A heartwarming display of class contempt
Channel 4’s Rich Kid, Poor Kid was a hackneyed examination of class warfare. But it was touching all the same.
The theme of class division and class reconciliation has always been a rich source of material – for print, for the stage, and for the large and small screens.
Charles Dickens and Jane Austen were renowned for it, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper (1881) helped to perpetuate it, while George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion, regarding the tale of a professor of phonetics who tries to refine a coarse Cockney flower girl, set the template upon which the musical adaptation My Fair Lady (1964) was built.
The old story of ‘rich versus poor and how they don’t get along at first but do in the end’ can be witnessed in the 1983 film Trading Places, with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. Jeeves was a middle-class valet to the toff, Bertie Wooster. ‘Buddy cop’ movies such as Die Hard, 48 Hours, and the Beverly Hills Cop series are also often based on the same premise.
Class tension was the central theme of UK television comedies of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, such as Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers, Blackadder and Father Ted, in which the main protagonists (Captain Mainwaring, Basil Fawlty, Edmund Blackadder, Ted Crilly) were frustrated middle-class types, forever fawning over their upper-class superiors, but simultaneously resenting their buffoonery, while also been driven insane by their imbecilic lower-class underlings.
Blackadder The Third satirically employed this device in the October 1987 episode ‘Amy and Amiability’ in which Edmund Blackadder sought to marry off the penniless and oafish Prince Regent to the daughter of a coarse, vulgar Northern English industrialist (1).
So one might have expected last night’s Channel 4’s Cutting Edge: Rich Kid, Poor Kid to be more of the same (2). No doubt, it would concern two people from different ends of the class spectrum who, although at first misunderstanding and misjudging each other, would, when faced with spending time together, actually realise that they got on rather well in the end. And this was exactly how it proved. This didn’t make it any less moving, however. Perhaps the hackneyed old narratives are the best. What’s more, the documentary did tell us a great deal about popular perceptions of class.
Rich Kid, Poor Kid concerned two girls from south London who live in the same street but who have never mixed in the same circles. Alice, 15, is a rich white girl who lives in a six-bedroom house and goes to a private school. Natalie, 17, of mixed race, lives in a council flat at the other end of Alice’s road. Channel 4 brought them together to see if they could be chums. And guess what? They did become friends. This was about as original as having a BBC film crew going on one of their habitual visits to Salford and reporting on how the red-brick terraced houses there are a bit impoverished and boarded-up. You know the ending before it has started.
This programme was classic British television, in that it resorted to championing middle-class values by deriding the classes both above and beneath them. Alice was an insufferable and ignorant posh snob who believed that state school children ‘can go and die for all I care’, and insisted that the poor were poor because they were just lazy. Alice’s worst nightmare, she declared, was ‘having to send my kids to a state school’. Natalie was like an ersatz ‘chav’ guest from The Jeremy Kyle Show, whose mother suffered from depression, whose dad was dead, whose brother slept on the floor, and who herself was filmed smoking and swearing in the toilet.
Rich Kid, Poor Kid conformed to an old formula witnessed in British television in particular, and in British popular culture in general: that we like to see the upper classes and working classes as basically stupid in their different ways. Channel 4 champions itself as a ‘radical’ channel, but all it did last night was to confirm the perception that teenage girls are fundamentally idiots and chavs, like Little Britain‘s Vicky Pollard, and that even the trustafarian upper-class types like Alice now speak in Jafaican, underclass tones.
I have no complaint with the middle class, being a member of it myself. I just hate class warfare, or indeed the obsession with class, or the pornographic, misanthropic addiction we have with mocking ‘the underclass’, and the envious predilection we have for insulting ‘toffs’ for being spoilt, inbred fox-murdering buffoons. Any perusal of the letters pages of the Daily Mail or the Guardian will indicate just how poisonous this class warfare is, and how it works both ways. Channel 4 is more conservative than it likes to admit. Rich Kid, Poor Kid simply perpetuated middle-class values: a long-running contempt of the working class, and envy of the upper class.
Yet, still, the tale of Alice and Natalie’s burgeoning relationship was touching, as the two girls found out they had much more in common than they had assumed. Alice came to realise the level of her ignorance: ‘They were, like, normal’, she concluded of the kids who lived in the council estate down her road. She used the classic South London working-class expression ‘butters’ (meaning ‘ugly’). Alice even employed the majestical London expression ‘Innit?’ (meaning, ‘Is that not true?’)
Rich Kid, Poor Kid was a bit like a Steven Spielberg movie. It was entirely predictable. You knew what was going to happen, and that the leitmotif was going to be about redemption. But this didn’t matter. In the end, it was heartwarming – precisely because it was both clichéd and humane.
Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.
(1) Scenes from Blackadder The Third, YouTube
(2) Rich Girl, Poor Girl, YouTube
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