Why are so many middle class characters downright evil?

A week where television's suffocating hatred of anyone who has ever crossed the threshold of John Lewis is in full, fresh bloom, says Alison Graham

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Why are so many middle class characters downright evil?
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Alison Graham

Middle classes, arise! We must man the barricades (barricades that are of course painted in tasteful earth tones) because we are under attack from TV stereotypes.

This is nothing new, of course. For donkey’s years in TV dramas, and particularly soaps, anyone with a wine rack or a loft conversion could instantly be marked down as “evil”. Show me a character with recessed shelving and a Paul Klee print on his wall and I will show you a man who keeps dismembered prostitutes in bin bags in his cellar (another requirement to allow for the full flourishing of Bourgeois TV Evil).

And if they are not storing women in deep freezes by their shelves of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, middle-class characters are shifty and supercilious and, in detective dramas, icily dismissive of the cops. They always turn out to be the killers.

For connoisseurs of such calumnies, this is a vintage week, a week where television’s suffocating hatred of anyone who has ever crossed the threshold of John Lewis is in full, fresh bloom. Take The Last Weekend (ITV1), where a group of middle-class friends implode as they take a break in Suffolk. Every single one of them is horrible, even the school-teacher narrator you thought might be OK was revealed as a rapist. His barrister friend (Rupert Penry-Jones, of course) is an upper middle-class jerk, a competitive boor who plays golf in white trousers.

New Tricks (BBC1), a serial offender, this week offered us a real classic, a wealthy private school (oh-oh! You can see what’s coming, can’t you?) whose austere headmistress, a woman with a cut-glass accent and a severe bun, treated the Tricksters like dirt on her immaculate carpets. Similarly in Inspector George Gently (BBC1), chippy Sgt Bacchus turned his working classness on full beam when a lady toff (all right, so that’s not middle class but you get the idea) asked, “What sort of school did you go to, Sergeant?” To which he replied, “One with an outside lav.” We’re meant to side with Bacchus, who is a nasty little twerp. Yes, I know it’s the 1960s, but there are limits.

Then there’s Mrs Biggs (Wednesday ITV1), the story of Ronald Biggs’s wife Charmian. I suppose we have to give it licence as it’s based on a true story, but her father, a head teacher, is painted as an emotionally distant man who demands to be called Sir by his children.

Even when things are going well for a middle-class character, torment is just around the corner. In A Mother’s Son (concludes tonight on ITV1) Hermione Norris owns a deli and has a gorgeous house in Suffolk. But her son might be a killer.

Yet contrast all of this with Good Cop (Thursday BBC1), where young working-class police officer John Paul Rocksavage becomes a one-man avenging angel after the murder of his partner, roaming Liverpool at night, executing criminal scum. The message is clear: we are expected to root for the cop, who is doing bad things for the best of motives. If Rocksavage had been to public school Good Cop would be very different - he would be a villain and we would be expected to hate him.

Why does television do this? Fear, I suppose, the fate worse than death that is “elitism” (horrible word, horrible concept, what it really means is “anti-intellectual”). But it’s tiresome and iniquitous, and dismissive of a lot of TV-watchers, nice people like us who deserve better than watching dusty caricatures of ourselves. @TVAlisonGraham

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