Focus: A big hand for the f***ing toffocracy

Hurrah for the foul-mouthed Fulfords, the dodgy Brockets and the pointless Taras! They allow us mere proles to exercise the ancient British art of toff-baiting. DJ Taylor doffs his cap at a noble tradition

Viewers last week had the chance to amuse themselves with a different kind of reality television. Rather than exulting in the sight of a gang of supposedly "ordinary" people swearing, betraying their ignorance and behaving badly according to the Big Brother template, they were able to exult in the spectacle of a family of bona fide toffs, essaying a defiantly upper-class version of these failings. The clan in question was the Fulfords - The F***** Fulfords, to give the documentary its full title - an impoverished tribe of blue- blooded Devonians, £200,000 in hock to the bank, whose pater familias, Francis, was reduced to trawling the fields of his 3,000-acre estate with a metal detector.

To watch poor Francis (the family has been in residence since the time of Richard I, saysDebrett's) disparaging the custodians of English Heritage as "wankers" as his band of semi-feral children cheerfully destroyed the interior of the house with games of indoor cricket, was to become aware of a faint tang of familiarity. We have been here before, knocked, as it were, at the door of a stately home and seen it swing open to reveal a riot of aristocratic grotesquerie. Lord Brocket, insurance fraudster turned I'm a Celebrity ... jungle survivor. Lady Victoria Hervey, socialite-cum-unsuccessful fashion entrepreneur. Upper-class wannabe James Hewitt. However, exotically handled their names, however wide the acreage still at their command, however welcoming the columns of the Sunday style sections, the members of today's toffocracy seem to have emerged blinking into the light of the 21st century as the new trash.

There are several plausible explanations for Channel 4's decision to fill an hour of prime time with the humiliations and embarrassments of the Fulfords, but the most obvious is the changing basis of what might be called English social scorn. Toff-baiting in this country has, like toffs themselves, a very ancient lineage: the early novels of Dickens and Thackeray are full of pantomime aristocrats with names like Sir Mulberry Hawk. Yet, historically, the real target of most middle-class English humour, which became a social force at about this time, was the working classes. Dickens, for example, seems to have been much more horrified by the idea of footmen aping their betters.

The vague kind of "inclusive" social equality now peddled by most branches of the media has tended to make this kind of satire more or less unacceptable (it survives, for example, in Viz's sneers at The Fat Slags and Tasha Slapper) and one can imagine the pious outcry if someone filmed a day in the life of the Grimleys of Croxteth simply with the aim of making them look stupid. In an environment where most social groups are chary of insulting the people immediately above or below them, the landed upper classes - remote, superannuated and with no formal power or influence - are a hugely appealing target. The "nobleman" who appears on television these days is infallibly a silly ass, in much the same way that 100 ago a servant was mocked for dropping his aitches or getting above himself.

The decline of the British aristocrat-cum-landowner has been going on for upwards of two centuries: symbolised by the Reform Act of 1832, which destroyed the power of land; confirmed by the accession of Queen Victoria, whose homely aspirations and middle-class morality chimed with the sensibilities of her increasingly bourgeois subjects. At the same time, throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, the landed class demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to adapt, marrying into the commercial class that was supplanting it and clinging dexterously to its place in the political hierarchy. (The Marquis of Salisbury, for example, hung on as prime minister until as late as 1902.)

There are several reasons for this. As George Orwell pointed out, the British aristocracy has always been morally fairly sound, keen to serve king and country and to die on foreign battlefields. Had its members been the decadent, draft-evading, proletariat-plundering bloodsuckers of Marxist legend, they would not have survived.

Another reason is that the heritage industry that kicked into gear after the Second World War was designed to preserve landed interests, albeit within the new parameters of Welfare State Britain. In his preface to a new edition of his Brideshead Revisited in 1960, Evelyn Waugh noted that the original, published in 1944 and intended as a lament for a disappearing world, now sounded like a panegyric preached over an empty coffin. Real-life Bridesheads had managed to reinvent and sustain themselves in ways unimagined 16 years before.

Simultaneously, the sense of awe-cum-snobbery that certain English people display in the face of blue blood and double-barrelled names took a very long time to die - if indeed it is truly dead. Back in the early 1980s I was at college with a viscount. The friendly interest displayed by his fellow undergraduates seemed positively deferential. Something of the same spirit might be thought to pervade the audience response to films of the Gosford Park school or the best-selling novel Snobs produced by its screenwriter Julian Fellowes.

In a world where a title confers no political power, and a landed estate is worth having only if it can be sold to the developers, being able to trace your line back to Lady Henrietta Phipps-Fazackerley, who slept with Henry VI in 1447, counts for surprisingly little. It is the blue-blooded heir to broad acres with nothing to fall back on but his blood who falls into peril.

By far the most successful modern aristocrats, in these terms, have been Deborah, now Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, and her late husband Andrew, who, rather than allowing death duties to rob them of their ancestral pride, refurbished Chatsworth as a tourist attraction and themselves as media personalities. They presented themselves in turn as gardening experts, joint adornments to the media scene, and latterly, in Deborah's case, the notional author of a cookbook. They even invited Arthur Scargill to tea and held a benefit for the striking miners at Chatsworth. The Duke's establishment of a prize, the Heywood Hill, for a lifetime's contribution to literature was commended as an appropriate way in which to pay one's dues.

The flip side of this durablecoin could be glimpsed last week on Channel 4: a litany of peevish complaint by toffs who appear to do nothing, to an audience for whom the sound of well-bred voices is - that rare thing these days - something safe to laugh at.

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