Things ain't what they used to be: Whatever happened to the season?

Drunken City boys, D-list celebrities, scantily-clad Eurotrash... The blue-riband events of the summer social calendar have been colonised by arrivistes and undesirables, argues Charlie Methven. So is it time to mourn the loss of a British institution?
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The Independent Online

As last week seemed to herald the beginning of the English summer, so this Thursday – the opening day of the first Test at Lord's – brings the start of "the Season", the loosely grouped chain of events in which sport, opera and gardening have traditionally met social snobbery, hidebound dress codes and British and international royalty.

To most onlookers at a hushed mid-morning cricket session, or at the Chelsea Flower Show next week, or on a shimmering Ascot afternoon in June, 2008's Season might seem effortlessly to replicate that of 1908. The players will play, the enthusiasts will watch, and somewhere, in the grander areas, a bunch of bizarrely dressed toffs will drink too much, stroke their moustaches and pointedly ignore the sports they've supposedly come to see.

Yet, to some more weathered participants, this comforting sense of seamless continuity is starting to seem like a fading veneer. The past decade – the Blair years, in effect – have brought change on an unimaginable scale to Ascot, Glyndebourne, Henley and the rest of the summer's supposedly posh events. To put it bluntly, the great unwashed have taken over the Season. Modernity has finally arrived in the one remaining corner of English life that had seemed an impregnable last redoubt of the aristocracy.

Take Lord's. On Thursday, the members in their blazers and "egg-and-bacon" ties will huddle in the pavilion as around them spills an orgy of boisterous, corporate-box boozing. Competing with the reassuring thwack of leather on willow will be the vulgar sounds of City traders on an "away day," getting more raucous through the champagne-fuelled afternoon – and eventually resorting to Barmy Army-style cheering and jeering.

At Ascot in June, people wishing to gain entrance to the Royal Enclosure will confidently pin on badges with names that would have had the old guard reaching for the horsewhip in the not too distant past. Last year, I saw a Keith, two Garys and a Les. And at Glyndebourne, hedge-fund whizz-kids whose idea of music is more hip-hop on their iPods than Handel in the hallway will don clip-on bow-ties to entertain fellow City contacts with "bubbly'n'caviar".

In short, the traditional Season – the real, blue-blooded, age-old version of it – may be on its last legs. Whether this is regrettable or not depends on your point of view. But it has certainly happened quickly. To say that the Season was all rather different 10 years ago would be to understate the case.

I should know. In early May 1998, as a green reporter fresh from Oxford, I landed a job on The Daily Telegraph's diary column, Peterborough. Though I didn't realise it at the time, I was about to become a member of the last generation of British gossip-columnists who'd have a traditional "society" scene to follow.

It was a dizzying world, run by people straight from the pages of a PG Wodehouse novel. And it was also – to the outsider, especially one from Fleet Street – mighty hard to penetrate. Did I have a spruce morning coat for Epsom? An invite to Glyndebourne? No, and no again. Most particularly, was I a member of the Royal Enclosure at Ascot? 'Fraid not.

But penetrate this world I did, whether by writing humbly to Her Majesty's representative at Ascot, Lord "Stoker" Hartington, or bothering Old Etonian "boatie" friends with requests for a guest pass into the Stewards' Enclosure, or into the Leander tent, at Henley.

The stories these events produced already seem sepia-tinged. From the Derby meeting, I reported (and later had to retract) a story concerning an alleged fist-fight between a character called Sir Rupert Mackeson and an art dealer. In a memorable exchange with the Telegraph's libel lawyers, Mackeson demanded in writing that I front up to him "like a man". Not long after, he pursued a colleague around Sandown Park with a walking stick, in belated retribution.

From the Yacht Squadron at Cowes came a scoop about the then unknown girl who was about to "share digs with Prince William in St Andrews", Kate Middleton. "Kate has taken a summer job with upper-crust catering firm Snatch," reported my then deputy. Added Snatch's boss, Rory Laing: "I only pay Kate £5 an hour, but she's a pretty girl so she should get lots of tips."

At the Cartier International Polo at Guards – where rap stars are now celebrated guests – Jilly Cooper confided that she had modelled her arch-cad hero Rupert Campbell-Black on Andrew Parker-Bowles and the Duke of Beaufort. That filled most of page three of next day's paper – a newsdesk value judgement that seems unthinkable today.

