Piers Paul Read's Week

Knowing One's Place
Feb. 19 2002 1:49 PM

Piers Paul Read's Week

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The great success of Altman's new film, GosfordPark, on both sides of the Atlantic leaves me mildly baffled. I am a great admirer of some of Altman's earlier works—particularly Nashville and Short Cuts. I am also a friend and admirer of Julian Fellowes, who wrote the screenplay of GosfordPark and is known to have been always at the elbow of the American director helping him to deal with "an alien tribe"—viz., the British upper classes, about which Altman self-confessedly knows little and Fellowes self-confessedly knows much.

Fellowes' familiarity with the quaint customs of the British aristocracy was evident in his script. We see the upstairs-downstairs world of masters and servants, and the ladies "withdrawing" at the end of dinner to leave the gentlemen to their port and cigars. This still goes on in some parts of the country and was common in North Yorkshire in my childhood. There were, to my mind, some incongruities in GosfordPark: Would a housekeeper of the period use a phrase like "it goes with the territory"? Or a maidservant blurt out her admiration of her employer while serving at dinner? Also, the plot seemed to stretch credulity, and the detective, played by Stephen Fry, was an incongruous recreation of Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau.

The joys of the film were the cameo performances by some of Britain's finest actors and actresses, trundled out like the old Rolls Royces—notably Maggie Smith (in an old Rolls Royce) and Alan Bates. But were these enough to account for the film's success in Britain? Or is there something else? The unmentionable truth, I fear, is that the British—for all their commitment to egalitarianism—feel a strong nostalgia for their class-ridden past. The media reflects this nostalgia and, indeed, is driven by programme makers who, though they will vote Labour to a man, and to a woman, are themselves fascinated by the antics of the aristocracy and lovingly film the snobbery of a bygone age. If we go back a decade or two, we find television series such as The Forsyte Saga, Upstairs Downstairs and Brideshead Revisited, all of which were enormously popular on both sides of the Atlantic. They sometimes pay lip service to the iniquity of the class divide—as did GosfordPark—but in fact the viewer is titillated by the very condescension that they purport to despise.

We are right, I think, to despise it and it is one of the real improvements that have been made in Britain in my lifetime, that people are no longer marked down because they speak with a regional accent or wear the wrong kind of clothes. But some of the prejudices linger on. There is still a certain cachet attached to the old public schools such as Eton and Winchester, and the old universities, Oxford and Cambridge. Even at the newer universities, a self-segregation tends to take place between those educated privately and those by the state. But here again there is a paradox: Many of those who cultivate a sense of superiority are in fact the state-educated students—perhaps the grandsons of the valets and maidservants of Gosford Park—who, having been admitted to a citadel of privilege such as an Oxford college, insist upon dressing up in white ties and tails for dinner, and learning that the port decanter is always passed from right to left.  And there is another reason for this nostalgia: Snobbery was a defining aspect of out society when Britain was great. It has been said many times before that the British, having lost an empire, have yet to find new role in the world. While most of the nations on the Continent have embraced the uniting of Europe as an ideal, Britain hangs back—hankering for the days when she was the top dog in the community of nations; when the streets of London were not filled with faces of indeterminate race and nationality, and we all knew our place.

A further manifestation of this nostalgia is the plethora of programmes on television about World War II. This was, indeed, our finest hour; and the fact that Hitler was defeated thanks largely to Russian blood and American money does not detract from our achievement. Nor is the savouring of this achievement more than 50 years after the event confined to film and television. Roy Jenkins' new biography of Churchill, the last of around a hundred about our wartime leader, is read avidly by the bien-pensant intelligentsia. Another instance of this was the controversy over the present government's reform of the House of Lords. To most outside observers, it stretched credulity that any reasonable and well-educated man or woman could defend a system of government where the second chamber of the legislature was largely composed of hereditary peers. Yet there were many reasonable and well-educated people who did so on the ground that the system had served the nation well. And there are still reasonable and well-educated people who think that the system which has replaced it, whereby politicians rather than history create members of the second chamber, was replacing something unique and distinctive—like London's red double-decker buses—with something banal. And we find this nostalgia in the executive branch of government as well. There can be little doubt but that the reflex loyalty of British prime ministers to American presidents stems from the days when Churchill declared himself Roosevelt's "loyal lieutenant." Though history may be dragging Britain into a union with the other nations of Europe, the political classes, like the populace at large, still hanker for the days when the Jerries were the baddies, the Yanks were the goodies, the port decanters were passed from right to left, and everyone knew his place.