Monthly Archives: October 2013

Naomi Campbell — hellcat from the catwalk

… and anti-racism campaigner

“I’m no perfect human being.” When Naomi Campbell stated the obvious on the Jonathan Ross Show, she might have been quoting Grace Jones’s 1986 track “I’m not perfect (but I’m perfect for you).” The “you” in this this context is, of course, you and me and all the other gawkers who have followed Campbell since she became the first black model to appear on the cover of the French edition of Vogue. That was in 1987. Since then, she has rarely out of the news, though often in stories completely unrelated to modeling. Now she is hosting Sky Living’s new talent show, The Face, which has effectively replaced Britain and Ireland’s Next Top Model.

Between the two events, Campbell has not led a sheltered life: in fact, she has crashed unstoppably into practically every kind of scandal you could imagine – she has been a hellcat from the catwalk. Now at 43, you might expect her to be solemn, mellow and, given her well-documented habit of consuming alcohol and drugs, ravaged. She seems reassuringly maturity-proof and looks radiantly svelte. Her latest project is an initiative to expose the dearth of “models of colour,” to use her term, in the fashion industry. Fashion is popularly regarded as colorblind: top models from all ethnic backgrounds sashay at all the major fashion shows in Milan, New York, London and Paris and adorn the covers of Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and Marie Claire. When the Streatham-born model arrived on the scene, there was bewilderment: what chance had a young black woman got of crashing into a predominantly white industry? The late French fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent (1936-2008), was a stalwart supporter of Campbell and threatened to break all ties with Vogue if Campbell was not put on the cover. Campbell became part of the elite group of supermodels, modeling for the world’s preeminent designers before, perhaps surprisingly, posing nude for Playboy in 1999. Surprisingly in 1999, that is: over the next decade, Campbell became involved in several shenanigans that served to maintain her public profile, not always in a dignified way.

Elite model agency boss John Casablancas – who died earlier this year at 70 – once described Campbell as “odious” and concluded she was “a manipulative, scheming, rude and impossible little madam who has treated us and her clients like dirt”. Campbell herself believed her refusal to accept less money than her white colleagues at the agency initiated the attack. “It doesn’t matter if you’re the first black woman on the cover of French Vogue, I was still getting less,” said Campbell. She has since reiterated that she was offered less than her white counterparts. In addition to verbal assaults on hotel and airport staff, she whacked her housekeeper (for which she was sentenced to do community service). Campbell won a privacy case against a British newspaper that had published pictures of her leaving a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in London in 2001, while she was receiving treatment for drug addiction. Her brief appearance at a United Nations war crimes tribunal investigating Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president, was made eventful by impromptu remark that the trial was a “big inconvenience” to her. Campbell’s turbulent, but supremely newsworthy career, was ornamented with serial affairs with some of the world’s best-known and eligible men. Campbell seems to have made a career rebelling against blandness and, as such, still commands the attention of the global media.

If there is a way of causing outrage, she can find it:  in 2009, for example, she modeled clothes by the luxury furrier Dennis Basso. While wearing fur is itself an incendiary act, Campbell’s action was near treasonous. In 1994, she had appeared with other supermodels in a campaign for PETA (People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals) in which the strapline was, “We’d rather go naked than wear fur.” Tyra Banks, shows, she interviewed Campbell. “I was tired of having to deal with you,” she told Campbell, accusing her of having tried to sabotage her early on in her career. The implication was that perhaps both of them recognized the limited number of places for black models at the top table. Campbell never acknowledged the rivalry, though it became a matter of public record. Last month, Campbell launched an anti-racism Diversity Coalition with David Bowie’s model wife Iman and agent Bethann Hardison. The Diversity Coalition sent an open letter outlining the extent to which a form of institutional racism affects the industry. Hardison wrote, “No matter the intention, the result is racism. Whether it’s the decision of the designer, stylist or casting director, that decision to use basically all white models, reveals a trait that is unbecoming to modern society.” (Click for the full text of the letter.)  This reflected the general state of the fashion industry. The Coalition pointed out that at New York Fashion Week just 6 percent of models were black and 9 percent were Asian and that fewer black models are used now than in the 1970s. One of Campbell’s first targets was Victoria Beckham, about whom I blogged recently. Of Beckham’s 30 models who appeared at the London Fashion Week, only one was not white. Some may find it strange that Campbell is taking time out from causing mayhem and applying herself to what is, after all, a serious social issue. But maybe the fury that at times seems to engulf her is the result of her own forceful efforts to claw her way to the top of a profession that offers slim chances to black aspirants.


