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February 06, 2006

Julian Fellowes and class on screen: Richard D. North asks, why are British screen portrayals of class stuck in the 1950s?

Posted by Richard D. North

Separate Lies
Directed by Julian Fellowes
certificate 15, 2005

Gosford Park
Directed by Robert Altman, Written by Julian Fellowes
certificate 15, 2001

A Most Mysterious Murder...
series, BBC1 (2005 and 2006)

Who Do You Think You Are?

The Queen's Sister
Channel 4, 2006

Elizabeth David – A life in recipes
BBC2, 2006

My Family and Other Animals
BBC1, 2005

Richard D. North - author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of the just published Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world - asks, why are British screen portrayals of class stuck in the 1950s, even when they claim a contemporary setting?

Julian Fellowes is a rarity: an actor, sociologist and writer. He is now, with Separate Lies, a film director. But he is above all a professional toff. Perhaps that's what the late Patrick Lichfield was too. It is – of course – a contradiction in terms. What's more, it makes him a class traitor, a fate he could only have redeemed by sticking up for the values he is anatomising. Instead, he works both sides of the street.

Convention requires that the upper classes can only be portrayed as shitty if larky: in Gosford Park, as scripted by Fellowes, we are thrilled by the Cruella DeVille quality in Maggie Smith's sponging relative, Constance, Countess of Trentham. The working classes – and it was so in Gosford's servants - can only be portrayed as down-trodden, and occasionally as worms which turn.

In the present climate of class-denial, Fellowes' role was inevitably difficult. We saw this in his TV series, A Most Mysterious Murder... about crimes amongst magnates, aristos, the middle classes, expats and servants. They were of course exciting in a grim way: they showed us how maintaining one's station in life was once as powerful a motive as cash is now. Of course, it all came down to cash in the end, probably (the Gosford patriarch seems to have bought his claim to grandness), but the fear of being seen to have slipped a notch mattered much more then.

The problem is to see the richness of the class system as it applied in the recent past – its texture, loyalties, fissures and surprising mobility. For all that people hated to go down a rung, and poisoned, shot and strangled their way toward maintaining their niche – actually there was lots of movement up and down.

How do you handle the fact that everyone in every class used to be a crashing snob, and more particularly, an unabashed and glorious snob? At one level, it made no sense and was vicious; at another it was fun and it worked. We are struggling to organise society any better now, though of course we were bound to try.

But a further hurdle is the sheer scruffiness of the past. Even the rich tended to inhabit the ruins of their former glory, and after the second world war many middle class people were in multi-occupancy houses which were never quite clean, or draught-proof or smart. The novels of Pamela Hansford Johnson and Olivia Manning tell this sort of story. The key is a sort of bohemianism that was interwoven through all parts of society, like fat marbled through a steak. Very few modern films capture this properly, though Sylvia (2003), the portrait of the Plath-Hughes marriage did: here was a 1960s London teetering on the brink of a time when Habitat, The Sunday supplements and the arts-media elite were just coming into their own.

Very few films captured the emergence of these processes properly though the little masterpiece, Young Wives' Tale (1951) did: it was a perfect collision of sophistication and making-do, with dizzy but tough Joan Greenwood being "smart" on a shoe-string. Not quite "fur coat and no bloomers" as Sheila Hancock quotes one of her relatives discussing another (itself a lower-middle class cleaning-up of the more robust, "fur coat and no knickers" which did service in other parts of society). Hancock was speaking in Who Do You Think You Are?, the BBC2 celebrity reality show which mostly shows us how little people know about the recent social history of their country, and quite especially how they believe very weird clichιsc about its class system.

The drama-doc portrait of Elizabeth David took us to the heart of the post war world and its social shifts. Like the portrait of Gerald Durrell a week or so earlier, it showed a middle class world extending its natural interest in bohemianism and doing so with an overt peasant-envy, and more particularly one which took people to the Mediterranean. A previous generation had gone down to Cornwall, and we have the Newlyn and St Ives schools of art to show for it. What was a matter of pre-war trains became a post-war business of flying, but the longings were the same.