But even then, just after the turn of the century, Blair's "New Britain" was on the move. For the Season, times were a-changing. First, Lord's decided on a major refurbishment, paid for out of the expected revenues from the new raft of corporate boxes. Then came Ascot's decision to build a vast new grandstand to enable it to "compete" with other great racecourses in Hong Kong, Japan and the USA.

Taking on vast debts to pay for the building programme, the then Ascot management decided that a drastic measure was required: entry to the Royal Enclosure was relaxed to the point where nouveaus had every chance of getting in. City money was needed and the old guard, picnicking out of the boots of their cars, went from being the raison d'être of the Royal meeting to dead wood. Once Ascot's new stands were opened, tearful old-timers found that the old lawns had been brutally cut back in favour of expensive lobster and champagne bars.

The dress code was no longer as rigorously enforced so as not to scare off the new "clients". At the 2004 meeting, I interviewed the Dowager Lady Killearn, 90, on the subject. "It's just too terrible," she said. "Some of the women aren't even wearing hats."

The dash for cash at Lord's, Ascot and Glyndebourne was accelerated by the City "boom" and the influx of "non-dom" foreigners. The organisers of events actually liked the new crowd: unlike the smarter but poorer English aristos they didn't whinge about 50 per cent price rises, nor did they sniff about "falling standards". And if a few fell by the wayside, or behaved a little bit too badly, there were plenty more newcomers queuing behind.

Polo had already begun a similar transformation in the 1980s, when Kerry Packer came on the scene, but in that sport the old names were still much in evidence 10 years ago. The Vesteys, Pearsons and others would sponsor "high goal" teams and – if they didn't always beat Packer – they put up a brave fight. Now, all is different: Dubai is the financial force in English polo, able to pay the best Argentine players £1m for a three-month stint.

So we come to the summer of 2008. In this new, high-octane, cash-flashing environment, does the Season still exist in anything but name and marketing brochures? I would say not. The idea of a string of events at which roughly the same people, who have known each other all their lives, turn up regardless of whether or not they much care for the sport in question has died.

Ascot's rebuilding gave many life-long attendees an excuse never to return. These days, the smart enclosures at the polo would never invite someone just because they come from the right background. Socially, Cowes is little more than a corporate bun-fight now the Royal Family has more or less stopped attending.

An end, then, that's rather sad for traditionalists and for those who regarded the best seats as a birthright. But perhaps it's not all bad news; the change wrought on the Season has also marked a new beginning for events which for too long were unable to flourish and reach their potential.

Today, racing at Ascot has never been better; the polo, with the Argentines wooed from Palm Beach with hard cash, never more dazzling; the Chelsea Flower Show is unquestionably the greatest such event in the world. And, even better, most of the people who go do so to enjoy themselves – even if, sometimes, rather too loudly – rather than merely to make an appearance.

CHELSEA FLOWER SHOW - 20-24 MAY

How it was

When the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London first hosted the Royal Horticultural Society's show in 1913, it was a time for the nation's greenest fingers to show off the best of British gardening, and chat over the delphiniums.

How it is

Firms pay £250,000 to "own" smaller-than-average gardens – many of which owe more to high design than grass roots.

"I've been going there for more than 30 years and it has changed greatly," says Anna Pavord, The Independent's gardening writer. "First of all, it's got sponsorship, which it never used to have. It's not the place to waltz around in big hats anymore – that happens on the Monday when the B-list starlets are shipped in."

RHS spokesman Stephen Bennett says the corporate presence is kept to a minimum. "We have strict rules about branding and exposure. Each sponsor can be seen, but it's not in your face. Most visitors aren't even aware of it."

Vital statistics

The Tuesday and Wednesday are reserved for RHS members, who pay up to £46 for a day ticket. Non-members can buy £41 tickets for Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

During show week, visitors knock back 49,000 glasses of Pimm's, 5,000 bottles of champagne, 54,000 cups of tea and coffee and 28,000 sandwiches. The Royal visit is on the Monday afternoon, when only a select number of exhibitors, RHS committee members and trustees can attend.

ASCOT - 17-21 JUNE

How it was

"Royal Ascot is an internationally renowned sporting and social occasion, where tradition, pageantry, fashion and style all meet in a glorious setting." That's what the event's website says, at least.

How it is

Crowded, expensive, and with about as much class as a stretch limo. "It's like the last days of the Roman Empire, with miniskirts instead of togas," says one old hand. "The type of drunken behaviour that used to be particular to the cheap seats has spilled into smarter areas – and now anyone can get badges to the Royal Enclosure."

