Last Night's TV: Wonderland - High Society Brides/BBC2
A History of the World/BBC4
Thursday 21 October 2010
Judging from the title alone it looked as if High Society Brides was going to be the month's least tactful bit of scheduling. During the day we'd learned that the entire nation was about to go on a bread-and-dripping diet and in the evening it seemed we would be able to cheer ourselves up by watching the upper crust uniting their inherited wealth in the holy bond of matrimony. And, judging from the opening five minutes, it looked as if judging from the title hadn't been entirely misleading. Various women with cut-glass accents recalled when they first met their husband ("Shooting... grouse moor in Yorkshire") or exchanged emollient truisms about wealth. "Money can be a lubricant I think, can't it?" said one musingly. "Mmmm... yes... opens doors," replied another. Oh dear, I'm not going to be able to take a lot of this, I thought. Not when so many people are going to be finding the lubricant in short supply.
I should have looked at the name on the credits first – Hannah Berryman, a director who has pulled this trick off before, in crafting a film that looks dismissably superficial on casual inspection but then turns out to have hidden depths. Because – like an earlier documentary she made about the children who sang on Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall – High Society Brides turned out to be fascinating, a one-sentence pitch ("let's find out what happened to five of the 'girls in pearls' who appear in the front of Country Life magazine") that unfolded into something rich in all the right ways. And much less rich in terms of money than you might have feared. "I am an example of toxic debt," said Arabella (who was the "posh Page Three" for January 1990). "This is what it looks like... I am one of those mortgages that Northern Rock shouldn't have given but they did... so I own this house and most the country own this house too." Don't get too excited, because it's minuscule, the sort of place Arabella's forebears would only have visited if they were taking gruel to the sick.
Arabella wasn't the only one who found that the upper-class gel's life plan – get married, provide an heir and a spare, live happily ever after – hadn't quite panned out. Catherine Sackville-West had lived for real the plot line that's been keeping Downton Abbey going for the last few weeks – exiled from her childhood home in Knole because of her mother's failure to produce a male heir and then contracting a disastrous marriage herself with an American social climber, who departed after just eight months with a substantial chunk of her money. Sally Cochrane had unwisely assumed that her husband would sober up once he got married, only to find that it took him several decades before he finally got round to it, and that she had to leave him first. He'd expected to follow daddy into a job as land agent for the Duke of Buccleuch but it turned out that he was better at sowing wild oats than cultivated ones, and he now gives driving lessons for a living.
Social mobility can only mean one thing if you start near the top, but Berryman's film was also a tribute to the almost religious conservatism of the upper crust, its most spectacular case study being Henrietta Tiarks, a Sixties It-girl who had finally snared the Duke of Bedford. While the other debs in the film had been given a forced instruction in the adaptability of circumstances, the Duchess was still sticking to the toff's party line, particularly when it came to gender politics. "You haven't got female lions and elephants and monkeys all changing their roles because they feel women should be equal," she explained patiently. "All we're supposed to do is breed... so the men go out killing the animals... we look after the babies, we cook the food." You'd think owning your own safari park would give you a better grasp of leonine biology than that, but then the Duchess looks like a woman who doesn't want to think too deeply about the social arrangements that have put her where she is. We shouldn't think it had been easy, she wanted us to know. The only way she and the duke had been able to get away from the pressures of Woburn Abbey was to run away to a tiny cottage in Suffolk and play poor for the weekend. "And when I say tiny, it was smaller than this room," she added for emphasis. The fact that the room was larger than many people's houses seemed to have passed her by.
Rather mystifyingly, Terry Deary – the author of the Horrible Histories series for children – had dropped all the bad puns and enlivening corniness for his contribution to A History of the World, a new BBC4 series. Perhaps – despite the HISTRY numberplate on his Mini – he wants to be taken seriously as someone who can talk to grown-ups. Or perhaps he thought that the history in this case – the Battle of Towton in 1461, the bloodiest engagement of the Wars of the Roses – was simply too horrible to sustain gags. Given that the death toll was 28,000 – more than the first day of the Somme – I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of it before, and an unscientific survey revealed that I'm not alone in my ignorance. Post-traumatic amnesia on a national scale? Or an indictment of trendy, non-jingoistic history teaching? Either way it was good to have the blank filled in.
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