Toffs Floribundi: Costume Drama, Oxford and Brexit

–On the occasion on the release of a new Downton Abbey film, The Times has devoted several articles to the costume drama as a genre. These begin with Robert Crampton defining the genre. From his perspective, a costume drama must have three ingredients:

Let’s establish our parameters. The genre could in theory encompass any production set at a time when people wore less comfortable clothes. There has to be a cut-off and I reckon it’s the Second World War. Thus, Brideshead is fine. But, say, Our Friends in the North is too recent. During wartime also doesn’t count: no Nazis allowed. And no Romans or Vikings either. Nor indeed anything from before the Stuarts. Prior to the 17th century the clothes and haircuts were crap and anyway most people were dead before they were 30. Or deformed.

Also, there has to be a hefty toff quotient. Not because they were the only ones with decent clobber (the clothes in Peaky Blinders are fab), but because you need baddies and in most British literature worth adapting, rich people are generally wrong ’uns. Pretty much every costume drama is a tale of an attractive protagonist from a humble background thwarted by the hierarchy of the age. Given social mobility is still so limited, we remain drawn to this storyline.

Also, sorry to be nationalistic but a costume drama needs to be British. Witness the recent failure of Julian Fellowes’s The Gilded Age. We all knew that in New York in 1880, if you made and spread around enough money, you were going to be allowed into “society”. In Britain, it’s never been quite that simple. [Emphasis supplied.]

He then starts with Upstairs, Downstairs as the first costume drama to qualify, and works his way to the 1981 Brideshead series:

… as we moved into the 1980s, Brideshead Revisited, had plenty [of all three ingredients]. I didn’t fancy Anthony Andrews or Jeremy Irons, seductive as their outfits were, but I watched them voraciously.

As did my whole generation, at an impressionable age. If anyone doubts the sociological impact of this apparently innocuous genre, they should know that Brideshead fashion, hairstyles and high-camp high Toryism swept the nation in the early Eighties. Bridgerton has boosted sales of croquet sets; Brideshead set the political tone for a whole decade. Margaret Thatcher had good reason to be grateful to Evelyn Waugh.

After Ed Potton explains why it helps if a few tears are jerked, Ben Dowell gets down to rating the top 21 costume dramas–11 TV series and 10 films. The first entry is devoted to

Brideshead Revisited (1981)
Anthony Andrews’s Lord Sebastian Flyte holding his teddy bear, Aloysius, is not the only lasting memory from Granada’s sumptuous adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s longest and probably best novel. The journey of Waugh’s alter ego Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) from callow Twenties Oxford undergraduate to world-weary wartime captain captivated the nation.
Bodice-ripper rating a firm 4. Never more than a few cricket pitches away from a powerful gay subtext.
Britbox, ITV Hub

Some of the other selections wander a bit off piste to, e.g., Russia, Italy and France, but the productions are English. Jane Austen and Charles Dickens dominate the sources, with multiple listings, and Andrew Davies would be the most prolific adaptor.

–One of Crampton’s elements for a successful costume drama (toffs) also provides the basis for a new book profiled in by Will Lloyd:

It was summer, 2019. People who read the FT were still unsure why Brexit happened, beyond knowing that whatever made it happen was not good. At that moment Simon Kuper appeared, and wrote an article that was so delicious, and so put-all-the-dots-together, it immediately went viral. What machine spat out Brexit? Oxford. Which wackily irresponsible creche raised Boris Johnson? Oxford. The reason Kuper provided was not good. An old story (unearned privilege; naughty toffs) that has always chilled Britain’s fretful not quite upper-middle classes. It was just what Remainers wanted to read. Finally, an explanation that satisfied all their priors.

Now the viral article is a short and typical non-fiction book. Chums: How A Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK. Kuper’s story is simple. One afternoon he flicked through some old Cherwells, where he had been a student journalist in the late Eighties, and realised that the names there were the same ones bothering the pages of the Times in the late 2010s. Gove, Cameron, and Johnson; Hunt, Hannan, and Rees-Mogg. He had covered them back then, and here they were again, running Britain into the ground by levering it out of the EU. “Though we didn’t realise it, we were witnessing British power in the making,” Kuper writes of his time at Oxford.

Waugh had little interest in politics as a student or later, although he did make an appearance at the Oxford Union at least once, shortly after his arrival. That institution was, according to Will Lloyd, the incubator of the Brexiteer Tories that Kuper writes about:

…Kuper does not think much of his Oxford Tory Brexiteers. Nevertheless, he is good on Boris. On the sad clown tensions; his “killer” cynicism; his studied Wooster-Waugh role-playing. Then again, no one left in London media should be in this game if they can’t file 1,000 classy words of Boris pop-psych at this point. As Kuper points out himself: “[Boris] possessed the political asset of being all too easy to write about.”

As for Boris, so for Brexit. So easy to write about, if your aim is to titillate rather than explain. Did Brexit happen because Michael Gove, David Cameron and Boris Johnson learned that “the rules didn’t apply to them” in Oxford in the Eighties, as Kuper suggests? Did Brexit happen, as Fintan O’Toole argued in Heroic Failure, because England’s toffs ‘n’ plebs still harbour a sickly yearning to hear the sound of trumpets on the plains of Omdurman? And did Brexit happen, as every half-drunk Etonian I’ve met since June 2016 has insisted to me, because Boris Johnson got into Pop, and David Cameron didn’t? In a century, these tropes may be of sociological interest to historians, but they will not have much explanatory power.

Toward the end of the article an unexpected Brideshead character makes an appearance. According to Lloyd:

Chums ends up baffled by Oxford. Kuper cannot see the point of the place in our supposed-to-be meritocratic age. Like Hooper walking through the Marchmain’s palatial house in Brideshead Revisited, Kuper is troubled. “It doesn’t seem to make any sense,” says Hooper, “one family in a place this size. What’s the use of it?”

Kuper doesn’t trust the house to clean itself up. Outside forces must intervene, before young over-valeted men with long faces — he raises the ominous spectre of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s nephew play-acting at the Union recently — get big ideas again. So make a use for it. Make it a postgraduate “Institute of Advanced Studies”, he says. Or go even more full FT: convert Oxford into a start-up hub, and make “even more money from corporate conferences and executive education”. He thinks this will make Britain a fairer place.

The Times also reviews Kuper’s book. This is by Hugo Rifkind who confesses that he is a Cambridge graduate. Here is an excerpt:

Kuper writes about the shock of Americans, such as the Rhodes scholar Bill Clinton, at the essential silliness of Oxford life in the 1960s. He also shares his own lingering shock that few of his peers seemed all that interested when the Berlin Wall came down. For him, though, the Cameron/Johnson generation epitomises the climax of “British unseriousness”. Or, as he puts it, unsheathing that knife again: “Bertie Wooster came back from the dead.”

Some of the Berties, though, wanted to be more than Berties. Kuper sees in the Oxford Tories the “shame of late birth”. He quotes the writer Rosa Ehrenreich, a Harvard graduate who arrived in Oxford in 1991 and said of the generation she found that “they were born to a poor island, still rigidly conscious of the glorious past, and told to adjust to the unglorious present and the grey future represented by Prime Minister John Major”. It was this that gave them that Brideshead and Bullingdon streak; a nostalgic longing for a status ebbing away.

While the review may not cite toffs by name, they would be understood implicitly as included in the “Brideshead and Bullingdon streak.”


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