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All eyes on Melvyn’s hair

25 February 2012

11:00 AM

25 February 2012

11:00 AM

An American reporter once said to me that all television in his country was fundamentally about race, and all TV in this country was about class. There was some truth there, I thought, if exaggerated. Then in one week along comes a new Melvyn Bragg series about class and another attempt to revive Upstairs, Downstairs, whose original ended on ITV some 37 years ago.

Melvyn Bragg on Class and Culture
began at BBC2’s prime time on Friday. There are problems with documentaries about class. In this case, one difficulty is Melvyn’s hypnotic hair. When he’s indoors, it is thick and lustrous, as if a King Charles spaniel had settled on his head. Out of doors, in the wind, it looks like a haystack in a hurricane, or a game of pick-up-sticks gone lethally wrong. You can’t take your eyes off it. It follows you round the room. His tresses seem to be pointing wildly at something, trying to signal a message he hasn’t got time to bring us himself. If Melvyn wants us to concentrate on what he’s saying, he should do the opposite of what more vain presenters do and acquire a bald wig. Then we wouldn’t be distracted.

The other problem is that describing the class system in Britain is like trying to eat a whole roast pig on your own. There is too much material. You can only show a tiny portion. And since television needs pictures, endless pictures, the images hop from place to place, side to side, as if the camera had attention deficit disorder. So we’re in the army, then moments later in a ballroom (to illustrate the notion that most people enjoyed dancing); next we zoom to a shelter on Margate prom, since T.S. Eliot went there to recuperate and mentioned it in ‘The Waste Land’, and we’re off to the middle of Bolton to look at the fact that there are no cinemas there any more, even though there used to be dozens, showing American films, which were popular with working people because they depicted a classless society.

As we whizzed along, there were appealing ironies. Michael Redgrave played Kipps, a lower-class person who wants to become a gentleman, but since Redgrave talked like a toff, he appears to be the opposite, someone upper class with ambitions to lower himself. Among the people Melvyn interviewed was Lord Hennessy, like him a life peer, and Ferdinand Mount, who is upper class by anyone’s reckoning, but was the only interviewee not a member of the House of Lords, which of course is now full of TV presenters, academics, cockney entrepreneurs and Labour supporters. Only a few actual peers are still thought worthy of membership. Then we had Noël Coward, a middle-class lad from the London suburbs, playing Lord Mountbatten in In Which We Serve: so many layers of irony there.

There were interesting insights, but so far the subject looks gnawed rather than digested. However, it did remind us that, for most nobs then, the short ‘a’ was taboo. In Upstairs Downstairs (BBC1, Sunday) we heard that Neville Chamberlain had just got back from seeing Hitler at ‘the letter’s mountain retreat’. Later, someone said, ‘I hope you’ll be heppy.’ Like a bohemian hep-cat?

The first BBC revival of UD was something of a failure and didn’t get near the ratings of Downton Abbey on ITV. So they brought in the great American script doctor Susie Conklin (State of Play, Cranford), and she seems to have knocked it into shape. There are still some clunky lines left in, like surgical swabs after an operation: ‘Come on now, meatless entrées don’t make themselves!’; ‘But it’s only three weeks since her ladyship’s Caesarean…you’d think the obstetrician had gone at her with an axe;’ and the aggressive police sergeant, ‘I have positively no toes on my left foot!’

This series opens on the eve of the second world war. As Melvyn pointed out, war tends to blur class divisions. And as Lady Agnes puts it in her almost moving address to the servants, ‘We come in different doors, we eat in different places. But we all give 165 Eaton Place as our address…’ Though not perhaps for long.

There are decent plot lines. You can’t go wrong with Hitler, Chamberlain and royalty (‘Open the door, Spargo, it’s the Duke of Kent’). The pompous butler turns out to have been a conscientious objector in the earlier war, but demonstrated great bravery nonetheless. The annoying academic aunt looks interesting. And the chauffeur and nurserymaid are headed for a grand passion in the scullery. I suspect the difficulty is that the characters aren’t as improbably nice as the ones in Downton; they might be a shade more realistic, but we don’t like them quite as much.

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