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Melvyn Bragg on Class and Culture, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Melvyn Bragg on Class and Culture, BBC Two

Melvyn Bragg on Class and Culture, BBC Two

A series that asks the right questions about culture and occasionally hits upon an unpalatable truth

'As a presenter Bragg has certainly never carried off a smooth upper-class, or even upper-middle-class, polish'BBC/Director's Cut Productions

The Lord count was perhaps surprisingly high in the first instalment of Melvyn Bragg on Class and Culture. Among the talking heads I counted there was only one who wasn’t a life peer or a “proper” hereditary one, and there was only one who was neither Lord, Lady or Dame (though she did have a CBE). That hereditary baron Ferdinand Mount was not only squeezed into the minority corner but never actually uses his title was, I suppose, a telling comment in itself about contemporary Britain and our egalitarian self-image, but more so the fact that two of the lifers, Lord Bragg and Peter Hennessy, come from rather humbler backgrounds.

As a man who has risen up in society, Bragg proclaimed himself to be of the “mongrel class” and this first of a three-part series, which took us from the time of George V’s coronation in 1911 to the Labour landslide of 1945, asked, by way of its somewhat irony-inflected introduction, whether we “were all classless now”.

A legacy of empty Blairite rhetoric, the question wasn’t, of course, left hanging in the air for long. What Bragg really wanted to explore was what the idea of culture meant to each of the three classes, which, in line with that enduring and apparently timeless comedy classic featuring Cleese, Barker and Corbett, was, needless to say, identified as Upper, Middle and Working.

Being middle class is, by default, filled with all sorts of class and status anxieties

But it didn’t shy away from the wide variations within. The working class, for all its choirs and brass bands and affiliated, bottom-up social and religious organisations, had many among its members who might be said to have no culture at all, so indigent that their concerns could barely stretch beyond the basics of survival. “But they had gossip”, the novelist Pat Barker argued. Like Bragg a working-class “mongrel”, Barker briefly recounted her own difficult circumstances growing up in Yorkshire’s North Riding, in a home where culture was simply what you had to make do on the spot. This most bonding of human experiences should, she said, be seen as a valid cultural activity. Bragg nodded in full-hearted agreement. Chattering, it was noted, isn’t restricted to the middle classes.

Ferdinand Mount (left) with presenter Melvyn BraggAnd so Bragg made some interesting excursions into working-class culture, noting how Holst, Elgar and Vaughan Williams had all written for brass bands, and how every colliery had had its own brass band. And herein lay a problem: you’d think from the way the programme panned out that “working class” was somehow synonymous with being northern and that everyone south of the Watford divide was born if not with a silver spoon then with one beautifully crafted from the best polished steel (manufactured by those genuine working-class folk up north).  

One might have been struck by how Bragg both flirted with, equivocated and then departed from (though never mentioned) the Richard Hoggart Uses of Literacy argument: certainly the working class had a culture worth talking about and taking seriously, but the “top-down” culture of American movie-going and imported popular music (Hoggart’s debased “massification” of popular culture) shouldn’t be dismissed.

So here Bragg followed a different tack: mass, "top down" culture hadn’t debased working-class culture at all but had enriched it and was now a part of it (a “different but equal” approach). But it also seemed that Bragg was falling for a common complaint, wherein the timeline of working-class “massification”, which must be seen as unequivocally bad (and through which the working class are merely dumb consumers and not producers), was constantly shifting, constantly being moved forward. “At that time”, Bragg recalled of his boyhood “the working class were austere, intelligent, stalwart, funny – and strong”. This was the Fifties and, you might like to note, The Uses of Literacy was published in 1957.

I do doubt whether either TS Eliot or Virginia Woolf could ever really be described as socialists

And then the programme explored the often precarious social position of the middle class, how easy it was to slip down a notch or two, and how being middle class is, by default, filled with all sorts of class and status anxieties. And it was suggested that perhaps this anxiety is one way in which we can begin to understand just how it is that the middle class - those lovers of novels and Gilbert and Sullivan - had come to be so culturally dominant. “Here we’ll see how the middle class, determined to hold on to their power and influence, despise the working class and their culture”, Bragg explained, with feeling. 

And Mount (pictured above), a “wet”, one-nation Tory, noted that curious thing: that intellectuals who regarded themselves as socialist really rather hated and feared the masses, and that in contrast to the novels of the mid 19th-century, which are full of sympathy and often respect for the working class, modernist novels display an undeniably vicious tendency. Well, yes, that actually hits upon an unpalatable truth, but at the same time I do doubt whether either TS Eliot or Virginia Woolf could ever really be described as socialists. Besides, and this is the real acid test, 19th-century novelists (with the honourable exception of Dickens) were less in danger of having to live cheek-by-jowl with the downtrodden. 

As a presenter Bragg can often appear a bit chippy, arrogant and vain. He’s certainly never carried off a smooth upper-class, or even upper-middle-class, polish, the sort that, as we know, seeks to put everyone, including the char-lady, at their ease but which still exudes an air of undentable superiority. “We were working class and you don’t lose that,” he snapped, with both pride and challenge in his voice. And he’s damned right - you don't.  

He noted that curious thing: that intellectuals who regarded themselves as socialist really rather hated and feared the masses

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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