Can Stories Avoid Class Issues?

Media

I hate rom-coms. I remember being forced to sit through ‘Pretty Woman’ and hating it, mainly because I brought the baggage of British class consciousness to the film, which then becomes about a middle-class man exploiting a working class prostitute.

This clearly wasn’t the intention of the makers, who were simply modernising Cinderella, but unfortunately class permeates every corner of British life. Choosing between Labour and Conservative has once more raised the question, with the middle class majority having to choose between a posh Old Etonian and a 1970s throwback. I don’t want to have to consider our caste system all the time and work hard to keep it out of the Bryant & May novels, although inevitably it does get in.

Recently I watched two movies about weddings which encapsulate the problem. One was ‘Four Weddings And A Funeral’, which I’m alone in disliking for its relentlessly English middle-class conservatism (the gay character is killed off, other minorities are squeezed in for background colour and just as in the 1950s, there’s an American to guarantee stateside distribution).

The other wedding film was Spanish – ‘Ahora O Nunca’ (‘Now or Never’) concerns two Spanish families whose bride and groom want to marry in England where they met. While the bride’s side has already arrived in England with the groom’s mother (‘How can I get my hair to stand up in this damp?’) the rest are stranded in Barcelona because of an air traffic controllers’ strike, triggering a race across Europe that at one point sees the bride’s dress replaced with Franco’s military uniform. It’s funny, inclusive and effortlessly classless even though there are clearly class issues between the families (stay for the very funny rant at the end of the credits).

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Class creates divisions, and could eventually stop me from keeping the UK as my base. I much prefer the communal, open, argumentative society of Europe to the polite, secretive and rather snobbish attitude of the UK, which has marginalised the north of the country and acts as if London is a separate country. I’m deeply against the short-sighted, disastrous idea of the Brexit, which has also become a class issue; here, as with Trump, the least-educated agree with the 1% super-rich.

I suspect many of us would prefer not to have to deal with class in comic writing because it adds polemic to the art of telling stories, because it’s hard to avoid cliche and because it detracts from writing about human beings. The exception I most enjoyed was Jonathan Coe’s brilliant ‘What A Carve Up!’ And even when you go for the crudest satire, as Charlie Brooker did with ‘Black Mirror’, true-life events (Cameron and the pig) turned satire to reality.

Is this why the Spanish film industry has taken off so spectacularly since the death of Franco? Politics is effortlessly woven into mainstream movies. In ‘El Desconocido’ a bank executive receives an anonymous phone call informing him he has  to obtain a large amount of money or a bomb under his car seat will explode, but the banking system and its effects on working folk smoothly become part of the plot.

Hollywood is actually better at films concerning blue-collar life. ‘A Most Violent Year’ and ‘Winter’s Bone’ were both brilliant. The British film industry ends up with well-meaning but deadly boring diatribes from leftist Ken Loach, or creepy right-wing comedies from New Zealand-born Richard Curtis.

Britain’s best hope for a classless society is an influx of other nationalities, something I find myself in favour of, and if this makes me ‘far left’ (as one US reviewer warned his readers) so be it, although I’d never vote for a return to the world of Corbyn. For me the answer may be to base myself in a more fluid society in Europe, and observe the UK from the outside.

11 comments on “Can Stories Avoid Class Issues?”

  1. JackieHayles says:

    You are not alone; I hated Four Weddings too, for reasons which you have so eloquently expressed

  2. Adam says:

    Not as bad as Notting Hill, which made me wish the whole area was carpet bombed…

  3. Brooke Lynne says:

    Why should writers avoid class issues? What we readers want is honest portrayal of folks from different classes and confrontation of class issues. And that will mean opening the doors to a more diverse group of writers–heaven forbid! Substitute race for class in the States and you have the same dilemmas of trite stereotypes, and either horrific stuff like Quentin’s work or “everything is okay now” stuff like 12 years a slave..

    I agree that you, Christoper, may need to be in a more fluid environment. Head for Montreal or Toronto where multiplicity is valued. Puts you closer to major markets, congenial affordable living and you can get to UK when you need to. That’s where I’m heading before Trump is elected. Good luck.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Canada has been the choice place of resort since the Highland Clearances – and before if you’re French (the King’s Daughters for example) – so why should we stop now? All of central Europe settled our Prairies and persisted in spite of the “Hunky” and other negative name calling. The only classes we have are the rich and everybody else. The Family Compact people are pretty well absorbed into everybody else now and what we called the private school accent is no longer heard except from recent immigrants. It means that we can actually watch Four Weddings and see the characters as people and really be torn to pieces at that funeral.

  5. Roger says:

    ” the UK… acts as if London is a separate country”

    The frightening thing is that in many ways London is a separate country, with different rules. The rich – whatever their ostensible nationality – are citizens and everyone else guest-workers. Technically, I am a millionaire. It took no talent, work or skill: I just got a mortgage at the right time and things happened. I am much better off than people in jobs better-paid than every job I ever had and if I choose to leave London I will be richer than most of my neighbours.

  6. admin says:

    Just to clarify – I don’t think stories should necessarily avoid class issues, just that in the UK we’ve become bogged down by them

  7. Wayne Mook says:

    I agree admin class seems to get in the way of the story in the UK, it’s not a thing that is just there or adds background colour and comment but an almost overwhelming guiding force.

    Wayne.

  8. snowy says:

    [Let’s go with the possibly too much edited version.]

    Proposition:

    For a Drama to exist, there must be a ‘conflict’ of some sort; external to the characters or internal between characters.

    For the story to be comprehensible to an audience the division should be distinct. This requires that each side of the conflict is readily identifiable, eg. Black Hat vs. White Hat.

    However there is now a new peril for those who would tell stories, people who belong to the ‘professional’ offense industry. Make the villains or clowns in a piece distinct by race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexuality; they are lying in wait and will attempt to crucify anybody in order to further their personal agenda, which is merely to increase there own fame and power.

    Therefore: Class remains as the only safe option left to writers.

    [I cut out all the refs to Aristophonies, Molière, the American re-invention/creation of of the/a new class system and a lot of other stuff. Because “Nobody came here for a lecture on Communism”

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Hmm, could we ask for a link to Snowy’s Lecture on Communism?

  10. Jan says:

    Note to Chris is n’t the Julia Roberts character Iin Pretty Woman ia working girl not a working class girl?
    I think I agree with Helen life’s been taken a bit too seriously here

  11. Wayne Mook says:

    On archive on 4 there is a good programme on the I-player, Working Class Heroes and Poverty Porn.

    The problem is not so much when programmes deal with class, but the ones that don’t and re-enforce class values in a bigoted way. In the old days we would be shown and outsider or a caricature but underneath as a human, now we see the outside as a person but the underneath where it really matters is the caricature. A lot is more down to lazy or poor writing,.

    With the middle class being under attack and beginning to fracture in this new age of austerity the writing has to be more ‘on the ball’, but these changing have been going on for a while the class representation is as out of date as that seen in the past. The above programme shines light on why these changes are not being represented.

    Wayne.

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