"I'm afraid he was by far my favourite husband," said Maureen, Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, displaying the elaborate Norman Hartnell train from her 1930 wedding dress. The Marchioness, now aged 90, is the last of the surviving Golden Guinness Girls who enchanted gossip columns with their fabulous wealth in the Flapper Era. Last night, in Guinnessty (Modern Times, BBC2), she looked back with apparent bewilderment on a life in which she has never worked. But then nor, it seemed from this chaotic chronicle, have most members of the Irish brewing dynasty over the past 50 years.
How much of a blessing is it to be rich? It clearly does not do you any good to earn it. Over on Channel 4, Secret Lives turned its anti-hagiographic spotlight on to Lester Piggott. There was nothing much new in the documentary, we had been warned by the previewers. True, most of us know he is regarded as the greatest jockey this century and was a tax-fiddler. But the relentless cataloguing of Piggott's sheer ruthlessness was an eye-opener.
There was also his persistent whipping of horses, his appalling disciplinary record, his riding of other jockeys into the rails with incorrigible disregard for their safety, and his diversion of work from other riders. Then there was his obsessive miserliness. The highest paid sportsman in Britain would take knives and forks from aeroplanes or play games trying to diddle friends who changed foreign currency for him. It was his miserly trait, leading him into secret deals with owners, that eventually brought him a five- year jail sentence for tax evasion. If, to earn a fortune, you have to be as unpleasant, ruthless, cold, callous and arrogant as the programme made Piggott out to be, maybe the rest of us are better off poor.
Ah, but wouldn't it be all right just to inherit it? Back to the Guinnesses. The trust set up by a prescient member of the brewing family has ensured a life of effortless comfort for all his descendants. But what has been its concomitant? Director Philippa Walker's choice of a soap opera name for her documentary was apt. What followed was a saga of high drama which appeared banal in its pointlessness and lack of motivation. There was a seamless jumble of unhappy marriages, heroin overdoses, pop star parties, car crashes, boardroom incompetence and unreal politics.
There was an appropriate air of absurdity about it all - Brendan Behan and Lucien Freud, bushy-bearded Irish fiddlers and bodhran players, Mick Jagger and David Hockney, black tie and ballgown, Diana Mitford and Oswald Mosley - in a wild orgy of consumption and confusion. The Beatles wrote "A Day in the Life" for a dead Guinness. The ex-Monday Club chairman, Jonathan Guinness, and his brother Desmond took a turn amid one of their castles and talked about being eligible for free bus passes. Desmond opened a family album and flicked past a photograph of Hitler.
To avoid boredom, it seems, the Guinnesses manufacture melodrama: drugs, fast cars, drink or, best of all, court cases to add savour to the mundanity of their wealth - father sues mother over whether boy should go to Eton; grandmother sues widowed mother for custody of her children; daughters sue mother for by-passing them in inheritance and passing money direct to grandchildren. They usually win. Ordinary rules, it seems, do not apply.
Lester Piggott clearly felt the same. When he lost money on Lloyds he just refused to pay others in his syndicate. When the Inland Revenue offered not to prosecute him if he paid up in full, he agreed - and then wrote a cheque on an account which he hadn't disclosed to the taxman. Even in prison he cheated at cards.
Yet, like the Guinnesses, he seems tinged with a profound melancholy. In the end, Piggott is a lonely figure whose heart is, in the words of his rival Willie Carson, enclosed in steel that no one can penetrate. Guinnessty ends with the figure of a small girl against a huge hillside by a steely lake covered in lowering clouds. Perhaps it is not much fun to be rich. Or perhaps that is just what they would like the rest of us to think.Reuse content