Although I’m not a fan of Downton Abbey, my dislike of it has nothing to do with its subject; it is bad writing that I despise, not the intoxicating scrunch of vintage wheels on sweeping gravel. The aristocracy, whose problems are mostly our own – with added dry rot and extra repression – have fascinated me ever since I was a teenager, when, having fallen hard for Evelyn Waugh, I attended the sixth-form charity day at my Sheffield comprehensive in cricket whites, a teddy bear in one hand, a bottle of gin in the other (just so you know, my turn as Sebastian Flyte was not a success: not only did my peers, most of whom were disguised as Phil Oakey or Michael Jackson, fail to recognise me; my teachers were stumped, too). Oh, come on! A butler, a big house, a girl with shingled hair . . . Tell me honestly: what’s not to like?
John Mortimer’s languidly beautiful 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited for ITV, still the benchmark of excellence when it comes to toff television, was not among the dusted-off dramas and documentaries screened by the BFI during its season “The Aristocracy on TV”. But in the circumstances, it wasn’t missed. For someone like me, guilty of neglecting the more obscure nooks of the BFI’s programme, this season came as a rebuke. What an embarrassment of riches. The fascination lay not only in the rarity of the primary material – oh, the interviews! – but in the way the attitudes of programme- makers have shifted down the years. Take deference. We’re supposed to despise it now. Yet Alan Whicker makes for a far more effective assassin than Jeremy Paxman: by not interrupting, he provides interviewees with enough rope by which to hang themselves (death by quotation).
Whicker’s film, The Aristocracy Business, made in 1968 for Yorkshire Television, was screened with an episode from a 1997 BBC documentary series, Aristocracy, and a Man Alive film from 1966. Together, they made for a strangely mournful evening. It’s not that I hold any brief for grand families but the sense of time and its passing was so palpable, it hurt. In Yorkshire’s North Riding, Whicker interviewed Baron Feversham, a gingery fellow who was trying hard to be groovy in an aquamarine shantung smock – and so, to a 21st century audience, he looked a dinosaur twice over (Whicker, a non-toff, was timelessly immaculate in Doug Hayward).
When I got home, I looked Feversham up. He’s dead now and the novel he published – he wrote in a folly somewhere on his 13,000-acre estate – is not even available on Abe. His son, Jasper, makes porn films. In a novel, Feversham’s house, Duncombe, would stand immutable, a symbol of continuity. But on screen, it looked to have been built of burnt toast. Television, so prone to change itself, is a medium that seems above all to emphasise fragility. Even the 11th Duke of Argyll (in Man Alive), who could not have been more entitled if he’d channelled Princess Margaret and George Osborne at the same time, had an oddly papery quality. Inveraray Castle, I note, now comes with a holiday park full of static caravans.
More cheery was the sell-out Mitford night. There were two films, both heavenly – though my enjoyment was somewhat spoiled by the middle-aged men behind me who laughed not at the sisters’ jokes but at them: at the way they spoke, mostly. (I wonder: would it be acceptable to hoot loudly at someone with, say, a Geordie accent? Inverted snobbery seems to me to be no less ignorant than the regular kind.) The first film, Nancy Mitford 1904-1973, was a biography of the novelist as told by her sisters. And so, miraculously, up there on screen were not only Debo, Decca and Diana, but – joy! – Pam, too. “Mind you don’t get kicked!” she yelled at the cameraman, as she led an outlandishly diminutive pony into a field. The best thing was to watch one of them tell a story – the time Nancy disguised herself as tramp; the time Nancy neglected to feed her mice – and then, having managed not to corpse in the middle of it, collapse into laughter.
The second film, Jessica Mitford: the Honourable Rebel, I loved for Decca’s spectacles – eat you heart out, Sunnie Mann – and for her husband, the civil rights lawyer, Bob Treuhaft. The son of a Jewish milliner from Queens, Treuhaft described his first visit to Chatsworth, home of Debo, who married a duke. After dinner, he saw the men get up and follow the women as they left the table. “Oh, no, you don’t!” he said (or words to that effect). Bob had been swotting and knew that after dinner, he and the other males would drink port all alone. The Duke turned to him politely. “Bob,” he said. “We are merely escorting the ladies to the door.”
Bob’s relish for this story – his face flashed like a Belisha beacon as he told it – seemed to mirror that of the BFI audience; and for those few who were still furiously pretending to grind their teeth with class rage, it was as if he were granting them permission finally to smile. Treuhaft, you see, was the best of men. He wouldn’t have tugged his forelock if his life had depended on it.
The BFI’s “Aristocracy on TV” runs until 31 July.