To say someone was ‘sweet’ used to be quite common in Britain. We didn’t just use the word to describe our mothers and grandmothers, but a wide range of people, including public figures. But not any more. Public acts of sweetness, such as gently warning people that their shoelaces were untied, are now rare. Sweetness seems to be in terminal decline. Having just celebrated Valentine’s Day, now seems an appropriate time to ask why.
Sweetness is not just about niceness, or good manners, though both help. Sir Cliff Richard may be nice and well-mannered, but is he sweet? He’s a little too self-regarding — and self-regard and sweetness don’t go together. An essential element of sweetness is some unselfconscious eccentricity, mixed with kindness and a total absence of malice.
The actor Dennis Price, star of Kind Hearts and Coronets, was described by his fellow thespian Patrick Macnee as ‘one of the sweetest men who ever lived’. Price was modest and unselfconsciously eccentric: he kept chickens, ducks and wildfowl in his London flat. Margaret Rutherford walked about in the winter with hot water bottles strapped to her: she too was very sweet. Dame Sybil Thorndike recalled an occasion when she and other actors were back-biting about fellow performers. ‘And then Margaret was speaking suddenly and saying wonderful things. She never said anything horrid about anybody. She was such a darling.’ Another sweet actor was the late Jeremy Brett, most famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, who, according to biographer Terry Manners, ‘would send flowers to men or women at the drop of a cue card’. When anybody said ‘Jeremy, you mustn’t keep doing that,’ Brett would reply, ‘Everybody loves flowers, don’t they?’
The television series Dad’s Army and its characters are the all-time epitome of sweetness — which explains, I think, the extraordinary impact that the death of the nonagenarian actor Clive Dunn, a.k.a. Lance Corporal Jones, made last November. Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian got it right: Dunn was loved so much because he ‘ventriloquised one of the sweetest characters to ever grace a sitcom’. Jack Jones is accident-prone, tells rambling stories and gets his words mixed up. But he’s always the first to volunteer and there isn’t a streak of malice in his whole body. Jones is matched in the Dad’s Army sweetness stakes by the mild-mannered Private Godfrey, forever recommending his sister Dolly’s cucumber sandwiches.
If Dad’s Army epitomises sweetness, then The Apprentice represents its antithesis. Brash, self-obsessed people out to impress the decidedly non-sweet Lord Sugar. ‘At least I’m provoking a reaction and getting people talking. If people say to me: “You must cringe when you see yourself”, I think: “No, what have YOU done in your life? When was the last time I read about YOU in the papers?”’ was what Apprentice contestant Stuart ‘The Brand’ Baggs told a newspaper interviewer. Can you imagine Dennis Price or Margaret Rutherford coming out with that?
In fact, contrasting Dad’s Army and the gentle, sweet sitcoms of Jimmy Perry and David Croft with today’s ego-fuelled reality TV helps explain where we’ve gone wrong. Sweetness has declined due to the overdose of the ‘me first’ liberalism which Britain has been subject to over the past half-century. In our competitive and ‘-aspirational’ society we’ve become too narcissistic, too selfish, and too full of ourselves to be sweet. In our rush to ‘get on’, we’ve hardened and become much more difficult to like. In his new book Office Politics, the psychologist Oliver James identifies four types of dysfunctional personalities who have become much more common in recent years: the psychopath, the Machiavellian, the narcissist and the ‘triadic person’, a combination of the three. There are other names we can call such people: ‘sweet’ is not one of them.
Political parties seem hell-bent on pursuing economic and social policies which will make us less, not more sweet. All the talk is of encouraging strivers; little thought is given to the toll that this change in our social character exacts. A country where there are fewer sweet people will not be as enjoyable or as happy as a country where sweet people abound. It’s harder to make long-lasting friendships or relationships, which explains why there is so much loneliness and despair, despite the greater material wealth.
To find countries with a high proportion of sweet people today you have to travel to places where modernity hasn’t quite arrived. If the price we pay for economic progress is indeed a decline in sweetness — with fewer Private Godfreys and more obnoxious Apprentices — then please count me out.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 16 February 2013