Why are there so many toffs on TV?

As You Can't Get the Staff begins on Channel 4, Huw Fullerton wonders what's behind all this aristo action


Gogglebox-wannabe documentary The Kitchen ended last night, taking with it a whole bevy of posh people to be annoyed at (though they did have nice counters, eh?).


But there’s little breathing room for anyone ‘the-only-thing-the-workers-have-to-lose-is-their-chains’-minded; tonight a new series on Channel 4 about aristocrats searching for household attendants (called You Can’t Get the Staff) begins – and the upper-class action doesn’t end there.

Next week chaotic aristos the Fulfords come to BBC Three in Life is Toff, a decade after they first appeared in 2004’s The F****ing Fulfords on Channel 4. Meanwhile, Made in Chelsea is scarcely off the screens of the nation, and the period privilege juggernaut of ITV’s Downton Abbey continues to rumble on. It begs the question: why are the toffs taking over TV?

In something like Downton, the explanation is easy – period dramas have always been popular, the expensive clothes and furnishings wonderful to look at and the historical context a breeding ground for great stories (also Maggie Smith is hilair).

And while non-posh people existed in the past, the reason that we prefer the lives of the Crawleys to the workers in something like Channel 4’s The Mill is because the former offers escapism – the latter a grim reminder of the past we’ve mostly escaped.

On reality TV, a lot of the nice clothes and furnishings have gone but the quirky characters similar to Smith’s Dowager Countess remain, made all the more entertaining because they’re real.

Not to say that reality TV on this subject is a fawning tribute; the aristos in tonight’s You Can’t Get the Staff are very much the butt of the joke, and Channel 4 have recently aired a parody mockumentary called Almost Royal which follows two fictional and awful minor royals as they meet real Americans. But although we laugh, it’s clear we’re still fascinated, even if it’s just at how awful these people can be.

Often these TV programmes cleverly recast centuries of dominance and privilege as eccentricity and quirkiness, making posh palatable, funny and sometimes even sweet. The subjects seem silly, even vulnerable – belying the real power of money and influence that they often still wield. We don’t resent looking up to them financially or socially anymore, because through TV we’re able to look down on them indulgently in their assigned roles as lovable chancers or rigid fools. 

Personally, I’ve got nothing against posh people – in fact, I’ve probably got a toe in that door myself in some people’s opinion – and it may be that our rising interest in the plummy-voiced signifies their shrinking importance, their isolation and unusualness compared to most of society. Maybe it’s good that they’re scarcely off our screens at the moment.

But I also can’t help but feel it would be nice to have more than a day or two’s break between each appearance on our tellies.


You Can’t Get the Staff is on Channel 4 tonight (21 October) at 9.00pm