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The working-class zeroes

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AS well as being a comedy classic, the Four Yorkshiremen sketch has come to encapsulate an intriguing anomaly about class in Britain.  

It features a quartet of dinner-jacketed old codgers sipping fine wine and smoking cigars in a luxurious hotel while trying to outdo each other with increasingly exaggerated stories of their deprived origins . . . 

‘We used to get up int mornin’ at ’alf past ten at night, arf an hour before we’d gone to bed, eat a lump of poison, work 29 hours a day at mill for ’apenny a lifetime, come ’ome, and each night Dad would strangle us and dance about on our graves.’  

The reason the sketch, first performed in ITV’s At Last the 1948 Show in 1967 and later taken up by the Monty Python team, resonates is that it strikes a chord with reality, because lots of people from well-heeled backgrounds like to claim they’re working class.  

The latest confirmation of this puzzling phenomenon comes from a study by the London School of Economics. Its researchers interviewed scores of actors, TV professionals, architects and accountants and found a significant number of those from middle-class families claimed to be working class.  

Where their parents were quite obviously middle class, some interviewees reached further back into their family history, to grandparents and great-grandparents, in an attempt to downplay their own comfortable upbringing and show they were descended from humble, hard-working forebears.  

One of the report’s authors, Sam Friedman, said these ‘intergenerational’ stories deflect attention from the privileges such people enjoy, both in their own eyes and those of others. 

 ‘At the same time, by framing their lives as an uphill struggle against the odds, they misrepresent their subsequent life outcomes as more worthy, more deserving and more meritorious.’  

There are numerous examples of class denial in all walks of life, particularly showbusiness and politics. John Lennon was no working-class hero despite singing about one. He had a middle-class upbringing in the leafy Liverpool suburbs.  

The late DJ John Peel, the well-spoken, public school-educated son of a wealthy Wirral cotton merchant, adopted a sort of semi-Scouse accent to boost his cred with radio listeners.  

MPs are notorious for trying to make out they’re at one with the proles – although these days few, if any, are horny-handed sons or daughters of toil.  

In 1988, after journalist Alan Watkins described Labour shadow minister Michael Meacher as middle class, the MP unsuccessfully sued him for libel.  

Watkins wrote: ‘Mr Meacher likes to claim that he is the son of an agricultural labourer, though I understand that his father was an accountant who retired to work on the family farm because the life suited him better.’  

In last year’s Labour leadership election, Sir Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry (aka Lady Nugee) were falling over themselves to try to prove their working-class credentials. 

Starmer, a millionaire knight of the realm, claimed lamely that he ‘grew up in a town outside of London’ and his father had been a toolmaker.  

Just as bizarre a few years back was hearing Tony Blair, Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and George Osborne trying to get in tune with the huddled masses by slipping into a Cockney-inspired ‘Estuary English’ accent. 

At one time, ambitious folk made no secret of trying to claw their way up the class ladder, as per that well-known parody of the Red Flag: The working class can kiss my arse / I got the foreman’s job at last.  Some sought to rid themselves of their regional dialects and speak Received Pronunciation, or ‘BBC English’. These days, having any hint of a plum in your mouth might well spell career suicide.  

You won’t get much empathy from ordinary people – especially in these straitened times – if you tell them your dad’s a duke, you live in a castle and have a nice fat trust fund. But if you say you come from a council house, your dad’s a dustman and you’re on the dole, that’s no problem.  

However, I doubt if anyone ever really shakes off whatever class they grew up with – it’s probably hard-wired into you from your early experiences no matter how high you rise in the social strata.  

For instance, I don’t suppose multi-millionaire Alan Sugar ever thinks of himself as other than a working-class lad who made good. By the same token, Prince Charles probably never sees himself as anything other than an exalted royal personage.  

So the great British class conundrum remains – and grows ever more baffling. As for myself, I won’t trouble you with my origins. All I’ll say is that living in a shoe box on the side of a slag heap was no joke.  

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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