Waugh Among the Bohemians

The BBC is currently running a cultural documentary entitled How to be a Bohemian. It is presented by Victoria Coren Mitchell and is broadcast on Monday nights over the BBC4 channel. The first episode traced the history of artistic “bohemians” from 19th century Parisians via Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley to England. In the second episode (transmitted on June 15), the early years of the 20th century were covered, beginning with the Bloomsbury Group and proceeding to the Bright Young People.

Waugh comes in not as a Bright Young Person (or “bohemian”) per se but as having operated on the margins of that group. He is said by Coren Mitchell to have used Stephen Tennant, a leading BYP, as the model for the character Miles Malpractice in his novel Vile Bodies. A clip from Stephen Fry’s film Bright Young Things, based on Waugh’s novel, is shown with Michael Sheen camping it up as Malpractice. Coren Mitchell’s attribution of Miles’ character to Tennant is somewhat questionable. That character (who also appears in Decline and Fall) is usually attributed to the equally camp BYP, Eddie Gathorne-Hardy. This is based on his having been named originally Martin Gathorne-Brodie in the first edition of Decline and Fall. Later printings reflected a change in the character’s name upon advice of counsel. Tennant may have contributed something to Malpractice but was not the exclusive source.

The BYP episode also contains an interview with Stephan Fry who explains their relationship to the historic category of bohemians. Unlike the earlier variety, BYPs tended to have money and were willing to display it to gain attention, but they were dedicated to behaving in a manner to shock their forebears, a classic bohemian trait. Fry offers the BYPs’ extravagant party-giving as one example of their bohemianism. The segment ends with Fry’s reading of the now perhaps overly familiar “party” paragraph from Vile Bodies (“Masked parties. Savage parties
” Penguin, p. 123).

The program will continue to be available on BBC iPlayer until about July 13 and can be watched online. A UK internet connection via a proxy server is needed outside of the UK. These are available on the internet. The final episode, bringing the subject up to the present day, will be broadcast next Monday (June 22) at 2100 BST and will be available on iPlayer thereafter.

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