Why we should be grateful for Fabricant’s lack of caution

“OMG! Just said “twat” live on air …”

I wonder if Tory MP Michael Fabricant thinks the word “twat” refers only to a person who is stupid or obnoxious. He may not realize it is also vulgar slang for a woman’s genitals. Or perhaps he does and just doesn’t care. When he used it on BBC WM, he was dissing Russell Brand for his theatrical responses to Jeremy Paxman’s questions about his politics. Setting aside the interview itself, in which Paxman allowed Brand to pontificate critically about the ineffectiveness of democracy, Fabricant’s sideswipe at Brand has prompted outrage on a scale Brand himself would envy [skip to 1.36 minutes]. In condemning Brand’s lack of realism and his use of nouns such as paradigm, Fabricant must have forgotten his media training and lapsed into an everyday vernacular, which prompted listeners in the West Midlands to complain. He seemed to regret his lack of discretion, or he could have been be luxuriating in the fuss he caused when he later tweeted: OMG! Just said “twat” live on air with @adriangoldberg on BBC WM referring to Russell Brand and his pompous remarks on @BBCNewsnight.”

But perhaps we should be grateful for his heedlessness. Politicans today are meticulously cautious when they appear in public: every word is thought-out, every sentence is measured, every gesture is rehearsed. Since the Tony Blair period, politicians have become entertainers: they know the power of the media and adjust accordingly. Politicians create a persona and display this, much as Vincent Furnier displays Alice Cooper – as public figures rather than private individuals with a remit to engage, amuse and in many other ways, keep us interested. There has been a dramatic drop in confidence in politicians since the war: we no longer believe they prioritize the nation’s interests above their own personal interests; we don’t accept they have any moral authority to make pronouncements; and we have concrete evidence that they will resort to the most cringingly embarrassing rule-breaking, like fiddling their expenses. Politicians are more tolerated than respected. All the same, should we decry Fabricant for speaking his mind, even if he did it a way that offended a few puritans? We hear the offending word in soaps and other tv dramas all the time. I thought his evaluation was refreshing in its honesty. Think about it: this was an elected politician speaking his mind in a language that was coarse yet candid. It was a spontaneous expression rather than one of those endlessly tiresome interviews in which the responses seems almost independent of the questions (they actually are: politicians are taught to use media interviews to project views rather than answer questions). Politicians who let their guards down are often criticized for making gaffes. Think of Godfrey Bloom who recently put his foot in his mouth with his “bongo-bong0 land” remark. But we should be grateful: we get to glimpse how they think rather than how they are told to think. @elliscashmore

Sir Alex’s torment

“The big problem for me … he fell in love”

I remember getting a call in my hotel room in Manchester in February, 2003. It was from a radio station that wanted me to go on air to talk about David Beckham’s fraying relationship with the then manager of his club Manchester United, Alex Ferguson. “Why? What’s happened?” I asked. “Apparently Ferguson has cut Beckham’s eye.” It became known as the “flying boot incident.” Ferguson had vented his rage at Beckham after an FA Cup tie against Arsenal and, for some reason, kicked a stray boot, which flew through the air and collided with Beckham’s face. With his typical flair for dramatizing small incidents, Beckham wore his hair fastened back with an Alice band so that the wound – treated with steri-strips – was clearly visible. The professional relationship between the two men had probably been deteriorating for a while, but this was the first tangible evidence. I could only speculate on radio that this was probably the beginning of the end. Ferguson was irritated that the player had become a focus of more media attention than Manchester United. One can only imagine what torment Victoria caused him: it seems she was pulling her husband in many directions, all of them wrong from Ferguson’s perspective. If she wasn’t taking him to Lenny Kravitz’s birthday bash, she was displaying him on the front row of Giorgio Armani’s new launch or introducing him to her friends Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. For the hard-bitten Glaswegian, it must have been purgatory.

