Heirs, spares and chairs: the Fulford family, stars of BBC3's Life is Toff. Photo: BBC Pictures
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Inside Tatler, Life is Toff and British TV’s troubling obsession with all things posh

Call me a lefty conspiracy theorist if you must, but it has not escaped my notice that the trend for posh porn has coincided with the term of the poshest government in living memory.

It’s 2014 and posh people are everywhere. Anyone who’s given the British media even a cursory glance recently would be forgiven for assuming that the majority of the British public were living out their existences with their finely bred noses buried in leather-bound copies of Debrett’s Etiquette and Modern Manners, plums planted firmly in their mouths (that is, when their gilded gobs are not otherwise occupied with eating a pear in the correct fashion, using a silver spoon). Television in particular has been going posh mad for some time now, and with tonight’s premier of new BBC documentary Posh People: Inside Tatler, the obsession with the high born shows no sign of abating. In an inversion of the well-established phenomenon of “poverty porn” (see Benefits Street), programmes such as this are “posh porn”, offering plebs like us a glimpse into this highly exclusive world of red trousers, farting black Labradors, crumbling castles whose foundations are weaker than the chins that inhabit them, and general tomfoolery including such larks as side-saddle racing (Inside Tatler) and the torturing of siblings with air rifles (Life is Toff).

I confess that I was ignorant of the favourite pastimes of the upper classes until I got to university and became aware that old Harrovians turning up to lectures in togas was seen (if only by the participants) as “top banter”. Made in Chelsea, which features someone I went to university with, is now in its eighth series and, in three short years, has managed to exceed even its own aspirations of deathly dullness to become a kind of Groundhog Day of Shags involving endless, circuitous conversations centred purely around who did who and when. It truly is the Twilight Zone of toffs. Downton Abbey, meanwhile, limps on like the decrepit dog who was the show’s most three-dimensional character until it died of cancer in a recent episode. It has become so tedious that when an ITV Player glitch froze Thomas the Evil Butler motionless in a downstairs corridor, I failed to notice for several minutes. This must surely be the only programme where the line, “I’m going upstairs to take my hat off” is considered welcome comic relief.

At least, I suppose, the posh are having fun this time. The slightly batty ancient dowager that was the society magazine Tatler has, under the editorship of Kate Reardon, gone from being a magazine that I used to hate reading as a student to a witty, satirical Sloane-fest that I now rather enjoy. Granted, Tatler’s recent video featuring an enraging array of poshos waving their arms about and mouthing the words to Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” during the magazine’s Little Black Book party is an argument for class war if ever I saw one. As a sage Twitter commentator noted, it is “interesting if only as proof that a sense of rhythm can in fact be eliminated over centuries of selective breeding”. Still, it beats seeking out a tramp for the sole purpose of setting fire to a £50 note in front of him – an alleged recent activity of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, alma mater of Boris, Dave and Gideon.

Call me a lefty conspiracy theorist if you must, but it has not escaped my notice that the trend for Posh Porn has coincided with the term of the poshest government in living memory. The working class heroes of Britpop who dominated the cultural climate under the Major and Blair governments are now but nostalgic items of memorabilia for a generation who were hardwired to believe that one could be posh, or cool, but not both. Russell Brand’s verbosity was mocked by the internet for sounding like the song “Parklife” by Blur. Some, including Brand himself, considered this class snobbery from a condescending metropolitan elite. I do not necessarily disagree with this interpretation, but I do think the fact the point of reference for those unused to seeing a philosophising Cockney on their television screens was a music video made in 1994 says something profound about the wasteland that is our current cultural climate.

“Rich people don’t create culture,” remarked Grayson Perry last week, as he argued for the urgent need for affordable housing – but that is exactly what they are doing, all around us. The past few years have seen a revival of royalist sentiments – the wedding, the Jubilee, the Jesus-like worship of baby Prince George. In September, the Guardian ran a Posh Britain special that included a “How Posh Are You?” quiz. Moneyed heiress Cara Delevigne has overtaken Croydon girl Kate Moss as this year’s – and indeed last year’s and probably next year’s – model. Funny, intelligent shows about working class life such as Shameless, Phoenix Nights, The Royle Family and Gavin & Stacey are no more. Actors and comedians seem to be getting posher and posher, as working-class performers struggle to find work. Reality TV offers up toff after toff; as well as the posh programming already mentioned, shows such as Posh Pawn, You Can’t Get the Staff, Ladies of London, Liberty of London, and even Gogglebox beat us about the chops with the silver hammer of prosperity until we’re left dribbling, comatose and inexplicably craving a Fortnum’s Welsh Rarebit. Last year, I bought a Barbour jacket, having entered John Lewis as if in a trance, an act for which I can only blame the interminable drip-feed of privilege that is delivered to us via the pheasant-stuffed Ocado van that the country’s media has become. And as for the atrocity that is Mumford & Sons, well, everything that can conceivably said about these Lords of the Banjo has already been said.

All these strands of blatant poshness have combined to render the British Media the Chap Olympiad to end all Chap Olympiads (as if it wasn’t posh enough already). If that weren’t bad enough, the British public are being regularly and inhumanely punished – what for, it is unclear – through the medium of the historical country-house documentary. These often focus on the bonkers aristos of yore (including my new favourite dead aristocrat Henry Cyril Paget the 5th Marquess of Anglesey, a man so camp he makes Freddy Mercury look like a tax auditor) as if to say: “Behold, peasants, the current crop of tedious toffs that you are forced to endure are culturally embedded in the very fabric of our society, so get used to it.” All this posh porn is curiously devoid of politics, instead focusing on the adorable foibles and eccentricities of our benign overlords as though they are cuddly cartoon teddy bears too bumbling and lacking in intelligence to constitute any real threat to the majority’s desire to live in a less rampantly unequal society – the Boris Johnson complex. Francis Fulford, the paterfamilias in Life is Toff, is reportedly a Ukip supporter, but as an audience we are never really exposed to his political views. The closest we come to seeing him for the unpleasant snob he shows the potential of being is when he laments how his father sold off a nearby village – a village in which people live – that is now worth millions.

I have no beef with individual posh people (some of my best friends are posh, etc etc) but it does strike me as strange that, less than six months before a general election and at a time when the gap between rich and poor has widened to become a yawning canyon, we are seeing so little of how ordinary people are living, and struggling to get by. We live in a society where a Labour MP in Islington regards the sight of a St George’s flag as “astonishing” – has she been to an estate in our borough recently? It is a society in which people are relying on food banks so as not to starve and a charity exists with the simple purpose of providing homeless and vulnerable children with their very own pair of pyjamas. And yet, we are being force-fed aristocratic programming that, far from being critical, is aspirational. As a nation, our cultural output revolves increasingly around the super rich and how much bloody fun they’re having, while those of us who are not having so much fun are largely ignored. Inside Tatler and Life is Toff may be good for a laugh, but the rich are having the last. This cultural dominance can only end when the current government does. Perhaps then, the disadvantaged will once again be afforded the opportunity to crack their own jokes. Until then, we’ll have to make do with the putting on and taking off of hats. 

This article was amended on November 27.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder