Prince William and our future Queen Catherine say they will not employ any servants after their wedding. Will they be the first members of the royal family to do their own ironing and dusting? William's decision, perhaps taken to emphasise a desire to lead as normal a life as possible, is in contrast to his dad, who employs around 149 staff – 25 of whom are classified as "personal aides", including several butlers, valets and chefs. Charles was even rumoured to have a flunkey to squeeze out his toothpaste for him in the morning. Whatever the truth, the Prince of Wales is serviced by a large, costly team.
William and Kate, on the other hand, plan to share domestic chores such as loading the dishwasher and cooking simple suppers. What a difference from the pampered lives of the aristos that have dominated television screens recently, in a genre one critic dubbed "servant porn".
Downton Abbey, set in Edwardian England, was a winner for ITV, averaging 8.7 million viewers an episode. The BBC retaliated with a new version of Upstairs, Downstairs, set in 1936, which averaged 7 million viewers. Each series was similar in structure, following an aristocratic family led by a female battleaxe (Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins), complemented by a battalion of butlers and domestics attending to their every whim.
An entertaining BBC4 documentary last week, Maid in Britain, traced the rise of popular drama seen through the eyes of the servant class. There were entertaining clips from Wendy Craig's series Nanny, from Brideshead Revisited and The Forsyte Saga, all huge successes in their day.
There's no denying that "servant porn" is like wallowing in a warm bath of nostalgia. Watching below-stairs rivalries and petty squabbling is far cosier than reading any social history documenting the grim reality of life in servitude. This was the most popular job for women by the end of the 19th century – one in three girls under 20 worked for six-and-a- half days a week up to 18 hours a day for very low wages as cleaners, housemaids and nannies.
It wasn't only toffs who had staff: the professional classes employed maids, cleaners and cooks. Aged 15, my mum left her home in North Wales to work in Manchester as a nanny for a middle-class family. My granny worked as a housekeeper for a family in her village. They had no choice: there were few jobs outside factories for working-class women. The image of servants we see on telly is cosy and unthreatening. In the real world, servants had no rights – their life a slight improvement on slavery.
I can see why William and Kate might think that shunning domestic help might strike the right note with ordinary people. They're wrong, though. The number of domestic helpers has grown steadily over the past few decades, coinciding with the rise in the number of women working outside the home, combined with a change in attitudes to housework. These days, few of us like domestic chores: we'd rather pay someone else to clean up and do the ironing. And men who work long hours earning a high wage would rather pay someone else to fix things, giving them "quality time" with their children.
Men don't feel they have to take on DIY to appear macho in the 21st century, unlike my father's generation. These days, we can employ a handyman. The proportion of male domestic workers has risen from 17 per cent to 39 per cent in 10 years.
Modern servants are dog-walkers, gardeners, blokes who mow the lawn and clean our pools, baby minders, cleaners, cooks, ironing ladies, window cleaners, car washers, drivers and house sitters. They are usually foreign, and earn the minimum wage or a little more, depending on where you live. They take all the unpleasantness out of our lives, work cheerfully and efficiently, and we generally hardly know (or really care about) them. We want the job done, with few strings attached.
There are more people working as servants than ever before: one employment website calculates that half of all households pay for help of one kind or another.
Downton Abbey isn't about servants at all. It's a fantasy about snobbery. Easier to retreat into this rose-tinted world of nostalgia, than consider how we treat our modern servants today. Are we any better than the telly toffs?
Been there, done that, got the CBE...
Katharine Hamnett once said: "The only way you can change the system is from within." It's the only explanation I can think of for this outspoken female accepting a gong in the New Year's Honours list.
We met back in the 1960s, and I've always admired her fearless pronouncements, such as "politics is full of dreadful people with personality disorders". She made the slogan T-shirt a fashion item, sporting one emblazoned "58 Per Cent Don't Want Pershing" to meet Maggie Thatcher in 1984. Sadly, slogans get pinched by your rivals: Frankie Goes To Hollywood were earlier copiers of her style, and her anti-drugs Choose Life T-shirt was hijacked by pro-abortionists.
She dumped Labour in 1998, when they backed the euro, and, by 2007, said she was going to vote for Dave.
This year she announced, "This is the moment of a lifetime for the Liberals." Her CBE is for her contribution to the fashion industry – she's campaigned for better working conditions and ethically sourced fabrics – but I'm disappointed she's stepped on to the bandwagon of respectability.
She should have demanded a seat in the House of Lords, the only honour worth having, if you really want to influence things.
One born every 30 minutes
Jamie Oliver's best-selling 30-Minute Meals has annoyed cooks who say the recipes take at least an hour. But do you know any normal person who can chop vegetables as fast as a professional chef?
Jamie's 30-minutes sales pitch assumes you have a whole range of implements to hand, an area of uncluttered work surfaces, a cooker at exactly the right temperature, and someone to clear up while you enjoy your tasty, "30-minute" supper.
Be honest – no one buys cookery books to use them, but to drool over, copy ideas, and adapt to our own, chaotic lifestyles. I recently read that each home has 11 unused items in the grocery cupboard.
Make that 20 unused cookbooks on a shelf.
Croeso i Cymru, Mr Rourke
Sports fans were astounded in 2009 when professional rugby player and former Welsh captain Gareth Thomas revealed he was gay. He separated from his wife in 2006, telling only close friends about his sexuality.
The story of the most capped Welsh player ever is remarkable, but who thought Hollywood eccentric Mickey Rourke could play him on screen? He's had so much cosmetic surgery he looks nothing like the once glamorous star of 91/2 Weeks. Then there's the language barrier: the actor claims he's going to learn Welsh to play Gareth.
I tried to learn it for a TV series, and it's surely the hardest language, apart from Japanese, for an adult to attempt. After hours of coaching, I only managed to order an espresso and a double room. Not much use on the rugby pitch. This film could be years in the making.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies