Tuesday, 2 February 2010
It hasn't always been like this, though. I think we've had three distinct ages of the portrayal of the posh bloke. First, in the 1950s through to the '70s, he was rather dashing and arrogant, a cad, a rake, sometimes both. He was played by actors such as Terry-Thomas (below), Leslie Philips and Patrick Macnee.
And then the inauguration of the bumbler, largely by 'Four Weddings'. (Incidentally, Hugh Grant bridged the two most recent stages: from languid in 'Maurice' to bumbler in 'Four Weddings'.)
I'm sure this development reflects the social position of the aristocracy in Britain. When they had real influence, we could laugh at them but they weren't too much of a joke; indeed, they could be quite impressive, even dangerous. In the '80s, their social decline was obvious for all to see and so their portrayal took on an elegiac tone. And now they're rather like otters or the vole: endearing, harmless, a charming ornament to our national life. In fact, they almost call forth our protective instincts - are they, perhaps, endangered?
It's interesting how posh blokes in the acting world have adapted to this change in social attitudes. If you have leading-man good looks you may struggle to find a posh part to suit your posh background, outside of Jane Austen adaptations, at least. And playing a part below your social class might be tricky: it's something that is not always easy to pull off convincingly, and hidebound casting directors may not give you the chance anyway. This may explain why two young Eton-educated actors with leading-man good looks, Damian Lewis and Dominic West, went off to the US where they made their names playing the somewhat unlikely roles of, respectively, American GI ('Band of Brothers') and Baltimore-Irish cop ('The Wire').
In that other branch of showbiz, politics, the posh bloke has gone some way to de-emphasise his social class. Cameron, for instance, brushes up as fairly ordinary: I bet he's 'Dad', he lives in slightly shabby North Ken, he wears trainers, he rides a bike, he doesn't shoot or hunt (at least publicly).
But not everyone follows social mores so prudently; there is another strategy, even if it's been adopted so far by just one man. Boris Johnson has cleverly embraced the prevailing bumbling stereotype and used it as endearing, disarming cover whilst he deploys his well-disguised cunning to manoeuvre himself into power.
So, Boris - the first posh bloke since Terry-Thomas to be known by a shorthand - is really the James Fleet of British politics. Or perhaps a Patrick Macnee in James Fleet clothing. Well-loved but deadly. Could have potential...