Toff TV: TV Column


This column originally appeared in The Student TV section February 5th 2013


Watching Chancellor George Osborne getting booed at the Paralympics and trying to ‘style it out’ with one of those Mr Bean smiles of his was, I think we can all agree, one of our proudest moments as a nation.

It exposed growing intolerance for our toff-centric government, with its millionaire Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt cutting shapes in the ballroom of his Surrey mansion, to take but one particularly illuminating example. The recent initiation into Oxford’s Bullingdon Club (which boasted David Cameron and Boris Johnson as esteemed members) is reported to have involved burning a £50 note in front of a homeless person. Oh, the gentility!

It’s possibly surprising, then, that we as a (very skint) nation are still prone to romanticising and being in thrall to toff culture. Take the immense popularity of ITV’s Downton Abbey. We can’t seem to get enough of ‘Cousin Matthew’ mooning over vinegar-tits Lady Mary, or Carson the Butler acting like a man who is both severely constipated and battling to conceal an enormous erection. ITV’s Great Houses with Julian Fellowes (Downton’s writer) displays a breathless fascination with toff abodes, and Channel 4 documentaries Claridges and The Aristocrats display similar symptoms of aristo-lust.

Then there’s the more yoof-focussed Made in Chelsea (E4), the stars of which, like, despite their expensive educations, or whatever, like, inflect the end of every sentence as if it’s, like, a question? Add to that BBC 1’s recent caricature-adaptation of P G Wodehouse’s Blandings, which offered a jolly, jaunty and wholly affectionate look back at 1920s toff-foolery.

These shows come at a time when a number of apparently ‘groovy’, right-on artists have accepted Honours without any significant (publicly audible) criticism, whilst the likes of Danny Boyle and Ken Livingstone rejecting theirs is met with… well, not much of a reaction at all. Even the decidedly un-simpering Channel 4 News recently reported on Prince Harry in Afghanistan in a tone bordering on motherly affection.

It’s got something to do with the pride we take in our heritage. Whilst we rile at Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith suggesting the weekly 70 quid Jobseeker’s Allowance is too high, then claiming a 39 quid breakfast back on expenses (hungry boy), we still want to celebrate Britain’s past, with all the hierarchy, Empire and slavery that so deplorably connotes.

We also want escapism. Shows like Downton are popular precisely because they are so different from our daily lives. After a long, hard day working in Morrisons you hardly want to come home and watch a drama about somebody working a long, hard day in Morrisons.

Now do excuse me, but it’s been a trying day so I’m off to watch Cousin Matthew peg it.