Nick Smith, a spokesman for Ascot, disagrees. "The whole thing is shrouded in myth. The Royal Enclosure hasn't really changed and it can't – without it there is no Royal Ascot."

Vital Statistics

Ascot Racecourse has a capacity of 80,000. Half of these people are on corporate tickets or pay for general admission (up to £54). About 15 per cent of visitors pass through the Royal Enclosure. Everyone else occupies the cheap seats (up to £25) in the Silver Ring.

Access to the Royal Enclosure requires a badge, which costs £82 a day or £310 for a week. New badge holders must be approved by someone who has attended the Royal Enclosure for four years – though nowadays you can get in with various "corporate" tickets.

The dress code includes "formal day dress with a hat or substantial fascinator. Gentlemen are required to wear either black or grey morning dress, including a waistcoat, with a top hat."

Racegoers will this year eat 10,000 lobsters, 18,000 salmon steaks, and 18,000 portions of foie gras. They will drink 160,000 pints of beer and 170,000 bottles of champagne. Approximately 400 helicopters and 1,000 limos descend on Royal Ascot every year.

THE FIRST TEST - STARTS 15 MAY

How it was

Leather on willow, pink gin and picnics, and a poor performance by England... Summer officially arrives when the first ball of the first over is bowled at the "Home of Cricket".

How it is

Lord's has changed greatly since it first occupied its north London site in 1814. The Pavilion is now dwarfed by grandstands and a futuristic Media Centre, and the number of corporate boxes has grown exponentially.

Then there's the spectre of the Barmy Army. The writer Dominic Lawson – a member of Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), which owns Lord's, for more than 30 years – calls the notorious band of England supporters a "travelling grotesquery".

"At one Test match I attended, some of these idiots spent a large part of the afternoon yelling at the greatest cricketer of the modern era, Shane Warne, that he liked being 'taken up the arse'," Lawson says. "It's not cricket."

Keith Bradshaw, the secretary and chief executive of MCC, says he is fighting this tide of thuggery and has banned banners, horns and fancy dress from the ground. "We're very conscious of preserving the very special atmosphere of the first Test. We do have a corporate element, which we limit, but all the people who come here are knowledgeable and passionate about cricket," Bradshaw insists.

Vital statistics

Lord's has a capacity of 28,500. For the first Test, MCC members and their guests are given 10,000 tickets, with 3,000 going to corporate hospitality. Remaining seats are available to the public at a cost of £40 to £65. Most are sold in a ballot.

CARTIER POLO - 27 JULY

How it was

One of the world's most ancient sports (it dates back to 650BC), polo is the ne plus autre of posh pastimes. The jewel in the sport's crown is The Cartier International, held on Smith's Lawn at the Guards Club in Windsor Great Park. The Queen regularly makes the short journey from Windsor to the Royal Box to watch a few chukkas.

How it is

The royal connection is still important, but today's punters are more likely to see a pissed Prince Harry surrounded by soap stars and Eurotrash. The Cartier tent is top place to be seen (and knock back obscene quantities of champagne), but a village of rival corporate tents has also sprung up.

"Polo has become much more of a parvenu sport," says one member of the old guard. "Toffs understand it, but the more meritocratic individual will come along and say, 'what's this pile of crap – show me the champagne'."

"Ludicrous financiers now pay to have their own teams and insist on playing, which is like Mohamed al-Fayed turning out in midfield for Fulham. It's a subsidised joke."

"That's rather cruel," says the Guards Club's Charles Stisted. "You have to be relatively wealthy to have a team, but the event has settled down and become less corporate."

Vital Statistics

There are 15,000 grandstand seats. At least 4,000 are sold to corporate hospitality, including 3,000 to the nightclub, Chinawhite. Tickets cost from £35 to £60. Entry for a car costs £15; £120 for a limousine. Access to the uber-posh Smith's Lawn Enclosure is restricted to Guards Club members. Dress code: smart casual.

COWES WEEK - 2-9 AUGUST

How it was

The peak of the sailing season, where Britain's best boaters thrash it out on the Solent, watched by, according to the Cowes website: "British and foreign royalty, the nobility, the rich and the famous." On Saturday night, the prestigious Royal Yacht Squadron club hosts a ball, where yachting types sip pink gins in their admiralty blazers.

How it is

Skandia Cowes Week, as sponsors now require it to be called, has well and truly sold out, with many races entered by teams on away days from City accountancy firms.

