Social Class in British Sitcoms

This essay will explore the importance of class in British sitcoms and follow the idea that “a social class is a cluster of households whose members owe their life chances principally to their property ownership or employment relations.” (Payne, 2013:36), corresponding to the relationships within a family.

Societies are categorised by three social divisions (working, middle and upper) where “sitcom has often been examined for the way it reflects changes within society.” (Mills, 2005:8) Due to wide comedic trends, sitcom responds to the politics of the family such as middle class who want progress with an education and have a nuclear family. While working class families want to build on their marketable skills and resources in order to successfully earn a wage.

This distinction is evident in Only Fools and Horses ‘Three Men, a woman and a Baby’ episode with the market trader ‘Del boy’ and My Family ‘Living the Dream’ episode with Ben, whose daughter is an unmarried mother to a child of its unknown biological father.

Only Fools and Horses is a British sitcom written by John Sullivan. With a running time of thirty minutes up until 1986, the programme does “ignore the rule of the closed off storyline” (Mills, 2005:27) due to the growth of the independent television sector and the desire for longer running episodes, the sit com increased its running time to fifty five minutes and continued Del and Rodney’s romances. Broadcast on BBC1 from 1981 until 2003 most episodes were filmed with a live audience.

The family dominantly consists of working class males living in the deprived suburban area, Peckham in South London, commonly known as the poorer area. Sullivan drew on his own experiences of growing up in South London in a working class environment such as the duration of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister between 1979 and 1990 where there was reduced state intervention, free markets and entrepreneurialism. Thatcher encouraged people to start their own businesses, especially the reinforcement of people on benefits to be employed.

While some citizens of Britain were at an advantage, others suffered due to the high volume of unemployment, reduced benefits and healthcare support. Derek ‘Del Boy’ Trotter and Rodney Trotter play the semi-skilled protagonists who own an unregistered company ‘Trotters Independent Traders’ along with their scrappy van predominantly on the black market in Peckham.

They do not pay taxes as Del Boy expresses, “the government don’t give us nothing, so we don’t give the government anything.” Through their dodgy deals and the second time round attempts, the programme relies on the comedy of failure.

Although there are not many opportunities for Del and Rodney, their financial issues are not systemic. Their personalised financial issues lead them to failure. For example, in the ‘Three Men, a Woman and a Baby’ episode Del goes to work on a Sunday morning at 6:00am. Uncle Albert explains to Rodney that “the business world never sleep” which is essential for working class people to be earning money whenever they can in order to provide for their family.

The welfare of the planet is Rodney’s priority which illustrates that as a working class individual, he is caring on a global level rather than a self-centred one. Rodney is brighter than Del in terms of education except he is deficient of the confidence and self-assurance which Del boasts.

On a gender aspect, the two males manage the business but Del gives Rodney his duties. The deal on this episode involves a box full of men’s syrups (a wig used by men to cover their bald-headedness) and ponytails. The fool in Del enlightens Rodney’s mood as there is an obvious prank.

Then again, he falls for Del’s idea that wearing one of these ponytails will transform him into a “sophisticated and intelligent” man. A visit to Casandra boosts his confidence as he wants to escape from the stupid persona that he is known by and have a long-term, happy relationship. The love between members of two different social class signifies that Casandra accepts Rodney for who he is as a person and does not judge him as being beneath her in a working class family.

Comically, she mocks men who wear pony tails and refers to them as a “wally”. The pony tail looking like a mouse on the floor frightens Casandra where Rodney attempts to become a hero by taking it away. Rodney’s characterisation returns to his less macho self as Casandra realises that the ‘mouse’ was in fact the ponytail. Here, class signifies middle class women are superior to him. Casandra exemplifies elegance unlike Rodney as she wears white, satin blouses and uses cups and saucers to drink tea.

In addition, aware of Rodney’s usual drink of Stella Artois or Carlsberg at the Nag’s Head Casandra attempts to reveal superiority through her middle class and imitates the stereotype that British people love a cup of tea.

Personal relationships illustrate Casandra’s class as she uses the term “mummy” and believes that a baby “would not be a good career move”. Notably, this conforms to the idea that “social classes have consequences” (Roberts, 2011:3). Casandra follows her “mummy’s” life which limits her freedom and choice for a family.

