Monday, 29 September 2008

A Working Class Face?

Last night I watched an old episode from the late-1970s hit series The Sweeney. I used to love this series and still find it watchable today. John Thaw played Detective Inspector Jack Regan who was aided in his never-ending fight against the London underworld by Sergeant George Carter who was later to change sides as Arthur Daley’s muscle and gopher, Terry, in Minder. At the time, as an impressionable young twenty-something, the Sweeney seemed to portray the gritty realities of life in London’s CID. It didn’t really. In between fighting armed robbers, Jack and George spent a lot of time drinking in pubs and trying to get a leg over. But the villains were never very convincing, usually coming across as middle-class actors wearing car-coats and throwing in a bit of cockney rhyming-slang to try and gain credibility as genuine blaggers. But it was all good fun, and it normally ended in a good punch-up under the railway arches or in a scrap-metal yard. Thaw was great as the moody, world-weary, boozy cynic who, like most TV cops, seemed to spend as much time fighting his superiors as the villains. He still had a hint of a Mancunian accent from his childhood and looked every inch a flawed working-class hero.

Earlier in the evening I watched a repeat of Inspector Morse. I don’t think I need to provide our readers with an overview of Morse as it was a far more recent series. Suffice it to say that Thaw played, as his new character Morse, a more educated and higher-ranking copper than Jack Regan (why wasn’t the series called Chief Inspector Morse or was he promoted during the series?). Now I think the series was superb and the plots were clever. Thaw again played a cynical, world-weary character at odds with authority and he played it extremely well. But although he had many a rather-sombre pint or two with Sergeant Lewis, Morse was a very different man from Regan. He would spend solitary evenings at home listening to classical music or poring over the crossword rather than unwinding with fellow coppers in the pub. Morse was thoroughly middle-class where Jack Regan was thoroughly working-class.

This brings me to class and faces. An old mate of mine once commented (on Thaw as Morse) that ‘he is playing a middle-class character with a working-class face’. At the time I dismissed the comment, but on reflection I think my mate may have been right. Thaw was playing a well-spoken opera buff but to me his face still fitted more to working-class Jack. I know that if Morse had been made before rather than after the Sweeney I might see it the other way round. But I do think there is such a thing as a working-class face, a face that portrays years of relatively unrewarded graft and resentment that it shouldn’t be that way. What do you think?


Jim Jay said...

Thaw (who's first ever major TV role was playing a military policeman) and Denis Waterman were regulars on left platforms and demos in the seventies - I believe they favoured the WRP end of things, although I may have misremembered that - so I believe there was a consciously working class flavour to what they doing on screen.

Personally I suspect that the kind of cops they were portraying in the sweeney actually *were* more working class than the morse real life counter parts (if its possible to imagine that!) but you're right that some actors become defined in your mind in a particular way and they often find it hard to break out of that.

But whilst Morse is 100% pro-police I think the sweeney painted a more interesting, rougher edged picture... as exciting as the professionals - but not quite as silly.

Dave Riley said...

"The fault dear Brutus is in our faces (sic)-- that we are underlings"?

I've been watching The Sweeney this last month as I had been consciously through all of Waterman's The Minder I could find. The Sweeney, though, is so calculated to be rough and tumble and the Cockney cant is let out a bit to be played with big time with the later figure of Arther Daley.

I assume neither are very real. These shows grab a bit of kitchen sink dialogue and package it. Nonetheless, Terry and Arthur are a superb creation -- as much an item as the Steptoes or Alf Garnett are.

In Britain where accent still plays out across the class divide --it's perhaps easy to put faces to the way words are said. But more -to -the -point marker is the American demarcation of teeth. The choppers will show your income a lot more and 'teeth' can format a face.

