It’s small wonder that what was a middle-class dinner party in all but name (there were nibbles!) formed the core of what is routinely voted one of the best television dramas of all time, Mike Leigh’s 1977 Play for Today, Abigail’s Party.
You know it well. The monstrous hostess Beverly (Alison Steadman), during the course of the most terrible evening (again, with nibbles!), excoriates the lives of those around her, particularly that of her trembling, weedy husband. All to the soundtrack of Demis Roussos. Abigail’s Party established that middle-class dinner parties were bubbling cauldrons of suppressed emotion, passive-aggression and barely concealed bitterness.
More recently, there was the most memorable scene in the first series of Doctor Foster, where Gemma Foster torpedoed a polite dinner party with her husband, his young lover and her parents, throwing emotional grenades before being slapped over the head, hard, by her romantic rival. “I’m a wolf tonight!” Gemma proclaimed.
Dinner parties have become the middle-class television equivalent of the Rovers Return in Coronation Street and the Queen Vic in EastEnders. Gatherings where characters swap news, make deals, become involved in subtle and not so subtle one-upmanship, and where lives are laid bare.
So it’s no surprise that cookery shows are becoming increasingly devoted entirely to dinner parties. It’s a kind of bourgeois porn, or a middle-class X Factor without the tears and the off-key singing. And as middle classes so rarely see themselves reflected with any degree of accuracy in dramas (they are usually murderers or vengeful control freaks), middle-class dinner-party cookery shows are a refuge, or little aspirational playgrounds for a majority that feels misrepresented.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a dinner party, which probably says more about my shortcomings as a guest than it does about the entertaining habits of my friends. Family dinners, yes, dinners with pals yes, but a “dinner party”? Mmm. Certainly I’ve never been to a gathering like the ones featured in Nigella: At My Table (Monday BBC2).
In its way, it’s a taunting, cruel series. “Look at what I’ve got!” Nigella seems to be saying, in her ever so nice way. “Look at my groovy, appreciative friends who coo and exclaim over the dishes delivered fresh from my kitchen to that lovely table on the fairy-light-lit patio!”
I’d love a big table on a fairy-light-lit patio. I’d love bay trees either side of the front door. I want it all. I’m not even that bothered about the dishes. Serve what you like: cheese on toast and Rice Krispie cakes will do me. I just want the lifestyle.
Mary Berry, queen of the middle classes, hosts a new series, Mary Berry’s Country House Secrets (Wednesday BBC1) and the first one, where she potters around Downton Abbey itself (which loved a dinner party), Highclere Castle on the Berkshire/Hampshire border, is all about dinner parties. Big ones.
Highclere has a history of hosting weekend house parties and, says Mary, it “also has a reputation for hosting top-quality game-shooting weekends”. It’s a terrifically genteel hour where Mary chats with Highclere’s chatelaine, Fiona, the eighth Countess of Carnarvon, does a bit of cooking then dons a lovely shimmering frock for a massive great dinner party at the end of the episode.
The dining table is “sumptuous” and guests (Look! Isn’t that Alan Titchmarsh? And a bishop?) are “summoned” to the dining room. It’s all so perfect and, crucially, unattainable. Which is presumably the point.