Whereas, Rodney is incapable of becoming the successful business leader that he aspires to be and becoming a parent with the woman he loves. Due to the rise of capitalism in Britain, the importance of profits were vital especially for a working class family as it catered for extra necessities at home however, Rodney and Del cannot always achieve this, just like the prank of being set up to sell ponytails.

Morality is contemplative here, as the two brother know what is right and wrong, yet they refuse to pay taxes to the government, which only provides for themselves and not on a global scale. On the other hand, Del has standards. He would not be disloyal to a friend or family member in one of his dodgy deals. He is honest, does not claim any benefits and everyone is equal in his eyes, therefore his morals seem fair.

There are some examples of heightened reality such as, Rodney suggesting that a “tin of salmon” could bring him and Casandra together as she is allergic to many pets and does not want children. Rodney uses sarcastic humour in order to overcome the fact that he cannot adapt to the middle class life especially without a child.

In relation to money and aspiration, Del Boys portrays himself through an illusion of middle class by means of dialogue using French phrases such as “Bonjour!” and drinking cocktails. The miss use of this language at the end of a sentence makes us laugh with Del in his attempt to seem like a sophisticated and educated man.

On the other hand, while Del is listening to the monitor of his baby’s heartbeat, he uses the expression, “lovely jubbly” which restores working class representations through colloquial language by means of stereotypically demonstrating his British spirit of optimism that something good has happened.

Unlike My Family, the little things make the Trotter family content rather than aspirational goals to be greedily rich. This is symbolised with the joy of Del’s facial expressions as his son is being born which is more important to him than any kind of aspiration to be richer and upholds the idea that happiness is possible without money. As a stereotypical London market trader who does his best to make his own fortune and better himself, Del represents the British spirit of optimism and loyalty to his working class family and is notable by the admiration of his family as they always rely on him to be the provider.

Social entrapment and frustration is apparent as he cannot escape the obligations of his family – he is always determined to provide for his family especially as his son is close to being born. The sitcom does not give a negative representation of the deprived area of London or interfere with the representation of the working class.

All male characters are old fashioned with a sense of pride in themselves, as they like to smoke cigars which portrays them as feeling wealthy, even though they are not, which is being broadcast as a stereotype for all working class people. In the real world, class and status distinguish “who is above and who is beneath them in the social hierarchy” (Roberts, 2011:7)

Notably, the origin of profits are unexplained as we do not discover how much Del makes with his deal as to whether any profits are made to provide for Casandra and his new born son. The social compositions are not realistic as the need for money is not topical but we do presume that a stereotypical working class family would be under more stress with a new addition to the family especially in a small flat which already has four inhabitants, which leads to unacceptance that “this time next year, we’ll be billionaires.” from Del.

If he did not sell so unwanted items, there is a possibility that a richer future could happen. In spite of this, the mise en scène of their flat and the Nag’s Head pub significantly represent a true working class environment. Old-fashioned values are present as the flat has uneven furnishings with no theme of decorating and a floral sofa, which camouflage with Raquel’s floral dresses. Other props such as a women’s magazine, SMA baby products in the background and knitting accessories are traditional of a woman living at home.

The vintage dresses and props reinforce the audience that this is a true representation of a working class home as a female character feminises the home and attends to maternal matters such as preparing nourishment and clothes for their child.

In contrast, My Family is a British sitcom which commenced in 2000 and was discontinued by the BBC in 2011 for being “too middle class” and “struggled to reach five million” viewers towards its end. (Daily Mail, 2012). This could be due to the fact that American creator, Fred Barron, made the programme and it follows the British class system, through his perspective of British middle class. The action is split between Ben Harper’s dental practice and his family.

With the ‘Living the Dream’ episode, one of the sons, Nick does not appear however, we still see the cynical attitude on life by Ben, emotional blackmail from his wife Susan, typical young woman antics from their daughter Janey and their son Michael who outsmarts his father therefore feels he does not have to communicate with him.

Instantly employment and hierarchy of class is a key element as, Ben demonstrates a professional occupation as a dentist who holds a middle class reputation. Regardless of the fact that he holds this occupation, he has a dream of sailing his own boat and becoming rich.