There was something of the Elizabeth David in Princess Margaret, the TV portrait of whose very special case may have been a touch brutal: both women renounced the idea of safe, dull and strategically-chosen husbands. Elizabeth David, of course, was free – at enormous cost – to adopt what one might call the Nancy Mitford approach: she was a working woman free to take the "inappropriate", romantic lover of her dreams, and he eventually sauntered off for a proper, an appropriate marriage.

And then we go off to the cinema to see Separate Lies and it is supposed to be set in post-class modern Britain. But it makes many of our points by being a story which only really makes sense or resonates if one reverses Julian Fellowes' transposition of the original 1951 novel, A Way Through the Wood, by Nigel Balchin. Balchin was one of those socially-ambivalent figures who is so un-"Englishly" English: this novel was a painful refraction of his own married life. We see Anne Manning (Emily Watson), a slapdash, sexy, edgy woman who's no housewife and is bored with her sensible husband James (Tom Wilkinson). Unlike the heroine of Brief Encounter (1946), this woman goes all the way. She goes over the side with a hard-bitten young aristocrat, who has a tough moral code of sorts, but one which doesn't include showing any quarter to husbands he's cuckolding.

The aristo holds to his code of loyalty when she kills a cyclist as she loses control of his 4 by 4 on an early tryst. He insists that they will concoct a story which will ensure that the crime isn't attributed to her. Nothing could be more natural, he implies, than that the upper classes and their middle class squeezes will hang together when a working class person gets trampled underfoot.

These sorts of attitude make more sense when posited as a feature of the 50s. Likewise, the lawyer husband is too gentle, too accepting, too passive to be a modern man. He is more chivalrous than feminism now allows. Even his business world seems more like a leisurely example of Gentleman Capitalism than anything very modern. Little lunches at the Caprice, business deals requiring stays at the Georges V: it didn't ring true of an in-house lawyer's life.

It turns out that the cyclist's widow was very grateful indeed to Anne for having given her a job in spite of her having years before been found thieving when working up at the big house. No-one need have known, but the char 'fessed up, and thought only a Londoner would be surprised at such honesty. This is, improbably, supposed to be the Home Counties in 2005. The "daily" repays her boss's kindness: she refuses to shop Anne when the latter's fate is in her hands. This is an act of pure human kindness, and it matches the kindness of Anne's husband. People are kind to each other now, of course: but the idea here is that the char was vaulting a class barrier. The black policeman tells her she doesn't owe "these people" anything so noble and that they wouldn't have returned the compliment – as indeed they had not, and that's the point.

Curiously, Fellowes does give us a 50s sort of feel in the London flat (in a Georgian square) and the weekend house of our heroes. Both look slightly fusty and chintzed – more like the homes of unstylish and faded 80 year olds than of youngish high-flyers.

The whole transposition was a curious directorial decision. The 1950s can't be an expensive period to recreate, and nostalgia is proving to be stylistically chic. Here was a chance to show modern people that it is worth looking at the social and ethical habits of the recent past. They weren't universal, they haven't continued, and no it wasn't another planet either.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

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A word on Vera Drake, now I've at last caught up with her.

I've always cringed at Mike Leigh's awful condescension toward the habits of both the working and middle classes.

VD was much more moving than those of his previous offerings I've seen. Its core proposition was that a woman savvy enough to be a (mostly) effective abortionist could have been so stupid as not to spot that her black-marketteer chum seemed to have an endless supply of girls "in trouble" - and to ignore the way her commercialist friend seemed to handle this one aspect of her life in a non-commercial way.

But I'm here to talk about class, really...

We spot the old tropes in the way that the upper class women are all bitches and VD's sister-in-law, who's doing nicely and has moved out to a suburb with lawn and washing machine has, of course, to become a proto-bitch. You see, if you get on and leave the close-knit working class community, you descend into moral darkness. It's obvious really. Next stop, total abandonment and voting for the Thatch.

Posted by: Richard D North at February 27, 2006 11:56 AM
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