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Britishness by Michael Brooke
Introduction The British Character Ancient & Mediaeval Royalty & Empire The Class System Conflict
Landscape Foreigners Culture Leisure Eccentricity Shopkeepers
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The Class System
Still from The Frost Report

John Cleese, Ronnie Barker
and Ronnie Corbett in
'The Frost Report' (1966)

It's impossible to discuss Britishness without having to tackle the country's social class system, as it underpins so much of the national psyche. While the famous Frost Report sketch wherein John Cleese claims to be upper class, Ronnie Barker claims to be middle class and Ronnie Corbett knows his place suggests a relatively simplistic three-tier system, British social classes have generally been far more varied and fluid than that.

During the mediaeval era, society was broadly divided into nobles and peasants (though even then there were different gradations of peasant), but the various sixteenth-century Tudor monarchs made it deliberate policy to appoint men of lower birth to positions of power, the idea being that they would be more loyal to the monarch than to their own socially insignificant families. At about the same time, the merchant class started to rise, becoming the ancestor of the modern middle class - and in the eighteenth century it was relatively common practice for the nobility to marry into the merchant classes, the one gaining wealth, the other social prestige.

But for all this fluidity, Britain has remained a strongly class-conscious society, and the perception still persists that one's social class remains the same regardless of any change in wealth, influence or similar status. Shakespeare dramatised this in Henry VI Part II, when a revolutionary insurrection led by the firebrand Jack Cade is accompanied by a philistine rejection of all forms of literature and intellectual activity, the implication being that the working classes had no use for them. This prejudice continued well into the twentieth century (an early comedy from 1901 The Countryman and the Cinematograph displays exactly the same attitudes), though increasingly accompanied by thoughtful analyses of the class system.

One of the keenest proponents of this was the director Anthony Asquith, about as blue-blooded an individual as ever worked in the industry (not least because he was the son of the Liberal Prime Minister H.H. Asquith), but also someone of strongly committed left-wing views. Perhaps the most interesting of his films in terms of what it has to say about class is the Victorian melodrama Fanny By Gaslight (1944), which has two key scenes involving Stewart Granger - in one, his top-hatted toff walks self-consciously into a rough London pub, and in the other he argues with his mother about the whole issue of social class, claiming that the whole system would be abolished by the mid-twentieth century.

It wasn't abolished, but there have been some significant cultural shifts. Chief among them is that being perceived as coming from the working class is now no longer a barrier to certain kinds of employment - in fact, in many situations it can be a positive asset, which has led to the rise of 'mockney' celebrities affecting Cockney accents that they do not naturally possess, such as the TV chef Jamie Oliver and the film director Guy Ritchie. The 1960s was a crucial decade here, not only for establishing the notion of the working-class hero in such gritty Northern dramas as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and A Kind of Loving (1962) but also for the rise of satire: it was no longer unthinkable to mock those who had traditionally been thought of as our betters: senior politicians and members of the royal family.

Received pronunciation, previously universal on television, gave way to a far more diverse melting pot of accents and dialects. However, this has been a recent enough development for it to have been strikingly noticeable when Channel Four deliberately hired continuity announcers with strong regional or working-class accents when it started broadcasting in late 1982, and there are still some media jobs that are off limits to people perceived to be in the wrong social class: the BBC has yet to hire a Cockney newsreader.

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