Why are the filthy rich so fascinating?

Maybe it's to do with our being stuck in seemingly never-ending austere times, says Alison Graham

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Why are the filthy rich so fascinating?
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Alison Graham

Years ago, when I was new to London, a visiting young niece and I pressed our faces up against the window of Asprey, the jeweller and luxury goods seller in Bond Street. We were like a couple of characters from Dickens, two Little Nells gazing wistfully into the Old Curiosity Shop.

After some mutual daring, we eventually went inside (it’s an intimidating place with an atmosphere soaked in wealth and entitlement), trying our best to look nonchalant as we cooed over a gorgeous necklace draped on a plinth. A member of staff came over and, instead of scoffing that surely the only jewellery we ever wore was made of turnips and twigs, told us it cost £300,000 and wondered if we’d each like to try it on. “Jewellery always looks better when it’s being worn,” he said, without a trace of dismissiveness or a sneer. 

Neither of us tried it on, and feeling like imposters we bolted, to my eternal regret. I’ve haven’t been in Asprey since (still too intimidating), yet I’ve always remembered our classy welcome and the assistant’s easy charm. I’ve been in other posh London shops, including a shoe shop of some renown, and, believe me, I’ve been made to feel that I should be outside on the pavement, in clogs, dying of rickets.

But now Asprey invites us all through its doors for Inside Asprey: Luxury by Royal Appointment, the latest in a line of documentaries centred on businesses that sell luxury – Inside Claridge’s, Inside Boodles, Liberty of London, all upper-crust establishments in the same small, moneyed area of London. People like you and me might rarely pluck up the courage to go inside these places, but we can all be vicarious visitors thanks to television.

Why do we suck these things up? Do we like tantalising glimpses of people with too much money and not enough to spend it on? Who would buy a solid-silver safe shaped like a gorilla for £55,000 from Asprey? Film star Samuel L Jackson would, it turns out.

I have to admit that I can’t resist gaudy documentaries. It’s shallow, of course. But I can’t be the only one, or they wouldn’t keep making them. Maybe it’s to do with our being stuck in seemingly never-ending austere times that we want to see people spending £30,000 on a champagne bath (not what you think, it’s like a solid-silver dustbin with holes in the lid for your champagne bottles). 

Or how about a big glittering chunk of jewellery? "There are one or two discerning ladies that like a large coloured diamond,” says Craig, buffing up a £2.4 million, 15-carat yellow-diamond ring. We can’t afford it, but we can have a good gawp at someone who will spend such a staggering amount on something so superficial.

There’s something, too, about watching how extraordinarily wealthy people behave in places that cater entirely for extraordinarily wealthy people. The usual rules of politeness and the discourses of everyday life don’t apply. Just look at one regular customer, a woman from Saudi Arabia, who chews gum as she thrusts a box containing a ring under an assistant’s nose. “How much this?” she demands, chewing, chewing, chewing. It’s £4.6m and she goes away to think about it. How about buying some manners with your spare cash, lady?

And an assistant models a pair of earrings for a man who’s thinking of buying them for his wife. They are “£15,750 including tax”. “All right,” he says, as if he’s just chosen a new tyre. Ah, the land of the rich, they do things differently there. 

Inside Asprey: Luxury by Royal Appointment is on tonight at 9:00pm on ITV

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