Tiffany heart? I'd rather have a neck chain from Argos
Bad taste is the new good taste, the Royles are the new Royals - we're all common now. JAMES SHERWOOD gives three cheers for vulgarity
Sunday 28 November 1999
Even the world of high fashion has finally understood that, as Vogue doyenne Diana Vreeland said, "There are a lot of things in this world far worse than a dash of bad taste." Vulgarity is literally written all over this season. Funky Soho boutique Shop is selling out of the gold "name" necklace beloved of Shazzas and normally found at Argos. For autumn/winter 99, Dolce & Gabbana is peddling electric blue fox furs, leopard-skin micro minis and diamante belts. The flash Eighties logo is back in business. A Louis Vuitton logo rucksack doesn't whisper quality. It shouts, "I'm a gold card holder and I'm worth it."
"People are less interested in people just because they are aristocratic," says Lydia Slater, features editor of Harper's & Queen. "We are much more interested in the new aristocracy. Society is much more celebrity-oriented and it is relatively easy to get into. At smart parties today you'll see Tracey Emin stubbing her fags out in the canapes and rubbing shoulders with David Beckham. The mix makes life more interesting. The Season was dying on its feet before the new establishment demanded they join in. It really doesn't matter if you weren't born an aristocrat. Wear the right clothes and say the right things and you shall go to the parties."
The common touch is not to be confused with dumbing down. McQueen may talk like a barrow boy but he has the hands of a magician. Ditto cab driver's son John Galliano. The new establishment is simply more meritocratic. You can no longer measure culture on a Richter scale of high or low brow, which is why Joan Collins can be profiled by The South Bank Show and Coronation Street's Vera Duckworth (Liz Dawn) deserves her hour- long tribute on ITV. BBC1's The Royle Family is as perceptive about working class family life as Dickens or Alan Bennett. Compared with the current glut of vacuous costume dramas, The Royle Family scripts are a Nineties answer to Jean-Paul Sartre.
We pretend to hate Posh and Becks but in fact we can't get enough of them. Julie Burchill's pop culture bible the Modern Review once ran a cover line, "Posh Spice: is she f---". But to insult Posh is to miss the point completely. Of course she's common. Her dad drove her to school in a Rolls-Royce for God's sake. What's Victoria's secret? She's vulgar as a rhinestone G-string. That's why we cherish her as a national icon. Compared with Posh & Becks's OK! wedding, Edward and Sophie's nuptials were hopelessly bourgeois.
The House of Commons is an all too accurate tag for the current crop of politicians. You can almost see Clare Short sucking on a clay pipe, cackling and knitting as the Lords' political power is neutered. With the fox hunting ban now likely, we're left wondering what is left for aristos to occupy their time. The Bastille that is British politics has been stormed by a Prime Minister with the mannerisms of a Saturday night gameshow host, a deputy who could run Bernard Manning a close second for gurning offensiveness and a Chancellor who looks like a provincial bank manager. The new establishment is as common as goat's knees.
Regional accents outnumber Radio 4 Received Pronunciation in the broadcast media. Being in possession of a posh accent doesn't denote intellectual or social superiority. The voice of Britain today is Sara Cox's Yorkshire brogue, Michael Owen's flat vowels and Denise Van Outen's saucy Essex snigger. A posh accent could even be classed as a handicap in the employment market. It suggests nepotism, inbreeding and Tim Nice-But-Dim ineptitude. Hence the Trustafarian's attempt to adopt Estuary English: "Seriously cool, yah?".
Elocution guru Sheila Mahoney coaches aspiring actors, TV personalities and public speakers from her London studio. "In the Eighties, there was a demand for upper-class intonation. The decade was aspirational and upwardly mobile. The Sloane Ranger speech pattern opened doors. Accents evolve as values change. Now we connect a Northern accent with honesty, humour and common sense and I encourage people to go back to their phonetic roots."