Ferguson’s new autobiography confirms what we all knew about his loss of patience with Beckham, though at the press conference to accompany the book’s publication, Ferguson let slip arguably an even more interesting insight: “The big problem for me [was] he fell in love with Victoria and that changed everything.” Read that again: the big problem for Ferguson was that Beckham fell in love with Victoria. This is exactly the kind of blunderingly insensitive remark that earns Ferguson respect from many people, who regard him as a kind of master of the dark arts of psychology. But is he?  He’s a good … no great football manager, perhaps the best there’s ever been, but he can also be boorish, crass and frequently shows no feeling or concern for others. How unfortunate for Ferguson that Beckham met a woman, fell in love, had children and became a celebrity athlete on par with Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Beckham, writes Ferguson in the book, thought “he was bigger than Sir Alex Ferguson.” The very idea, eh? “The name of the manager is irrelevant. The authority is what counts.” Football fans might argue that successful managers have to be authoritarian in the sense that they need obedience from players at the expense of personal freedoms. But this statement sounds like it comes from someone who can’t bear the prospect of one of his minions having the temerity to challenge him or even occupy other people’s attention. When Ferguson writes, “I could see him being swallowed up by the media or publicity agents.” You wonder what irked him more: the fact that Beckham was distracted by the lure of celebritydom, or that global interest in Posh and Becks, as the couple was then known, eclipsed interest in either the club or Ferguson. There was clearly a clash of egos at the club and, with no prospect of limiting Beckham’s celebrity ambitions or prising him away from Victoria, Ferguson’s only option was to release him. Beckham transferred to Real Madrid within months of the flying boot incident. Ferguson regards this as a “shame because he could still have been at Manchester United when I left. He would have been one of the greatest Man United legends.” We’re all sure he could too. But instead he became just a common or garden global icon.


Corrie and the right-to-die


Coronation Street’s reputation as Britain’s premier soap is based on its preparedness to take on divisive social issues and avoid crass simplifications. It is currently featuring euthanasia. In the itv drama, Hayley Cropper, the transsexual character played by Julie Hesmondalgh, has just been diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, with six months’ life expectancy. Last week she told her husband Roy, the singular, thoughtful café owner played by David Neilson, that she intends to take control of what’s left of her life and die when and in circumstances of her own choosing. She sees the alternative as a nightmarish descent into morphine-induced purgatory where visions of her past life as a man will return. Her usually sympathetic husband surprises her with his response. At first, he assures her that she will change her mind, then resigns himself to the prospect of being complicit in her termination. He accuses her of being selfish by depriving him of every last available second he cherishes with her. Reminding her of the palliative care she will receive, he tries to convince her that she won’t necessarily suffer from the confusion than sometimes results from pain relief. “I’d rather forego the goodbye if it meant you weren’t suffering,” he tells her. With no resolution, Hayley collapses and is entered into hospital with an infection. As usual, Corrie’s writers have handled a sensitive moral dilemma with care, never reducing the issue to pat answers. The viewer completely understands Hayley’s concerns about losing control as the cancer debilitates her, while feeling the impact of her decision on her loving husband, who himself attempted suicide in the past.

The drama makes the debate complicated, tangled and wracked with competing emotions. Euthanasia elicits all manner of emotion. At one level, it seems an individual has every right to end his or her life however they wish, particularly if the alternative is prolonged suffering of some kind. Loved ones are forcibly reminded of the preciousness of life and the possible catastrophic impact on their own lives. Palliative care, we are often assured, has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years and the kind of torment Hayley anticipates is unlikely to happen. All the same, should a person be forced to accept care against his or her will?  Should they be compelled to live with medication until the disease reaches its inevitable conclusion? Or should they be allowed to decide for themselves? Under English law, all adults have the right to refuse medical treatment, as long as they have sufficient capacity (the ability to use and understand information to make a decision).

