22 AUGUST 1958, Page 11


Fourth Class

By PETER FORSTER THERE is, there really is, much on television to entertain and even edify, but the more portentously they aim, the more resoundingly they fall. Christopher Mayhew, MP, has always seemed to me the least illuminating of TV's public eyes (one remembers some dim forums in which problems were supposedly decided by the audience pressing buzzers), and last week in a much-trailed BBC investigation he turned the weak light of his torch on the huge subject of Class. Here was a fascinating topic, valid and suitable for television, the essential, basic point being surely that the old stratification of Upper, Middle, Lower has been eroded out of recog- nition, and its convenient if deceptive pattern replaced by an infinitely complicated fragmenta- tion. This is a subject demanding interpretation and illustration, certainly not one in which a point is necessarily proved by asking people to give their opinions, or press buzzers. The absence of buzzers in this programme was Mr. Mayhew's main achievement.

For the full break-up of society has apparently escaped him, though his own impeccable back- ground (Haileybury, Christ Church, Socialist MP) might have served as a fair pointer. Instead of querying the whole stereotyped conception of class, he accepted it with the aplomb of a pre-war, Left Book Club social surveyor. First he showed us three men leaving a cricket field, suggesting that in the middle they were class-less, but else- where class obtruded. Having played in just such a local cricket match two days before, I can only assure him that social distinctions (not always the same thing as class ditto, be it noted) are still as nicely preserved on the field as in the pavilion. But then there was no attempt to establish and define terminology, though this first of three pro- grammes was called 'What Is Class?' and class in the sense of quality was not considered at all; nor was its relation to snobbery.

However, this dubious initial point recorded, Mr.. Mayhew seemed to assume that he had proved the accuracy of his observation (after all, there had been pictures, hadn't there?) and so he started Galluping off along his false trail, inter- viewing people in many jobs, visiting all kinds of premises and drawing all kinds of conclusions. Education, accent, wealth, family background, job were taken to be the determining factors of class, and people's status under each heading was recorded by putting balls on a large chart.

It was the mixture of bland assurance with complete inconclusiveness that I found so irritat- ing. Thus the cricket-playing butcher and elec- trician were said to be of different classes. (On my way to cricket the car was filled up by an Old Etonian garagiste: now what class would he be?) A man with two Rolls was presumed to be a King of Industry, which he manifestly was not. (I know two cooks who have a Rolls, and a mil- lionaire who prefers a tiny car, as does Lord Nuffield—and what class is he? Nouveau riche?) There was no recognition of the rural as against urban variations of the theme. Public schools were invoked as upper-class symbols, without mention of the social-scale distinctions between them, as between different Oxford and Cambridge colleges. A phonetics expert brightly placed thp accent on accent in a way that would have en- raged Higgins, as though the most affectedly- cultured voices were not cultivated by those strangled by their no-school-ties. (Few debs can match the U-vowels of BBC secretaries, and few BBC secretaries have been debs.) And what about changes in fashionable pronunciation, from tay- table to espresso usage? Not to mention fashion- able pubs where it is the Public Bar that is popular?

A roadsweeper was said to come bottom in the social poll, with a docker next step above. Tell that to a docker, earning twice as much as the schoolmaster teaching his son! Then we were shown a middle-class parson gardening (nearer to class in a garden . . .?), and a doctor and his son who were different types but the same class, for when it came to the son. `the ceremony of afternoon tea holds no mysteries for him,' as I distinctly heard Mr. Mayhew say. It was among his more striking phrases.

I know there was only half an hour, but there was not a hint of that whole subtle classification- defying segment of our 1958 world of `company directors' and expense-account aristocrats and car-owning miners and baby-sitting scholars and (Lord help us!) Life Peeresses: just Mr. May- hew droning on with his nice, scoutmaster's smile and perfect self-assurance. Next week he promises us a look at `the human side of class.'

Ah well, thank goofiness for Tonight.

Random moments. Aldous Huxley's face, sad and dead-white in close-up, and his high, rather querulous voice-of a prophet insufficiently heeded . . . Jenny Nasmyth regretting her emancipa- tion and taking • the honours in Undercurrent, 1TV's late-night Monday programme, in which distinguished journalists pretend to be students again and stage little debates about large ques- tions . . . Frank Owen's This Week interview with Soustelle, and the latter's sharp smile, and manner of an eminence so grey as to be almost black.