The central concern of this mini-series is clear from the off – are we all classless now? Today, the children of working-class families consort with princes and the likes of Alan Sugar can rise to sit in the Lords, Bragg declares. So maybe we are. Or has class just donned a new suit – and perhaps culture now sets the boundaries of class? In this three-part BBC documentary, Bragg deals with the history behind these questions admirably, and his use of culture as something through which to view it is vivifying.
Bragg begins in 1911 with its rigid, Edwardian attitudes to class and delineates, simply, the three categories of the British class system in terms of the culture they produced and consumed. The Edwardian aristocracy, for example, "didn’t seem to make very much", while the middle classes gorged themselves on culture, from TS. Eliot to Gilbert and Sullivan. By contrast, the working classes were defined by a ‘common culture’ that expressed itself through a more insular network of local organisations like bands and the non-conformist church.
Though there are attempts, at times, to understand the complexity of class categorisations beyond the big three (Bragg does highlight, for example, the problem many of the poorer working class had of accessing any culture whatsoever due to financial hardship) there is little concern for the more nuanced perception of class that most individuals would have, particularly in terms of their own. Indeed, Bragg introduces himself to us a ‘class mongrel’, leaving us to ponder whether there’s some contradiction between this and the strict categorisations he adopts for the purposes of his analysis.
There are some occasions where the medium feels drastically out of kilter with the content, too. Why a Welsh choir singing Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On – to cite just one example – was considered fitting background music for a discussion of Holst and Elgar, even if the footage does play witness to a launching ship, will cause toes to curl even amongst the most open-minded viewers.
The first installment looks at the effects on class of two world wars, economic depression, and the socialist revolution promised by Labour’s 1945 victory, with the ensuing episodes moving on to the more specific influence culture has had on class. From Philip Larkin to The Sex Pistols and from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to the internet, Bragg considers the relationship between culture and class up to the present day.
Bragg’s analysis is perhaps at its most interesting and apposite in the later episodes. Drawing on interviews with the likes of Jeremy Hutchinson QC and Chavs author Owen Jones, he addresses the issues of class, like public schools and the way we view the poor, which confront us today.
On class and culture, Bragg is an undoubted authority. Though some of the production decisions and the slower pace of argument that comes with television suggest that, perhaps, Bragg is at his best on radio, this series is an informed and interesting contribution to the debate about class in today’s society. As myths and historical misreadings are addressed and some gaps in socio-political discourse exposed, an evening spent with Melvyn Bragg is definitely an evening enriched.
Melvyn Bragg on Class and Culture is on BBC2 at 9pm