Other countries have different rules. Active euthanasia is currently only legal in Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg, for example. New Zealand’s recently withdrawn End-of-Life Choice Bill would have allowed adult residents to access medical assistance in hastening their death if they met certain criteria. Patients and their families must have a clear understanding of all of their options through carefully guided conversations with their medical practitioners.  By making euthanasia legal, the law would have allowed family members to discuss options and support each other, rather than have clandestine conversations and face legal prosecution if they follow a loved one’s requests. So the pro-euthanasia or “right-to-choose” argument is not for totally unrestricted choice in one’s own suicide and its guiding morality is that, while dying is not a good thing, it’s often preferable to suffering and the loss of dignity diseases sometimes entail. Those who oppose assisted dying are usually guided by a moral compass that comes from their faith. No one, they argue, has the right to “play God” and there is something profoundly irreligious about an arrangement that permits exactly this. Most religions regards the preservation of human life as one of the supreme moral values, though there is no complete unanimity in, for example, Buddhism, Sikhism and some areas of Christianity. Corrie will, again, set an agenda for a debate about a subject that will continue to arouse great emotions. It is to the show’s credit that it can integrate issues of great complexity into its narrative.




The fall and rise of Victoria Beckham, fashion designer

Victoria Beckham


Victoria Beckham could be forgiven for gloating. Reviled for years as the unsmiling one in a mediocrely talented yet universally acclaimed girl band, taunted for marrying a football player-cum-model-cum-global-icon, and ridiculed for her failure as a solo artist, reality tv star and practically every other endeavor she tried, Victoria struggled to find a purpose in life outside that of an all-purpose celebrity. So when she decided to swap wearing designer clothes for designing the clothes herself, another grandiloquent failure was confidently expected by all. Victoria, friend of Domenico Dolce, Donatella Versace, Marc Jacobs, and everybody else who’s anybody in the world of fashion, was a 24-inch waist clotheshorse with whopping shades, not the creative director of a fashion house. It was like a sci-fi film fan deciding he wanted to direct a prequel to 2001: A space odyssey. “You have no experience of directing, in fact you’ve never acted, nor stood behind a camera,” someone might issue a reminder, only to be rebuked: “So what? I have money.”

And now she has even more money. It’s recently been announced that Beckham Ventures Ltd, which handles Victoria’s fashion range, increased its turnover to £15.4m in 2012, leaving a profit of just below £1.5 million. Clothes in Victoria’s fashion line range from under £500 to more than £2,000. The clothing line is now the key element in the three companies that generate products associated with Brand Beckham. Victoria is also opening her own retail store in London. As we know, husband David recently rang down the curtain on his football playing career, presumably clearing the way for him to become a fulltime advertising image. Victoria though is building credibility after a fashion career that looked doomed from the outset. Celebrity fashion lines rarely succeed, not even when the celebrity is at the height of her powers. J-Lo, for example, got her come-uppance when she tried to launch her own Sweetface label. Undeterred, Victoria planned a prêt à porter line with aspirations to compete with the elite in New York, London and Paris. It sounded like another Victoria catastrophe in waiting. The timing of the launch wasn’t especially auspicious either. Victoria’s debut as a designer was at New York fashion week in September 2008. In the same month, the investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed, precipitating a global financial meltdown and the worst recession since the 1930s. But there was a surprise: reviewers were impressed by her catwalk shows, prestigious department stores competed for the right to sell her clothes and customers, in turn, paid serious money to wear Victoria Beckham frocks and, later, accessories like bags and sunglasses.  Turnover grew 120 percent in each of the three years after the launch and Victoria won the Designer Brand Award at the 2012 British Fashion Awards. The barely believable success of Victoria’s label, both critical and commercial, took not just the fashion industry but everybody by surprise.