Amusingly, Ben and Susan do not seem to think that they have money or enough material possessions. For example as Susan says, “I go to the Ideal Home Exhibition every year but I haven’t got one of those” we notice similar ways to Ben as he attends boat shows and does not own a boat. An issue with the boiler not working causes the Harper family to look so desperate for heat, since they have never realised the true necessity of heat in their home and that having it, can be a luxury in comparison to lower classes.

This is shown by Janey and Susan and her grandson, Kenzo wearing scarfs, gloves and blankets. The importance of class arises here as, dressing like people do outside in winter mocks the life of lower classes who are not always fortunate enough to afford heat and hot water at all hours of the day.

Although this is humorous, social norms are disrupted as we would not expect any middle class individual to be shocked about the cost of £2000 for their boiler to be fixed. It seems untrue to suggest that middle class families are “Wealthy in their financial circumstances and had enough money to meet their personal needs without issue or sacrifice” (Freeman, 2008:66).

We presume, the only talk about money would be based on material possessions and in positive terms. Ben may have enough money to meet his personal needs but he considers his “personal needs” to be a new boat which will answer all of their problems. This is not the case as Janey wants her parents to provide for her son by paying his school fees for private school while Ben fails to acknowledge the seriousness of the boiler and interrupts about his fantasy of life on a boat.

Eventually, Susan is lured in by Ben’s fantasy and wants to “live the dream”. Male domination leads their family as there are three male members and only two women. Together, the couple believe that they can make money from the ‘Pyramus’ products they were introduced to at a show, such as bleach in order to purchase a “32 footer” boat, send Kenzo to private school and provide inheritance for Michael.

Susan has faith that the bag of products holds over a thousand pounds. The money that they currently have does not cater for a new boiler and they use this as a means of escapism, whereas in reality, the value of the bag could go towards the payment for a new boiler and fixing this problem.

Class controls the humour here, as we would not expect a middle class couple to be selling bleach to cover living and future expenses. As with the distinction between Janey and Susan perspectives, a state school was perfectly adequate for Janey, however, she proceeded into a future as a young single mother and wants Kenzo to attend a private school because her idea of diversity is “millionaires and billionaires” whereas Susan’s is built on the idea that, state schools are “character building.”

Michael follows an educational path like his father however, the sitcom denies that their social class has been classified together as a whole as Janey does not follow the footsteps of her mother. Her requirements for Kenzo are more expensive so that she can “meet Jude Law at the school gates” presuming that is the type of school where the children of such a handsome, British, upper class man would attend.

Costume and dialogue amuse the audience as Susan and Ben’s Pyramus caps add hilarity to their middle class dress codes when they are hyped up for promoting a business that Michael knows will not be successful. Ben is dressed up with a suit and tie which mocks the role of a salesman (yet he is trying to be one) and gives Susan the Ambassadress’ handbag along with some champagne for breakfast.

Here, witty humour is notably discovered as Susan responds with “this is all rich people eat” and believes it keeps them thin. Being thin is not a social rule of being middle class if you consider the narrative as part of an “occupational class marker” (Lawler, 2005:181) however there is no disapproval as the laughter in the foreground blends with the audience’s in the background which reinforces the audience to see this as a true indicator of life as middle class.

Drawing attention to the Duchess of Windsor’s point that, “you can never be too rich or too thin” (Simpson, 2012:143) illustrates that many middle class, British women such as Wallis Simpson are known for taking pride in their appearance and no amount of money or physical attractiveness can insist that you are too rich or too beautiful. Also it constructs the idea that if you materialistically consume something which you cannot usually afford, you will gain pleasure from buying it, hence Ben and Susan’s excitement for a new boat.

As with the next morning, the couple kiss each other on each side of their cheeks which mocks a classy greeting and communicate with formal tone and language. Unconventionally, as middle class members of society they parody upper class with phrases such as “an education for one’s heirs” or “a classic handbag happens to come one’s way” yet they laugh at Roger’s dream to buy a Porsche when they want to buy a boat.

