleese / Ronnie Barker / Ronnie Corbett 'Upper class, middle class, lower class' sketch didn't wittily announce and denounce in a record four minutes?

Perhaps. But Scarfe on Class (BBC 2) wasn't about to take any chances. Not when the usual parade of elocution teachers, dumb Sloanes, Essex men, social-climbers and barking bluebloods could be whisked before the camera once again to trot out the expected lines about good breeding, upward mobility, U and Non-U.

On one level this was curiously comforting. If the British didn't still talk about class, then the weather, bowel movements and Jurassic Park would dominate small-talk to a tedious degree. On another level, it was just plain stale, from the opening use of John Major's call for a 'genuinely classless society' to such visual cliches as the caricaturist on horseback to illustrate that class is a race, not to mention a game like 'cricket or croquet': cue larger-than-strife studio replication of snakes and ladders for those who still hadn't got the point.

As Scarfe's treatise wandered on, an attempted dissection oddly couched as a training film, one inevitably wondered what its conspicuous waste said about its own notions of status. Was it savagely aping the cultural assumptions under discussion to illustrate their essential meaninglessness, or merely attempting to impress? Was Scarfe's adoption of the dispassionate yet cheerlessly lofty BBC mandarin tone a canny method of proving his theories about how the voice and modulation instantly pigeon-hole the speaker?

It certainly seemed a more urgent proposition than Anne Ferguson's laborious attempts to master 'The rain in Spain' on the grounds that she was 'sick of being judged on appearances' (this said by a woman with Dynasty hair, purple lipstick and enough eye make-up to frighten a panda) or Ursula Wyndham's brisk, not to say brutal, dismissal of the Royal Family as hopelessly declasse: 'I mean, they can't even arrange an ordinary extra- marital arrangement without making a mess of it]'

Scarfe didn't make much of the contradictions, maybe because he was too busy contradicting himself. He interviewed more than enough squawking heads to prove that the Old Snob's club was alive and well and not admitting new members. So why lead on to a mock museum displaying class archetypes behind glass, all the while dismissing the upper and middle inmates as 'relics'? If contradiction was the point - as in ex-mogul George Walker's assertion that you're always of the class you're born into, despite the trappings of wealth and success - then the strategy was insufficiently clear.

Which wouldn't matter a jot if the programme had made good its pre- transmission promise to be 'satirical'. Satire doesn't need to fair or balanced or, protestations to the contrary, even particularly accurate. Rage and relish will do. The lack of fear and loathing that fuels Scarfe's casually twisted cartoons was a grievous loss, especially as producer Sally George would occasionally cut from Scarfe amiably interrogating a prime suspect - Tatler social editor Ewa Lewis in full dress at a cocktail party, for instance - to focus on a drawing of the same, dripping more venom than ink. If only Scarfe had shown less mercy and more bite . . .

For a true and rigorous exploration of the British class system one (or you, depending on your class) need look no further than the umpteenth repeat of The Good Life (BBC 1). The very fact that John Esmonde and Bob Larbey's genteel green sitcom is back on air again speaks volumes about how we cling to the chains Scarfe is so eager to unlock and unlink. The fact that we shake those chains for comic effect as well also says much.

Observe Felicity Kendal, the epitome of friendly surburban sexiness in her tight blue jeans. See Paul Eddington, the personification of the executive cove, product of the minor public school. Most importantly, clock Penelope Keith, a living grotesque that no artist could better, a harpy in a hostess gown, painful in her politeness, pathetically eager in her etiquette and as sure as God in her certainty that what she says and what she does is the right, the proper, the only way. Margo is still really something, the ultimate class act.