Like all red-blooded members of the human race, there is nothing I like more than looking at pictures of Liz Hurley. So this month’s Tatler was a particular treat. There she was in wellies, accessorised by tulle and mousseline gowns in dusty baby-pink. The pictures ticked all the right boxes. Debo, Duchess of Devonshire, in ballgown and Wellingtons in the hen house at Chatsworth? Check! Muddy-hem-and-heaving-bodice costume dramas set in National Trust locations? Check! (The shoot was at Sezincote, Glos, a jewel of a mini stately modelled on a Rajasthan palace.)
Anyway, after I’d enjoyed the sight of Miss Hurley in her newly adopted habitat (she now lives on a 400-acre organic farm in the more Poshtershire end of the same county), and had a good look at the elegant stretch of withers our lovely filly was exposing in what was clearly the expensive shoot’s money-shot, I turned to the text.
And that’s when things went out of whack. Like the film Marley and Me, which in theory had everything going for it in the shape of three super-cute blond furry animals in the lead parts, Jennifer Aniston, Owen Wilson, and a golden retriever, something about the hi-concept fell flatter than Norfolk.
And no — I’ve thought about this a lot — it wasn’t the come-hither pose in the £10,455 Dior gown, hoicked high by the ha-ha. For we are by now used to the exhibitionism of celebrities who think that by dint of shelling out millions for a pile or an organic hobby farm, they are up there with the landed gentry or down with the horny-handed sons of toil. Indeed, there was a time when it was impossible to pick a magazine, any magazine, and not see some mouthwatering spread owned by some flat-capped former pop star or supermodel chewing on a straw. Indeed, the Vogue shoot of Madonna in jodhpurs and pearls in Ashcombe, Cecil Beaton’s former house, caused me such a outbreak of lifestyle envy that I felt like curling up in a ball and rocking gently till the images of manicured plenty in Dorset dissolved from my mind. So no, it wasn’t the latest display of exhibitionism in the whole rock-star-rural-lifestyle that has become just another staging post in the life journey of modern celebrity that gave me pause over the glossy pages.
For Liz is an excellent pin-up for the English countryside, as it happens. She loves her pigs and farm and is the star turn judging the best-kept village competition in Barnsley. No, I’m afraid where I choked over my latte was at her fraudulent pitch to use sex in the English countryside to sell her brand, which is such a false prospectus that it makes the Iraq dossier look like the way, the truth and the light.
‘When English people think of the country, sex is never far from their thoughts,’ she claimed. ‘There’s less sex in the city than there is here because it’s just… sexier here… To me, people look sexier in the country. Take builders, for example. The lot who recently did my stable conversion,’ she prattles on blithely, ‘were so gorgeous that friends from London used to travel down just to flirt with them.’ She has hearth rugs for you know what, nudge nudge, and when she thinks of sex, she thinks not of London hotel rooms and lacy undies but four labradors, roaring fires and the Jilly Cooper hero Rupert Campbell-Black.
Which means, in translation, that Liz is trying to poach the whole sex-in-the-shires sizzle of Rutshire, and it just doesn’t wash. Rutshire is and always has been Jilly’s home county — and BTW Liz, it’s fictional, even if the shelf-stackers in Spar down your way are all hunky Mellors, as you do protest too much.
Listen, there is no more sex in the country than there is in the city, even though there’s nothing to do after dark (except drink and watch telly). It simply can’t be true about the countryside being a great big romping ground full of fitties. As the writer Liz Jones says, ‘Unlike Liz, I haven’t had sex since I got here. Not a chance. If men have teeth in the West Country, it’s a bonus; anyone mobile enough not to need Meals on Wheels upped sticks long ago in search of work above the minimum wage.’ So then I turned to Tatler’s publisher for an explanation.
‘I am very much on Elizabeth Hurley’s side,’ says Conde Nast’s MD Nick Coleridge, in his cover-girl’s defence. ‘You might imagine that London is sexier than the country, but you only have to meet the locals in our part of Worcestershire, just across the border from Hurleyland, to see what she means. The talent in the country is fitter, sleeker and has greater stamina. Also better skin.’
OK, let’s leave it at that and move on, as Liz Hurley does, like Marie Antoinette on Viagra, to her ‘secret life’ in the country. This appears to involve gathering armfuls of sweet peas, picnics under sycamore trees, nature rambles through bluebell woods, and pet lambs in laundry rooms.
Now, this sort of thing plays very badly in shaggier rural parts, where folk do not play with pet lambs, but kill them and eat them. Where they are too busy driving/working/ riding for rolls in the hay, where they see the same 20 people all the time, half are pensioners and at least one of them is like Lynda Snell in the Archers, so a coffee morning and perhaps a crafty digestive is about as far as things can go, rumpy-pumpy-wise. But hey — who cares?
‘Liz Hurley has been astute to take advantage of the marketing power of the idealised bucolic scene,’ points out Lucy Cleland, editor of Country & Town House. ‘It’s so typically English, so nostalgic, so innocent, and it plays on everyone’s fantasies of living in a Cotswolds stone cottage, surrounded by rolling hills, with a dog at one’s feet, away from the economic doom and gloom of the city.’
I wouldn’t mind if Liz was using stable-girl sex fantasies and our rain-drenched green English countryside to sell wellies, the English Tourist Board, cream teas, even cagoules. But what she’s plugging is her new concession in Bicester Village. So this whole Lady Chatterley for the noughties schtick is nothing but a lubricious fantasy designed entirely to flog… beachwear.
Elizabeth Hurley is very gorgeous and probably great fun. Of course she is perfectly entitled to use sex to sell her products. After all, everyone else uses sex to sell theirs. But when it comes to her sex-and-the-country pitch, delivered in a mink stole in haute couture, one does wonder if she’s been at the horse tranquilliser.
Because I can’t see why she bothered at all with the breathless Jilly-Cooper-on-crystal-meth bonkbuster spiel in ballgowns. Miss Hurley, who hails from Basingstoke, is an Honourable Member of the Hellocracy. And all she actually needed to do here was direct her many admirers and customers to her website, where she models her own designs in a tangle of glistening caramel limbs, cornflower gaze and toned tummy. And then they would see in a flash and a click. There’s no better advert for itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny python-print bikinis than Liz herself.
Rachel Johnson’s Shire Hell is published by Penguin. She is a contributing editor of The Spectator.