Here, class delivers much contradiction as earlier in the episode, Ben “cannot afford to buy milk” while Susan cannot afford “a new boiler” but an expensive handbag seems to be acceptable. Their actions do not show “cultural goodwill” and are in much opposition to working class and “the choice of the necessary” (James, 2005:40) The couple only want what makes them happy and they give the impression that £30,000 for a Porsche owned by Roger seems like a practical amount for themselves to achieve for their boat while the thought of paying £2000 for a boiler is distressing.

Susan and Ben can survive without their dream, therefore the dramatic need for one humours us which is perceptible through the over consumption of materialistic possessions rather than the want for necessities to be resolved.

A humiliating moment ends the episode where their potential clients are told that Roger bought his Porsche with his auntie’s inheritance money and not through the Pyramus business and demonstrates that it is not just working class people who enjoy “observational humour based on everyday life” (Hindustan Times, 2010)

Social norms are disturbed as usually, middle class families do not seem to struggle with cash payments for school fees, university fees or the necessities such as a new boiler especially as their income is generously more than those who belong to a lower social class. Susan and Ben conclude that we all have deadly sins where gluttony and vanity are dominant in their family.

However realistically, they are determined by your class as Susan is selective of the colour of the uniform for her grandchild and Ben over indulges in models of boats for his dream that logically will never happen beside the point that he blatantly ignoring the fact that he is a novice at sea.

In conclusion, this study follows the idea that family is the bigger foundation of your social class by means of supporting one another in order to manage everyday life. The value of family is present in both sitcoms however, we sympathise with Del as he is a trier who wants to succeed independently and shows his light-hearted emotions.

Whereas Ben’s family mock his dreams which considers his future plans to be illogical. We tend to laugh more at Ben than with him as he has all of the things that a man such as Del needs yet he still wants more. The money you make plays a part for the kind of life your family live. Straightforwardly, if you are earning the money from a professional job, you are able to afford a bigger and modern house in a suburban area whereas from a semi-skilled perspective, a small flat in a poorer area is sufficient.

Both sitcoms share a dream where the comedy relies on its failure and give the impression that it is not always working class that want to better themselves and portray themselves through an illusion of a higher class than their current one. British class characteristics have differed in one way as Only Fools and Horses has a sense of togetherness where Del’s motto is to provide for everyone as family.

Whereas, My Family shows a couple who want to escape from everyday life with the help of their children and wish for separate lives full of gluttony. Therefore, the significance of class in British sitcom is shown through the family environment.

Bibliography

Freeman, L. (2008). Sitcom Society. Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller.

Friedman, S. and Kuipers, G. (2013). The Divisive Power of Humour: Comedy, Taste and Symbolic Boundaries. Cultural Sociology, 7(2), pp.179-195.

James, D. (2005). Nobs, snobs and yobs. Manchester: Manchester Metropolitan University. Mills, B. (2005). Television sitcom. London: BFI.

Payne, G. (2013). Social divisions. 3rd ed. Basingstoke [England]: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sebba, A. (2012). That woman. New York: St. Martin’s Press. The Hindustan Times, (2010). British middle class people ‘use comedy to assert cultural superiority’. [Online] Available at: http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.mmu.ac.uk/docview/470583951?accountid=12507 [Accessed 2 Dec. 2014].

Thomas, L. and Evans, R. (2012). BBC axed My Family for being too middle-class, says show’s star Zoe Wanamaker. Daily Mail. [Online] Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2138654/BBC-axed-My-Family-middle-class-says-shows-star-Zoe-Wanamaker.html [Accessed 4 Dec. 2014].

Thorkelson, E. (2012). Upper-middle-class manners go up in smoke; Social facades evaporate with hilarious results in dark comedy God of Carnage. The Vancouver Sun, [online] p.H.9. Available at: http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.mmu.ac.uk/docview/1008948785/abstract?accountid=12507 [Accessed 30 Nov. 2014].
 

Television

My Family, [television programme, online], Prod. credit n.k., Prod. company Sony Pictures Television., Prod. Country United Kingdom., 19:30 28/08/2009, BBC ONE, 30 mins. http://bobnational.net/record/215390, (Accessed 04/12/2014)

Only Fools and Horses, [television programme, online], Prod. Credit n.k., Prod. Company BBC. Prod. Country United Kingdom., 14:10 15/08/2003, BBC ONE, 50 mins. http://bobnational.net/record/195743, (Accessed 05/12/2014)

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