The related theme is that -- like commedia dell arte -- your working class stereotype is going to be worked up off stage before they're on and theres' a selection process that is very rich in British TV and theatre. Look at Taggert for instance. In the US you get a sort of generic West Coast type part matinee idol / part celebrity mould (with superb coiffure) -- and the Good Old Boys and ya Red Necks are passed over in the auditions. This gets more perverse when they deploy multi million dollar a shot actors to dumb down to become the working class heroes but never your local low life.

Compare the CSI series to The Sweeney! And when they try to get somewhere near the pitch -- such as Hill Street Blues -- the preferred melange is formatted by ethnicity. Even The Gangs of New York is driven by ethnic archetypes.

The related topic is the way that crime fiction is preferenced toward calculated murder rather than as secondary element to a crime, alcohol intake or a domestic. Morse's coexistence was that the population of Oxford was being slaughtered week in and week out and the locals failed to note the internecine nature of the violence.

By the end of the series Oxford should have been a small village abutted to a very large cemetery!

The main marker on your side of the Atlantic is that the Brits prefer their working class roles in plain clothes whereas the US tradition is very keen to ignore and side step class issues. Thats' why you get a defaulting to underclass criminality more and a certin absolute evil at the end of which sits the electric chair or cathartic violence.

You'd never get Porridge, or the upward mobility pretensions of Hancock's Half Hour , let alone the unionism in The Rag Trade, or the generic Cockneyism of West Enders. And its played to big time in the UK -- it's a major theme -- being seen to be working class. This goes back to the kitchen sink drama of the fifties which was a reaction to the sort of effete chit chat that was concocted as standard by the Noel Coward style of drama.

You could almost say that variations on class is a major theme of the English cinema, for instance.

So how they 'look' begins on how they are written in the first instance.

Roobin said...

You have a working class face... Nifty insult.

Highlander said...

I picked up on your comment that Morse' habit of listening to classical music placed him in the middle-class camp - though I dislike the phrase - and it made me think of the character that Robert Carlyle played in Cracker - Albie Kinsella. Albie is working class through and through, as his father was before him judging by the storyline, and yet in one scene he kidnaps a reporter and makes a point of identifying the classical music he has on in the car at the time. The twist, as Albie sees it, is that the reporter does not expect him to be listening to classical given his obvious class origin.

And I do agree with you that years of graft can't help but leave their mark on a persons face. It probably also has something to do with the relative health level distinctions between the classes as well - smoking, drinking, etc.

Jim Jay said...

I think in days gone by when many workers were in the fields, shipyards, etc there was a bigger physical difference between workers and their employers - although Dave's point about teeth is well made.

However, as more and more of us do sedantry jobs it's far harder to tell someone's class by looking at them. Frankly you can't tell someone's class by listening to them either.

There are plenty of owners and employers who have accents you'd associate with their employees, and vice versa. At the end of the day there may well be social and physical markers but it's your economic relationships that count.

My grandad played church organ all his life and could probably identify any and every piece of classical music there was. Doesn't mean he wasn't a tank driver in the war and a mechanic after it though...

ian said...

Out of interest, I hear they are remaking the Sweeney with Ray Winstone in the Reagan role.

"you Slags.......!!"

Dave, I think the Shakespeare quote is wrong. I think it goes along the line of " the fault dear Brutus lie not in the stars but in ourselves that we are underlings."



John Meredith said...

I agree that the idea that Morse is middle class because he can do the crossword and listens to opera and classical music is, to be kind, a little bit patronisiing. I recommend you read The Intellectual Life of the English Working Class by Stephen(?) Rose. Or go out and meet some working class people, whichever is easist.

Respectable Citizen said...

Good review of Inspector Morse by the late Paul Foot:

You know I grew up on a council estate. My father had loads of books of philosophy, literature and the classics, listened to a lot of classical and early music etc, was something of a bohemian, but we were very much a working class family

Phil BC said...

John, Brother S isn't saying listening to classical music makes Morse middle class, rather it is one trapping of his class position among many others. I recommend Bourdieu's Distinction as an explanation of this argument.