Jamie Oliver: the “god of class mobility”? Chris Jackson/Getty
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If you hate Jamie Oliver, you might just be a snob

Do you dislike Jamie Oliver because you’re ideologically opposed to his pasta dishes, or is it because the idea of a working class man who has acquired the privileges of middle class life pisses you off?

I love Jamie Oliver. I love his watchability, his food, his brand. The coffee they sell in the Recipease up the road from me is delightful. I had a very nice pastry from there once. Sometimes, I wish my life could be tinted to a high-contrast colour scheme to resemble a 30 Minute Meals episode.

As if my deep affection towards the icon of Jamie was causing me to see him everywhere, he recently popped up in a Grayson Perry exhibition I attended called “The Vanity of Small Differences”. Among the vivid, detailed and intelligent social portraits exploring the fine lines between the different classes and their tastes, I clocked one image that stayed with me. In the top left of a tapestry was Jamie Oliver, the “god of class mobility”.

It stuck in my mind because I found it hilarious. I laughed. Knowingly. Isn’t that funny har har Jamie Oliver the god of class mobility har. Those foolish people who thought they could transport themselves into the throes of middle class stardom, just because they had a Jamie Oliver pepper grinder! How silly.

I continued around the exhibition, unaware of my own sneering snobbery. I just felt smug that I had understood what Grayson Perry was getting at. Surrounded by art that drew attention to the performance of class distinctions, all I could muster in terms of self-awareness was a sense of growing hunger and thoughts about whether I could get a Perry postcard after the exhibition.

Perry’s depiction of Oliver as the face of social mobility is emblematic of the snobbery people harbour for the chef. The humour of this is lies in that Jamie is far too earnest for the educated middle class – his emotional investment in getting rid of childhood obesity, and the way he honestly believes that people can cook healthy and filling meals in 15 minutes, both lack that telling self-deprecating self-awareness that the “educated” middle classes have. To put it bluntly, he’s too stupid, in middle class terms, to be middle class. This is why it’s funny to those who deride and mock Jamie for being an aspiration to the lower middle class – because really, he’s not middle class enough.

That’s not to say that all middle class people dislike Jamie Oliver; he exudes a rustic farmers’ market aesthetic that is coveted by the bourgeois classes. Indeed, doing a bit of research on Jamie reveals a line that epitomises his comfortable fit into a middle class lifestyle. “It might sound a bit mad,” Oliver has said, “but a solid bit of driftwood makes for a perfect chopping board, the kind you’d pay a small fortune for in a department store.” Amazing.

Deconstructing middle class signifiers is a struggle. Often it’s because they’re intangible. There aren’t rigid rules. And that’s sort of the point. The harder it is to define a middle class culture, the harder it is to enter it. Of course, Jamie Oliver could easily afford the department store Driftwood Chopping Board, but that would be far too obvious. Instead, he must individually select uniquely decayed bits of wood to garnish his home with. The proud middle classes would find it difficult to tell you what middle class culture actually was. This only compounds their advantage: the harder it is to define, the harder it is for those people you don’t want being part of it, to be part if it.

Middle class taste is self-righteously obsessed with a myth of effortless bourgeois consumerism – as if to give off the impression one has simply stumbled upon one’s £150 Le Creuset pot down the road, instead of ordering it off the John Lewis website. Condescension towards Jamie Oliver is couched in that focus on the intangible – a hatred stemming from the idea that the working classes think they capture this fleeting and ethereal middle class-ness, just because they’ve bought a Jamie Oliver™ Pestle and Mortar. In the 18th century, it was all about scoffing at the French for creating gardens that looked too perfect; now we just scoff at the working class for having middle class aspirations about their oil dispenser, and houses that are a little too clean.

Next time you feel yourself hating on Oliver, step back and take another look. Do you dislike him because you’re ideologically opposed to pasta dishes, or is it just because the idea of a working class man who has acquired the privileges of middle class life – and is selling them on – pisses you off? Sure, it’s utterly consumerist, but Jamie Oliver capitalises on something that most of us struggle to define: transforming a desire to better yourself morally and culturally into a cast-iron griddle pan. That, I think, is at least something to admire.

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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