So, by September 2010, when she announced a new line called “Victoria,” the artist formerly known as Posh probably felt herself changing from a fledgling waterfowl with a broad blunt bill and a waddling gait to an elegant bird of grace with all-white plumage – though, to many, she would always be just an ugly duckling lucky enough to lay golden eggs. As Victoria told the Financial Times’ fashion editor Vanessa Friedman: “I’m a very polarizing figure: some people like me and some people really don’t” (December 9, 2011). Being loathed, detested or abhorred never damaged a celebrity’s career: as long as the figure can elicit strong emotions from a wide constituency of consumers, he or she remains in business. Indifference is the reaction every celebrity or aspiring celebrity needs to avoid. Victoria must have become aware of that during her years with the Spice Girls (1994-98 and 2007-08), a band that sold 75 million cds (and counting). She also seems to have learnt that a white lie dropped into an otherwise truthful narrative never hurts: “From the beginning I didn’t want people to confuse Victoria Beckham the brand with the surname Beckham.” As if.

With no formal design training or background in the fashion trade, did she really believe that her creations would stand any chance of success if she’d launched them incognito or in the name of, say, her sister Louise Adams? Contrary to her declaration, the whole rationale of a clothes range bearing her name was to invite a confusion of the brand with the surname. “Beckham” has been used to sell cars, cologne, razors, underwear, engine oil, felt-tipped pens, and enough commodities to keep eBay busy for years. Maybe the attempt to sell high-end habiliments was audacious, given Victoria’s track record; but anything, literally anything, bearing the imprimatur Beckham was bound to get the world’s attention. Why? Not, we might guess, because of a belief in the innate talent of Victoria or that of her husband, a prodigious athlete in his day but in the sleepy autumn of his sports career at the time of the launch. Nor because Victoria was vested with any great values or principles that would distinguish her as, to use a clichéd term, role model. She was regularly lambasted as a living advertisement for anorexia nervosa and c-section births. But finally, it seems, she has credibility: she may not be up there with Miuccia Prada or Diane von Furstenberg; but she has at least stopped others laughing — and is maybe smiling inside herself.

The X Factor — cool or cruel?

X-Factor at the O2 London

How the show offers a perverse empowerment

The X Factor has turned into torture porn – that’s the film genre that specializes in exposing audiences to the wilfully cruel and sadistic infliction of pain, suffering and humiliation to others.  I’m exaggerating a bit: torture porn, as exemplified in movies such as Hostel, Vile and the Saw series, is intentionally about hurting people. The films attract audiences who share a taste for watching others in pain. The X Factor, by contrast, is supposed to be a talent contest. But it now seems to appeal to the torture porn sensibility: its viewers might once have been drawn to the singers and allowed themselves the indulgence of laughing at the manner in which the judges expressed their disapproval. But the current series seems vicious: the entertainment value of others’ pain seems to have been foregrounded to the point where the singing is almost supplementary.

A few weeks ago, contestant Hannah Sheares and two friends auditioned as Daisy Chain, a band, only to be told that, Hannah herself was passable, but her friends were useless and would have to be dumped. Presumably forgetting that bands like the Supremes, the Three Degrees and Destiny’s Child all did pretty well with a strong lead and two backing singers, the judges offered Hannah the chance to progress as a solo performer. Amid much crying, she did so and lost her friends. “We don’t talk any more,” Hannah stated the obvious. She was eliminated from the show a couple of few weeks later. When the panel gave the same choice to another band, the trio refused, though a week later, the lead singer mysteriously re-appeared minus her two friends, meaning that she had been persuaded. It’s not the first time the show has made enemies out of friends and it could always be argued that the choice always remains with the contestants. Yet it seems a peculiarly vicious and unnecessary way of filtering out “talent” and, if we are honest, the way in which the camera dwells on the breakups suggests the producers think we enjoy becoming voyeurs. Maybe they are right.

