In the Best Possible Taste – Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry’s new Channel 4 documentary on taste and class, In the Best Possible Taste, is an entertaining and informative look at the impact of class on taste in modern Britain. The programmes look successively at working-class, middle-class and upper-class taste as Perry researches a series of tapestries he is designing, inspired by Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. This week Perry visited the stereotypically middle-class communities of Tunbridge Wells and Kings Hill (a Kent residential community). While he is analytical as he probes into people’s lives to discuss their taste Perry always does so in an affable manner and he deals with both working and middle classes affectionately. As he explains in his Five Minutes With interview he believes that there is no such thing as definitively “good” or “bad” taste, and this comes across in the documentary.

The series is especially interesting to me as it parallels the chapter of my dissertation that I wrote on taste and class in relation to eighteenth-century theatre. I argued that taste was currency in eighteenth-century London; the novelist Henry Fielding reasoned that “as it very highly adorns the present Age, so doth it in a more particular Manner distinguish what we call our great Men”. Status was derived from having taste and the ability to discuss the merits of various art forms. Increasingly “taste” was defined by a narrow group of elites, and while the lower classes may have felt no need to engage with the concept of refined taste acceptance into society’s elite could depend on an ability to engage with these ideas and standards.

Throughout the eighteenth century taste was used as a demarcation of class. The middle class’ less established status led to their rigid enforcement of taste in order to assert their worth, and their ability to fit into elite society. In turn the aristocracy felt the need to affirm their standing by conforming to the ideals of taste, in order to both demonstrate their ability to keep pace with the middle class and to redraw a distinguishing line between themselves and their inferiors. The reformulation of the divide between the classes that was beginning to occur in the eighteenth century is paralleled by the drastic expansion of the middle class in the last quarter of a century, with the number of people describing themselves as middle-class rising from 1/3 to 2/3 of the population.

In the Best Possible Taste suggests that middle-class taste is a reaction against working-class preferences; when asked why a tagine particularly exemplified middle-class taste, one interviewee answered “it’s just different… different from what a working-class person would have”. This particular tagine formed part of the Jamie Oliver kitchenware collection, a range which the ladies of Kings Hill appear to swear by; as one lady explains, it makes it look like she’s “got an eye for tasteful items around my house, except I haven’t because they’ve all come from Jamie”. The group relies on brands to reassure themselves that their taste is accepted, resulting in an identikit housing estate where people are happy to buy show homes fully decorated and furnished in order to ensure that their home meets the neighbours’ high expectations.

The second group that Perry visits live in Tunbridge Wells and relies less on brand identity, instead demonstrating asserting their individuality and “cultural capital” by carefully selecting their own trinkets to illustrate their education and awareness of culture. Similarly, the eighteenth-century middle class strived to achieve a well-rounded cultural identity, as taste became an increasingly prominent means for the middle classes to legitimise the status they drew from their newly-acquired wealth. Yet the Tunbridge Wells group, like their eighteenth-century counterparts, are still influenced by fashion; one lady admitted that “a lot of the time I don’t know whether I did like something before it became fashionable or whether it’s the validation that made me realise I like it”.

One man interviewed suggests that being middle-class is about aspiring to a better life but, as an anthropologist explains to Perry, this leave the self-made middle classes unsure of their place and feeling the need to prove they deserve it. This generates the middle-class angst that leads women to agonise over their kitchen utensils, one mother and her husband to trawl the internet searching for the fromage frais with the lowest sugar content for their toddler, and led the eighteenth-century middles classes to fastidiously construct an identity that conformed to the increasingly prominent concept of good taste. The middle classes have always aspired to and emulated their ideal lifestyle and it’s clear that this tradition is still going strong in Kings Hill and Tunbridge Wells.

Next week’s final instalment of Perry’s documentary delves into the taste of the upper classes and promises to be equally engaging.

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Kids Week, and A Night Less Ordinary

Having spent the best part of an hour this morning attempting to navigate the very busy Kids Week booking system, as well as my equally busy diary, I am now looking forward to seeing Les Mis and Singin’ in the Rain with my younger sister this summer. Kids Week (which offers free theatre tickets to children accompanied by adults paying full price, as well as events and activities) is a great example of the continuing interest in engaging a new generation in theatre.

Although some of my friends attend the theatre sporadically, and one of my best friends is as addicted to theatre as I am, there are also lots of young people who don’t consider theatre as something that could be relevant to them. Many are intimidated by the prospect of attending the theatre, which is something I can relate to; even as an avid theatre-goer I was somewhat intimidated by the Royal Opera House’s grand décor and smart-looking clientele when I visited aged 18 to see Romeo and Juliet. But once inside the production was amazing, and if people dared to venture inside a theatre a new world would be opened up to them (also, most theatres are not as posh as the Royal Opera House!). The National Theatre has an inviting atmosphere and is home to a café, bars, and there is always an exhibition or musical performance to enjoy (although it is a bit of a maze). As the National Theatre turns Inside Out this summer its outside festival programme is bringing free and accessible entertainment to the South Bank. The outside venue creates an informal atmosphere and is sure to attract passersby.

