Tuesday, 2 February 2010

From cad to bumbler

Judging by a couple of comments on the last post, James Fleet (right) is a much-loved actor. His portrayals of an upper class nitwit in 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' and 'Vicar of Dibley' are definitive for our day: bumbling, well-meaning, eccentric, harmless. Other examples of this type are provided by Richard Briers in the 'Monarch of the Glen' and Charlie Higson as Lord Ralph in 'The Fast Show'.

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.

The second age, which dawned in the 1980s, saw the posh bloke played as an effete bon viveur, languid, dissolute, perhaps doomed for some mysterious reason. Anthony Andrews (right), Rupert Everett and Rupert Graves played him. When the posh bloke was played against this type - Peter Bowles in 'To the Manor Born' - it turned out he wasn't posh at all.

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...


Sophie King said...

I don't think any of the bounders played by Terry-Thomas, Leslie Philips or Patrick Macnee were upper class. They were all trying very hard sound it, but their manner and their dress (and their cars) marked them out firmly as arriviste middle class (think gin and Jag belt). As TT might have said, "an absolute shower, the lot of them".

Gaw said...

For what it's worth (and it may not be much) here's Wikipedia on T-T:

"He played a variety of exuberant, malevolent and silly characters during the 1960s, and became famous for his humorous portrayal of the archetypal English upper-class cad and bounder."

But does it matter? If these characters were merely aspiring to be upper class by acting in caddish fashion, they were nevertheless confirming the prevailing contemporary cad/bounder stereotype.

BTW you may well have heard this but I've always been much taken with (I think) Harold Macmillan's distinction between cad and bounder:

A cad is a chap who sleeps with your wife whilst you're away at the front.

A bounder is a chap who sleeps with your wife whilst he's back from the front.

And Macmillan would have known.

worm said...

Gaw - whats your views on Alan Clarke?

Gaw said...

I've discovered that one of the ego-flattering joys of having a blog is being able to quote yourself. I said here that:

"Clark was like a tweed-wearing Taki, but with a few history books behind him. I don't mean to be dismissive; I just think he had a Continental feel, in the way he thought and behaved. I suspect this was because his father was, above all, a European intellectual."

So more of a Nazi than a cad.

malty said...

TT gave years of pleasure and died a pauper, mostly forgotten. Sophies right, not a true toff. My daughter briefly came within Leslie Phillips aura, she said he was a kind, sweet old man, just like you dad.
Real shitbag toffs would be Astor, the Duke of Roxburgh or the present Duchess of Northumberland, no living actor is vile enough for the part.
Joss Ackland might of made a decent fist, of Astor, of course.
It was once said that there was really no difference between the earl and Andy Capp, they preferred booze, fags, horses and women.

Clarke was one the few MP who spoke the truth.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Interesting analysis, and I too suspect that toffs are now considered rather endearing and an endangered species: cf The F***ing Fulfords. Poor old SuperMac, though: just read his Wikipedia entry, didn't know he'd been so royally cuckolded.

Sophie King said...

Yes, poor Harold. It would have been considered terribly vulgar of him to show he minded.

And Malty, I don't know anything about Astor and Roxburgh, but I do know that the Duchess of Northumberland has created one of the most godawful gardens I have ever visited in my life. She has spent millions of taxpayers' money on a "visitor attraction" that is less garden and more a plant zoo. And the really weird thing is that it has been created in isolation from Alnwick castle itself - it has no context. I found it horribly disappointing.

Gaw said...

Malty: I tend to agree with this view of Clark.

Gadjo: I'd forgotten about the Fulfords. That was very amusing but almost anthropological in its interest!

Sophie: I'd read about the gardens in Vanity Fair a few years ago and wondered what the truth of the matter was. 'Plant zoo'!

Recusant said...

If the Duchess of Northumberland is a toff, I'm the Grand Duke Vladimir: she might have married a Percy - who himself never expected to be Duke - but she ain't from the same league, or even close.

Ditto that little shit Clarke. I like your description of him as a tweed clad Taki.

On a more pedantic point; you can't be upper class AND a bounder. A bounder is pretending to be what he is not. There again, most of the aristocracy are not upper class, but grandchildren of the Under-Secretary for Wales under Baldwin, or a minor chemicals magnate who slipped Lloyd George a few. So I suppose that means you could call them bounders. I'll shut up now.