February 24, 2012 9:03 pm

Class divisions and collisions

It seems class still matters in Britain and escaping one’s background continues to be an ambition

Melvyn Bragg has described his new series, which goes by the straight-shooting title of Melvyn Bragg on Class and Culture (BBC2 Friday), as a “roller coaster”. It seemed the wrong image. Bragg took us swiftly not through space but time, compressing almost 40 years of British history into an hour – less a Big Dipper than a television Tardis, with the avuncular Cumbrian ticking off all the obvious names as we tumbled from the coronation of George V to the marriage of his granddaughter, Elizabeth Windsor.

Bragg himself is a “class mongrel”, and the series will presumably tell the tale of how such mongrelism became possible. If the British are drawn to class structure, and find comfort in its divisions, then the dismantling of the structure, the blurring of the divisions, can only have come as a result of intrusions from outside. In the first episode, this essentially meant the Great War, in which gentlemen and their servants were united by “a common purpose”.

For all the programme’s busyness, Bragg offered a lucid account of class. Culture proved a little more obscure. Indeed, it was hard to tell what Bragg was “on” about.

Perhaps that is to be expected: “culture” has been described as the second most complex word in English, after “nature”. Asking Bragg to define it sounds like a tall order. But as TS Eliot – discussed in the programme as a poet – observed in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, to define something is to establish its limits. Bragg, though, seemed to incorporate “folk culture” and “high culture”, community spirit and the poetry of Eliot, into an unlimited use of the word. Perhaps, in the end, Bragg’s programme didn’t need to argue its case about class and culture all that well because it embodied one form the relationship can take – as a route out. Bragg, the factory worker’s son and grammar school boy, has a long list of books to his name, a seat in the House of Lords, and now a programme about class and culture on primetime TV.

If TV is a kind of compressed sociology, it seems class still exists and matters in Britain and escaping one’s background continues to be an ambition. The characters in the Bristol-set Inside Men (BBC1 Thursday), which came to an unsatisfying close after a tantalising start, and the Sheffield-set Prisoners’ Wives (BBC1 Tuesday) sought to overcome circumstance the old-fashioned way. The inside men wanted to escape the drudgery of punching in, punching out; the women with men inside were asking to survive. Armed robbery had mixed results for the former lot, drug-dealing had disastrous results for the latter.

Upstairs Downstairs (BBC1 Sunday) was a 1970s series that ran for 68 episodes. It was revived over Christmas 2010 as a three-parter and is now back for a six-part series. The drama is about a collision of classes where everyone knows their place. Or, at least, they used to. The show’s premise was undermined by a warm speech delivered by Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes) when she said: “We all give 165 Eaton Place as our address.” Her egalitarian tone confirmed what viewers may already have suspected: this new Upstairs Downstairs, written by Heidi Thomas, is set a little late. The original series started at a point, 1903, when upstairs-downstairs as device and theme worked a lot better.

In the opening episode, about as flat as television gets, Sir Hallam (Ed Stoppard) was trying to stop Chamberlain and Lord Halifax from appeasing Hitler. The programme is a mix of period drama (costumes, mores) and historical drama (monarchs, wars), like Downton Abbey . It certainly won’t match the success of that programme, nor of Thomas’s other recent hit, the jolly Call the Midwife (BBC1 Sunday), which ended this week.

The narrator of the documentary Lucian Freud: Painted Life (BBC2, Saturday) said that the late artist “hated people connecting him with his origins – especially his grandfather’s psychological theories. He was determined to be himself.” As a painter, he “hated the idea of straightforward influence”. The programme followed him in his process of self-realisation. But he didn’t fully become himself until he discovered the style of his bracingly somatic later work. David Hockney and John Richardson were among those who testified to his insistence on being himself. Of course he became himself with the help of others but they had names like Picasso and Giacometti and Bacon – not Freud.

The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff (BBC2 Saturday), embarking on a three-part series after a Christmas special, is an odd kind of 200th birthday tribute to Charles Dickens, whose life and work testify to the porousness of class borders. Dickens’s father was locked up in a debtors’ prison – his son escaped this precarious background through one form of what Bragg calls “culture”. The programme set in a parody-Dickens world of seemingly beneficent patricians and get-rich-quick plot contrivances, told a cautionary tale about class-climbing. Jedrington Secret-Past (Robert Webb) tried to escape his background through financial ruses but ended as he had begun, as just another English shopkeeper.

small.screen@ft.com

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