TV Reviews: Parsons on Class; Undercover Britain

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The Independent Culture
Last week Tony Parsons identified "limitless self-confidence and lightness of touch" as admirable qualities in the aristocracy. Not entirely surprising this, as those qualities are just what he possesses himself, in ample measure. On screen in Parsons on Class (BBC2) he is a very likeable figure, easy with everyone he meets, assured in the face of the camera, capable of a barbed turn of phrase ("the red flag is kept flying only over the 18th hole" he noted drily, in the programme about the bourgeoisification of the working classes). It pays, though, not to listen too closely to his arguments, otherwise you will find goodwill whistling out of your ears in the form of steam. You would need limitless self-confidence and a very light touch, you find yourself thinking, to represent such dog- eared commonplaces as a wake-up call to the nation.

The series began with a fond account of the Gordon-Duff-Pennington family, which once owned 23,000 acres of Cumbria but has now been reduced to a pitiful 1,800. For Parsons they were representative of a whole endangered species, their battle to preserve Muncaster Castle (the ancestral home) a public service on behalf of us all. What was maddening here was not his affection for the family but the caricature of received opinion he had to construct in order for his observations to appear novel. Filmed on a country shoot, the very image of aristocratic continuity, Parsons let you into a secret: "That Britain is gone. Now it's the successful businessmen who bag the pheasant". Indisputable, if "now" is taken to mean any time in the last 200 years. If Parsons - or anyone involved with the project - had bothered to read David Cannadine's account of The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy they would know that the story of new money is well over 100 years old, that noble impoverishment is more venerable than some of the nation's stately homes. "Is it preferable to see some city trader and glam wife in Muncaster?" asked Parsons at one point, and only the modern abbreviation distinguished it from the sort of lament you might have heard rising from a winged armchair in a Victorian gentlemen's club.

This week he was up to the same tricks, inventing an imaginary friend called "the enlightened liberal", who apparently still believes that the working class like nothing better after a day on the shop floor "than to watch the match or walk his whippets". "The enlightened liberal has yet to realise that the factories have gone and so have the whippets" Parsons revealed, ignoring the fact that a liberal of any kind would have to have spent the last 17 years on a Largactil drip not to have noticed this fact. The aphorisms are beginning to look a touch threadbare too: "The aristocracy make us tourists in our own land" he noted in programme one; "The working class have been made strangers in their own land" he added solemnly last night. I look forward to part three of this "one-size- fits-all" apercu. Parsons on Class -- like the gracious, hard-pressed family in its first episode -- has plenty of style and not much in the bank.

Undercover Britain (C4), which opened a new series with a report on how easy it is to get hold of illegal guns, could hardly have been better timed -- though the makers will surely be distressed by their luck. Their secretly filmed accounts of meetings with various back-alley arms dealers were dramatic and unnerving - buy guns in Moss Side and you get your head bounced off the car-door as a complimentary extra. The two reporters involved managed, at some risk, to buy a small arsenal, but more shocking than the back-street deals was the legal availability of de-activated weapons (which can be cheaply re-activated) and all the material needed to make your own ammunition - a murky business carried on in the shadows cast by the "innocent enthusiast".

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