As ticket prices continue to rise cost is also a barrier preventing many young (and older) people from attending the theatre. Yet many theatres have schemes offering cheap tickets for under-25s. The National Theatre’s Entry Pass scheme offers £5 tickets for all of its productions and often these are excellent seats. Although I think that this is the most generous scheme, especially considering the number of productions staged each season, there are many other theatres offering cheaper seats to young people, including The Old Vic, The Barbican and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. C145 is a brilliant scheme which not only offers under-18s the chance to see productions for £5 but in doing so also encourages them to attend a wider variety of performances than they might otherwise have done.

As well as these schemes there are also opportunities for everyone to have affordable access to quality productions. The Globe’s standing tickets are only £5, while the National Theatre’s Travelex season offers £12 tickets for many performances. Many West End theatres also sell day tickets which can be an affordable option for those with the time to queue.

A Night Less Ordinary (the Arts Council’s 2009-2011 pilot scheme to encourage theatre attendance among the under-26s by offering free tickets) demonstrates the importance of attracting a younger audience. The evaluation report found that while the majority of tickets were given to young people who said that they would probably not have visited the theatre had it not been for ANLO 92% of participants enjoyed the experience and 88% said they would pay to go again and would recommend theatre to friends and family; this clearly demonstrates the potential audience that young people offer.

Furthermore, participating venues believe that taking part has helped them to engage with young audiences and 41% of venues said the scheme had brought them commercial benefits through tickets sold to those accompanying free ticket holders and extra merchandise sales. The report suggests that ANLO is also partly responsible for the continuing development of the many membership and discount schemes for young people. The high success rate of ANLO demonstrates the importance of these discount schemes in developing and retaining an audience for the future.

Antigone

Yesterday I saw Antigone at the National Theatre, starring Christopher Eccleston and Jodie Whittaker. It’s an excellent production, and the play raises interesting issues surrounding our choices and their consequences. From an arrogant, contemptuous and self-assured king, immovable in his judgements, Eccleston captures Creon’s total defeat and resignation after the death of his son as he acknowledges his culpability. The discovery of his wife’s suicide precipitates a total collapse as he crumbles in front of our eyes. Whittaker was equally engaging as Antigone; her steely determination as she decides to bury her brother and her conviction as after her capture she rails against Creon, certain that these principles are worth dying for.

As always, the articles in the National Theatre’s programme were interesting and informative. Laura Swift identified the central conflict in the play, with competing obligations to family and community, as Antigone and Creon embody private and public loyalties. This reminds me of Thomas Otway’s 1682 Venice Preserv’d, with Belvedira and Jaffeir torn between loyalty to each other, to their beliefs, and to the state. I guess this demonstrates the longevity and timeless relevance of these themes. Swift suggests that in antiquity audiences would have disapproved of Antigone’s actions as a woman, while much of Creon’s ideology would have been readily accepted in Greek society. It’s important to bear this in mind when judging Creon’s actions. As Swift points out, Creon may have gone too far in forbidding Polynices’ burial but the decision was certainly his to make. Swift links this to the differing reactions to the play of a modern audience, compared to the likely thoughts of Sophocles’ contemporaries. A belief in the importance of duty to the state, as well as in the propriety of the subservience of women, would both have contributed to a more sympathetic attitude towards Creon and perhaps a disapproval of Antigone’s actions, even if her motives were admired.

Discussion of what people 2500 years ago might have thought of the play is interesting, but should it affect our viewing? While understanding contemporary societal values and beliefs might reveal the author’s intentions, I think that standing alone the play remains relevant as an exploration of tyranny and statecraft. The play has gained special relevance at certain points in history, for example in reference to Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. Just as the collective memory of Athens’ last tyranny 70 years earlier made the play politically relevant to contemporary Greeks, modern European events have coloured audiences’ perceptions of the play. Each new audience imposes its own morality and values. What is clear is that human nature doesn’t change; it seems that there has always been and always will be tyrants, just as there will always be those willing to stand against them in defence of what they believe.

Hello world!

Having spent the last three years on a degree comprising almost entirely of reading and writing, it came as a shock to the system when I finished my last exam and realised that I no longer had to read or write anything at all. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been rediscovering the joys of reading for pleasure (without feeling guilty that I should instead be reading about eighteenth-century Venice or the legacy of Manzoni’s Adelchi!). While I really enjoyed my degree, I was ready for a break from studying.

Now that I’ve started reading for pleasure I thought I’d give writing for pleasure a go, and hopefully this blog will be a good place for me to share my thoughts on theatre, culture and whatever else I can think of to write about!