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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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