Sentimentality is a working-class trait despised by the coolly indifferent upper classes. Tatler magazine famously called Princess Diana an Essex girl because she rebelled against stiff-upper-lip restraint. Post-Diana we have permission to wallow in sentiment. We can also burn the rule book where manners are concerned.
"It's a minefield," says Lydia Slater. "I went out for dinner with a gang of twentysomethings and started to eat asparagus with my fingers, as you should. The other guests looked at me with abject horror and I used the knife and fork. You really have to be flexible these days - almost a cultural chameleon who can fit in anywhere. However, if you have confidence you can get away with anything. If you've got the guts then you can make it anywhere."
Who'd have thought a Northern working men's club singer could sell out the Royal Albert Hall? When the BBC filmed The Cruise, cabaret performer Jane McDonald dreamed of playing the London Palladium. Jane was carried to the Palladium stage on a wave of public sentiment and notched up a Number One album which pushed Massive Attack off the top spot. "With me being Northern, a pub singer and a bit overweight, the press went to town on me. I was amazed the public didn't seem to mind," she says. "You've got to
make the best of it. If nobody likes it then sod 'em." Why did we take Jane McDonald to our hearts? Because the lady is as Yorkshire as Tetley Bitter.
Jane McDonald wouldn't have existed in the Eighties. In those days ownership of an Abba CD was as covert as Class A possession. Now the entire population knows the actions to Steps' Tragedy and we're not afraid to do them in public. There may still be those who blast Puff Daddy from the car stereo but behind closed doors we are a nation lip-synching to Shania Twain's Man! I Feel Like A Woman.
Country music is trouncing hip-hop, hard house and techno in the UK chart. With the best will in the world, which of us can sing along to "Pimpmotherf- ---erkickassbitch" with any conviction? We like cheesy pop and to hell with the cool music cognoscenti as they sneer at our Best of Cilla Black CD. Cheap and cheerful Britney Spears, Adam Rickitt, Atomic Kitten and S Club 7 sell because they pander to our baser instincts. We aren't being common to be contrary. Teenypop is cool.
Our heroes today have feet of clay. They are flawed and - here's that Northern sentiment again - we love them because, not despite, of their failings. We like to know they do "normal" things like get pissed (Robbie Williams), enjoy casual pick-ups (George Michael) and feel lonely (Geri Halliwell). "I think I wanted to smash down the mystery," says Geri Halliwell of this year's Channel 4 documentary Geri. "I wanted to show that everybody laughs, everybody cries and the millennium is about being honest. As for doing things for my career, it wasn't about that at all." Frankly we don't give a damn if Big Breakfast presenter Johnny Vaughan did time, Kate Moss did drugs or Geri's working-class candidness helped her career.
Those in the new establishment have earned our respect and their own money. We expect more of our leaders than posturing and privilege. Henry Dent-Brocklehurst and his lovely wife Lili may look aesthetically pleasing in the pages of Tatler, but what precisely do they do? Passive is passe. Our role models have to be active. That's why Hollywood is loving Vinnie Jones and Bond villain Goldie rather than stumbling, bumbling Hugh Grant. The British have a reputation for elevating their idols only to tear them down. As Vinnie Jones told Vanity Fair, this attitude is changing: "Back home, people are more likely to look at me and say `Lucky bastard'." Lydia Slater diagnoses Britain's "Have a go" philosophy as an American import. "We are more inclined to applaud success, especially if someone has really made something of themselves because, let's face it, we all think we could do it too."
Just as water always finds its level, society is readjusting to the cultural revolution. Only a year ago, who'd have thought good taste could be the victim of a coup d'etat? Las Vegas routs Mustique as the hip global destination. Celeb-worshipping In Style magazine pulverises Vogue as a style bible and EastEnders' Troy and Irene - not Liz and Hugh - are the nation's sweethearts. Now group hug everyone and down to the pub for half a bitter.
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