"The whole thing now revolves around a marquee the size of a large aircraft hangar, which is basically full of drunken middle-managers," says a shocked recent visitor. "Real yachting fans don't get a look in. It's become completely corporatised."

Michelle Warner, a spokesperson for Cowes Week, insists that the event has not sold out: "People tend to hire boats more than own them, and the charter boats are often sponsored, which makes them look corporate. But they're not. The nice thing about the event is that there's something for everyone."

Vital statistics

More than 1,000 competing yachts and 8,500 competitors take part, while 100,000 people will gather shore-side. Many will watch the racing, but 50,000 come mainly to witness the fireworks display on the last night.

Corporate charters of yachts in the race cost £1,800 and include a crewed Sunsail yacht and meals. The posh Royal Yacht Squadron, and its ball, is open only to members and their guests.

GLYNDEBOURNE - 19 MAY-31 AUGUST

How it was

When the curtain first rose at Glyndebourne in 1934, few of the 300 opera lovers present could have imagined that John Christie's country house, surrounded by beautiful Sussex gardens, would become one of the premiere venues for opera in the world. Its manicured lawns quickly became a place for high society to wear pearls, scoff expensive picnics and be seen.

How it is

In 1994, a modern, 1,200-seat theatre was opened, attracting a new generation of big spenders and corporates. Some say Glyndebourne hasn't been the same since.

"Tickets are now so hard to get hold of if you're not corporate," says Michael Kallenbach, a trainee psychotherapist who's been going for 20 years. "These are often people who have never been to opera before and aren't terribly interested. They go for the picnic and champagne and to get tarted up. It's a sad waste."

But David Picard, the general director at Glyndebourne, disagrees. "I genuinely believe that's rubbish. I suspect the Royal Opera House gives away far more corporate tickets. The majority of our funding comes from individual opera-lovers."

Vital statistics

Ticketing is fiendish. First choice goes to members, then "associate members". Next, it's the 9,000 people who pay £10 a year to join the mailing list and have until early May to buy. Fifteen per cent are available to the public. Another 15 per cent go to corporate visitors, who pay top whack of £28,000 for 40 tickets (food and booze included).

HENLEY REGATTA - 2-6 JULY

How it was

The grassy banks of the Thames lined with people in boaters and blazers, sipping Pimm's while oarsmen row past. What could be more civilised than the Royal Regatta, held every summer for more than 150 years?

How it is

Those heading to the riverside will be confronted by cavernous marquees bulging with cheap suits. "Henley is ghastly!" says one disillusioned veteran. "Even the smart areas are now full of lager-swilling lunatics from minor public schools getting absolutely hammered. It's entirely lacking in class."

Others aren't so sure. "That's an astonishingly, unbelievably stupid remark," responds Mike Sweeney, chairman of the organising committee. "Loutish behaviour is minimal. The problems come further along the river [from the finish], where there are unofficial bars and beer tents over which we have no control."

Vital Statistics

On a busy day, 100,000 people turn up, with most finding a spot to watch for free. For those willing to pay, the Regatta Enclosure and the Stewards' Enclosure have a joint capacity of 20,000, and there are private areas run by Gentleman's clubs, and rowing clubs.

Regatta Enclosure tickets are available to all. Entry to the posher Stewards' Enclosure is restricted to members and guests. There are 6,500 members and a waiting list of over 1,000. Lately corporate punters (whose packages cost as much as £600), can also get in, for an extra £45.

WIMBLEDON - 23 JUNE-6 JULY

How it was

Run by the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club since 1877, Wimbledon attempts to "preserve the idea of a tennis being played in an English country garden," says Paul Newman, The Independent's tennis correspondent and a regular for more than 30 years.

How it is

"Be under no illusion, there's a hard commercial edge to Wimbledon," says Newman. There's a store in Harrods, outlets at airports, and 30 Wimbledon shops in China. It also recently signed a multi-million pound deal with Evian. Is this selling out by the back door? "Absolutely not," says Wimbledon spokesman Johnny Perkins. "We are commercial but we do it in our own way. We keep the courts free of company names, except for those of companies who provide services for the running of the court, such as Slazenger."

Vital Statistics

Six thousand ground admission tickets (from £8) go on sale at turnstiles every day, while approximately 500 tickets go on sale daily for each of the Centre and No 1 courts (from £38). Since 1924, the majority of Centre, No 1 and No 2 court tickets have been sold via a ballot, which closes at the end of December. Around 8 per cent of Centre and No 1 Court seats are given to corporate guests. Admission to the Centre Court's royal boxes is by invitation only.

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