Class still rules – it’s just harder to tell

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Don­ald Clarke

The ir­re­place­able Sir Roger Moore died last week at the age of 89. Look into his back­ground and you could be for­given for think­ing that one strain of the English class sys­tem died with him. Sir Roger Moore was, on the sur­face, an ar­che­typal English gen­tle­man. He knew how to wear a dou­ble-breasted blazer. Most emo­tions could be ex­pressed through the rais­ing of an eye­brow. He knew the right mode of ad­dress for an archdea­con (I’m bet­ting). Where did he school, I won­der. Har­row or the Other Place.

In fact, Moore was raised, the son of a po­lice­man, in a lit­tle cel­e­brated cor­ner of south Lon­don. The gen­tle­man you saw in films and in in­ter­views was some­thing of a cre­ation. He was from the last gen­er­a­tion of ac­tors who felt they had to talk proper to get along in the theatre.

That all changed when, in the early 1960s, “re­gional” ac­tors such as Tom Courte­nay and Al­bert Fin­ney stormed the busi­ness. A few younger per­form­ers still made the trans­for­ma­tion. Peter Bowles, an­other ar­che­typal English gent, is the son of a chauf­feur from the West Mid­lands. Sir Pa­trick Ste­wart, than whom there is none more Shake­spearean, grew up speak­ing a thick West York­shire di­alect. Nei­ther saw what was com­ing and al­lowed elo­cu­tion teach­ers to make them what they are now.

Drama school

Those born in the 1930s and early 1940s couldn’t have known what was com­ing. Michael Caine, older than Bowles or Ste­wart, had the good for­tune not to at­tend drama school. There was no­body to make him sound like some­thing other than the son of a fish mar­ket porter (which he is).

Like his mate Ter­rence Stamp, he ar­rived with the per­fect ac­cent for the newly egal­i­tar­ian 1960s. The end of na­tional ser­vice, the ar­rival of the wel­fare state and rel­a­tive pros­per­ity al­lowed work­ing-class ac­tors and mu­si­cians the free­dom to mould pop­u­lar cul­ture to their own ends.

Even the Con­ser­va­tive Party changed. Ed­ward Heath, raised as a work­ing class boy in Broad­stairs, felt, like Roger Moore, the need to talk as if plums were squab­bling in his mouth, but his back­ground did noth­ing to stop him from suc­ceed­ing the some­time Lord Dun­glass to lead­er­ship of the Tories in 1965.

So this is all clear, then. At some point in the 1960s class ceased to mat­ter in Bri­tish so­ci­ety and op­por­tu­ni­ties opened up to all.

Dad’s Army and Fawlty Tow­ers, two se­ries whose hu­mour hinged upon class, were funny be­cause they ridiculed those who still cared. Cap­tain Main­war­ing and Basil Fawlty – or­di­nary men car­ry­ing mas­sive chips – were relics of a by­gone gen­er­a­tion who re­mem­bered pow­dered eggs. Do I have that right? It’s all over now.

I’m be­ing face­tious, of course. In the world of act­ing, the pub­lic schools have more in­flu­ence than they have ever had. Damien Lewis, Tom Hid­dle­ston, Eddie Red­mayne and Do­minic West all went to Eton. Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch went to Har­row. Eto­nian David Cameron’s cabi­net was groan­ing with enough fel­low school­mates to sat­isfy the Mar­quess of Sal­is­bury (and Theresa May’s is lit­tle bet­ter). The in­flu­ence that re­sults from be­ing born into the right sort of fam­ily is still in­valu­able when at­tempt­ing to get a han­dle on the levers of power.

Largely su­per­fi­cial

What changed in the 1960s was largely su­per­fi­cial. It be­came more ac­cept­able to ap­pear less up­per class when ma­noeu­vring one’s way up the greasy pole. In­deed, by the 1990s, it was seen as es­sen­tial to come across as a man of the peo­ple.

Pre­tend to sup­port a foot­ball team. Don’t be seen too near the opera. Fake an in­ter­est in Corona­tion Street.

Tony Blair’s nau­se­at­ing faux-blok­i­ness made this all too ap­par­ent. The son of a bar­ris­ter (ad­mit­tedly him­self from a hum­ble back­ground), Blair was ed­u­cated at Fettes Col­lege – “the Eton of the North” – but, when ad­dress­ing the TV au­di­ence, felt the need to lit­ter his con­ver­sa­tion with the odd “you know” and the oc­ca­sional “like” to em­pha­sise his sup­posed or­di­nar­i­ness.

Never forget that ex­cru­ci­at­ing mo­ment when Cameron for­got what foot­ball team he was sup­posed to sup­port.

There’s not much to cel­e­brate in the cur­rent grubby bust-up be­tween Theresa May and Jeremy Cor­byn, but we can say that, in class terms, they are who they seem to be. Both are mid­dle-class in dif­fer­ent ways. May is mid­dle-class like a vicar’s daugh­ter from the Home Coun­ties: but­toned-up, clipped, so­cially re­served. Cor­byn is mid­dle-class in an ur­ban ge­og­ra­phy-teacher fash­ion: scuffed, bearded, at home to jam-mak­ing.

Roger Moore would have recog­nised those types when, 60 years ago, he was start­ing out in the busi­ness. Did it all change back again? Or did it never change in the first place?

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