From Downton Abbey to Made in Chelsea – why TV is filled with the stinking rich

David Brown ponders the appeal of the wealthy in our age of austerity

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With UK unemployment having recently increased to 2.62m and Bank of England governor Mervyn King warning of a double-dip recession, it appears that our purses have never been emptier. Turn on the TV, though, and you get the impression we’re all leaping from diamond-encrusted diving boards into swimming pools of liquid gold.

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From Made in Chelsea and Tamara Ecclestone: Billion $$ Girl to Downton Abbey, there’s just no getting away from the lifestyles of the rich and shameless. So why, in times of austerity, do we turn to the wealthy for our entertainment?

Part of the appeal lies in the fact that the last thing we want to see are our anxieties reflected back at us. Checking the meagre balance on an online bank account and then watching a state-of-the-nation polemic about debt and depression seems to have limited appeal. Apparently, what we’re actually craving is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the pampered daughter of a Formula One magnate who owns handbags worth £25,000.

There is a precedent for this kind of escapist scheduling. Back in 1981, the jobless total was again creeping towards the 3m mark and there was rioting on the streets of Toxteth and Brixton. Yet what was the TV event of the year? Only a sumptuous 13-part dramatisation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited that arrived complete with extensive location filming in Venice.

Fast-forward to the present day and 10.5 million are watching bucketloads of decorous emoting in the series two finale of Downton Abbey, mere months after witnessing Croydon burn on live news reports.

But look a bit more closely and you’ll see that there’s also a scent of schadenfreude in our devotion to period drama. What is Brideshead if not a meditation on the profound unhappiness felt by the younger son of an aristocrat who numbs his pain with an addiction to alcohol that eventually consumes him?

Downton’s main preoccupation is with the conflict between duty and the heart and the sacrifices made for the sake of tradition. For audiences, there’s a certain sneaking pleasure to be had in watching the well-to-do buckle under the weight of expectation.

Sometimes, of course, there’s a big vacant abyss where responsibilities ought to be. The lives of the Made in Chelsea socialites are so devoid of purpose that scriptwriters have been brought on board to give their days some shape.

Will the heir to the McVitie’s fortune get to go on his 15th holiday of the year? Can Ollie cut it as a model when he’s got hair like Christopher Lambert in Greystoke? This is where the sneer factor comes into play. Any viewer who initially experiences a pang of envy will soon have those feelings overtaken by sheer, undiluted disdain.

We may not be able to head off on ski weekends or hang out with braying toffs called Binky, Plinky and Plonky, but by God, we have purpose. Even if that purpose is just to reduce the size of our overdrafts.

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So don’t worry about financial pressures as the festive season approaches and winter takes hold – there are plenty of people out there with stacks of cash leading valueless, miserable existences. All we have to do is put on an extra layer, curl our lips in contempt and retreat to these attractive landscapes of lavish heartache. For cash-strapped viewers, the Downton Abbey Christmas Special can’t come quickly enough.