Equestrianism: The joy of jodhpurs is undiminished: Richard Williams on the part Jilly Cooper, part Mrs Thatcher world of Badminton

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'HEY, Rupert] Over here]'

At the sound of the high-bred female voice I leaped for the grass verge, anticipating a shower of grit from the tyres of a dark green Aston Martin convertible covered in tumescent power-bulges. But I must've been watching too much television. Instead of a snarling Rupert Campbell-Black, the cad of the collecting ring, abuser of women and geldings alike, there was only a black Labrador, trotting meekly back to its mistress. 'Rupert] Good boy]'

For the millions transfixed by the sheer magical badness of Riders, Jilly Cooper's saddle-soap opera, Rupert Campbell-Black was last week's favourite bad boy. But at the Badminton Horse Trials this weekend, the real-life Ruperts (and Jakes and Fenellas and Billys and Helens) were spending a lot of time avoiding the subject.

Regrettably, but inevitably, some of us who don't know a walking trot from a medium canter had turned up at the world's leading three-day event looking in search of the signs of other kinds of activity. Did Ms Cooper have it right? Is that really what goes on in the loose boxes?

'Event riders lead very boring lives,' said the first one I talked to, with a firm note in her voice. 'Training, travelling, competing. That's about it.'

Oh, come on. What about Virginia Leng, the divine Ginny, and her 'new companion', whose identity had been revealed in the deceptively sedate columns of the Daily Telegraph that very morning? And what about William Fox- Pitt, the 24-year-old heart-throb of the pony-club set, whose sponsor runs a mobile home that looks like a wood-panelled bordello?

No, my new friend said briskly, Jilly Cooper had got the whole thing wrong. And the sex wasn't the worst of it. 'Well, did you see it? It was ridiculous] I mean, you had a shot of a horse going into a jump, and then another shot of it landing, and it was a different horse]'

Shocking, of course, but not quite apropos of the week's main issue. Let's not pretend that the people who watched Riders were attracted by the chance to study the finer points of equestrianism. Technique, yes - but of the undressage variety, surely? They - oh, all right, we - were more interested in spotting whether the girl with whom Rupert Campbell-Black landed was the same as the one whose jodhpurs he'd taken off.

Unwilling to accept a refusal at the first, I went off in search of further evidence. In some ways the most extraordinary thing about Badminton is the size of its commercial village, spreading itself in the middle of the cross-country course which winds through the Duke of Beaufort's beautiful parkland.

It may have been the morning after the shires kicked out the Tories, the day of bloody revolution in the serene vales of Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Avon, but here at Badminton the Eighties were still in bloom, presenting a vision of England that grew up in the Thatcher years, when the country turned into a theme park signposted with brand names and royal warrants.

In fact there's a school of thought behind a theory that the decline in the monarchy's fortunes began at Badminton, when a major mini-royal, Captain Mark Phillips, accepted commercial sponsorship. Phillips won Badminton four times between 1971 and 1981: twice on his own horse, Great Ovation, once on the Queen's Columbus, and finally on Lincoln, owned by the makers of the Range Rover. He was also sponsored by Daks, the up-market menswear manufacturer. And once commerce had created an interface for itself with royalty through the medium of one of the showbiz sports, it wasn't about to let go.

Range Rover and Daks are the sort of names emblazoned on the tents in the Badminton village, along with Garrard, the Queen's jewellers; Asprey; Simpson of Piccadilly; and Herbert Johnson, the hatmaker. This is the culture that grew under Thatcher: blue-chip brand names marketed for the last drop of snob value. This culture depicts an England that is entirely bound up in the imagined virtues of the past. It's the culture so adroitly marketed by Mark McCormack on behalf of the All England Club, in a pioneering campaign which turned Wimbledon into a device for flogging tea-towels and T-shirts.

Past shop after shop I strolled, shoulder to shoulder with a large proportion of the 200,000 crowd. Past names so comforting that they almost convinced you that here was an England where no village church ever need lock its doors at night, where no widow need fear mugging: names like Lansdown, Amberley, Greenlees, Blandford. Brand names, of course. Past rails of moleskin shooting jackets, fleece jerkins, suede chaps, tartan skirts, shiny boots, and more kinds of tweed - Derby and Islay and Thornproof - than you could imagine. Past stalls offering horsy prints and 'I love my pony' mugs and prefabricated stables and those imitation church bell ropes that Daks and Range Rover people now use as leads for their Labradors. Past the ancillary services: Hill Samuel, the Independent Schools Information Service, the Isfahan Carpet Palace, and - yes] - Aga cookers, the campfires of the Labrador-owning tribe.

Not much sign of sex, though, apart from rosettes reading 'My event lasts three days' and 'Lady riders do it sideways', and a lot of French girls wandering around in that fashionable Australian outback gear - broad-brimmed leather bush-ranger hats and long stockman's coats with big shoulder flaps and a long split up the back (for ease of mounting, Jilly Cooper would probably say).

Until, almost at the extremity of the village, where the blue-chip names started giving way to the hamburger stands, a vision: a vision of beds. Mattresses and pillows. Here it was. The Orthopaedic Bedding Advisers of London E3, to be precise.

'I suppose you're here because of Riders,' I said hopefully.

'Riders? Well, not just them,' the man on the stand replied. 'Of course, all that jigging up and down does things to the spine. But did you know that four out of five people have trouble with their backs at some time in their lives?'

Oh, well. Trying to make life imitate art - or, in this case, the artless - didn't seem to be working. Nothing for it but to give in and watch some proper sport.

Over in the arena, Ginny Leng and Welton Houdini, her 10-year-old grey gelding, were going through their dressage routine. As they slipped from a working trot to a medium trot, the horse looked like Michael Jackson in reverse. When Jackson does his famous Moon Walk, he looks as though he's moving forward while he's actually dancing on the spot. Welton Houdini's legs flickered with such delicacy and grace that he looked like he was dancing on the spot, even though each stride was probably covering a cricket pitch.

How is this done? Let's see. Here's A Glossary of Dressage Terms by Leonie M Marshall, pounds 3.95, first published in 1979. This must have some useful stuff.

But what's this? 'Anticipation.' 'Behind the bit.' 'Changing rhythm.' 'Down in front.' 'Falling in.' 'Falling out.' 'Grinding teeth.' 'Hollow back.' 'Impulsion lacking.' 'Late behind.' 'Lengthening insufficient.' 'Lost rhythm.' 'Not accepting hand.' 'Not enough extension.'

My God] So this is where Jilly Cooper got it from] It's been here all the time, hidden in a technical manual. Even in alphabetical order, you can hardly miss the narrative . . . no, go on, say it . . . thrust.

'Not enough angle (shoulder in).' 'Not enough from behind.' 'Off the bit.' 'On the forehand.' 'Quarters not engaged.' 'Quickened rather than extended.' 'Resisting.' 'Rushing.' 'Shoulders falling out.' 'Swung round.' 'Tongue out.' 'Tongue over the bit.' 'Transition rough.' 'Wandering.'

Add a Rupert and a Helen, a Jake and Fen, and I think Leonie M Marshall might just have herself a major mini- series.

(Photograph omitted)