The X Factor is not just a television show, it’s a cultural phenomenon. There has never been anything quite like it in the history of television. Starting in 2004, it has launched the careers of Leona Lewis, Alexandra Burke and, of course, One Direction (about whom I blogged a few weeks ago). It has also given career boosts to panellists, particularly Cheryl Cole, Nicole Scherzinger and Tulisa Contostavlos. Its viewing audience is barely believable. Over the years it has regularly snagged 40% of the total audience share and, even in slumps, draws in 10 million viewers. At its historic high point in 2010, 17.2 million tuned in to watch Matt Cardle triumph – that’s over 27% of the total population of the UK. It’s perfectly in sync with today’s culture, inviting audiences to vote using their phones and to tweet, text and engage fully with social media. In a sense it offers a perfect cultural democracy. But, as the show morphs from a talent contest to an all-purpose entertainment platform, its benign character has changed. It is now a heartless, insensitive and callous psychodrama in which astringent is poured on open wounds.

Like the torture porn filmmakers, the X Factor producers would probably shrug and say, “That’s what the audience wants.” They have a point: no one points a gun to the heads of 10 million telly watchers and demands they stay glued to their screens every Saturday and Sunday anymore than filmgoers are scooped up from the streets, strapped into place and forced to watch people having limbs cut off without anaesthetic.  Viewers not only want to watch, they feel entitled to watch the slaughter and the human response that accompanies it. As the torture porn fan delights in witnessing the pleading, the whimpering and, best of all, the sobbing, the X Factor fan enjoys the privilege of observing human emotion at its most painful. We can identify with the rejected wannabes to whom winning would mean “everything” and this confers its own empathic rewards. Living in celebrity culture makes us realize how fragile hopes of instant fame are popular currency. But the real bonus is that we can also identify with the torturers … I mean, the judges: the power to grant someone’s wildest dreams or consign them to oblivion is something viewers have never had, and probably never will have. But by aligning themselves with Sharon or Louis as they traumatize young hopefuls and reduce them to incoherent losers, they get to identify with the powerful too. And the best bit is this: no one feels bad about this. There may be a brief moment of sorrow as the losing contestant blubs inconsolably and either promises to come back stronger or just go back to stacking shelves at the supermarket, but it passes as soon as the next TalkTalk commercial arrives. The perverse empowerment offered by the show is too good to risk undermining with sympathy.

Now the filmed sequences are over, we are into “live” shows and audiences will bear witness to exhibitions of inconsolable distress as their judges deliver their agonizingly prolonged verdicts (“I’m gonna say … ” followed by a 10-second wait). Years ago, we might have felt uncomfortable and switched channels. Who takes pleasure not just in other people’s distress, but in their shameless, often excruciating public display of that distress? I know the answer to this question. So do you.







Downton Abbey and Peaky Blinders

Inter-war Britain through the lens

Britain in turmoil: high unemployment, nationally owned companies being privatized, strikes threatened in all the major industries, a government that is never quite sure it enjoys the support of the nation. Sound familiar? It should be – at least if you watch Downton Abbey and Peaky Blinders. The current Downton Abbey starts in 1922 and Peaky Blinders is set just after the end of the 1914-18 war. The interwar period provides prime material for dramatists and viewers love the gas-lit cobbled streets, the horse drawn carriages, the born-to-rule masters and their obsequious servants. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not embracing nostalgia. Part of the appeal of these programmes lies in how they spirit us back to a time when things were so much worse than they are today. British society might have been a blissful idyll unspoilt by progressive notions like sex equality or workers’ rights, but mostly, it was a joylessly harsh and merciless place where the spectre of the workhouse was never far away.

Before the First World War, the class structure seemed like a permanent feature of British society. Permanent because the industrial working class expected so little. The rulers who lord over Downtown enjoy their privilege by consent: the working class approved of their masters’ rights and by implication their own lowly position in the natural order of things. By the end of the war, the workers were not so easily placated. Four years of conflict with the loss of 956,703 British lives changed things. Industrial disputes became commonplace and radical politics centred on the emergent Labour Party, which was to form its first government in 1923. When unemployment crept towards the two million level, trades unions called for militancy, building eventually to a nationwide general strike in 1926. In Peaky Blinders, we see communist Freddie Thorne preparing for a revolution that never materialized. His friend Tommy Shelby calls him a fantasist and opts for a practical if deviant way of life in which the rewards are more tangible and immediate. We see him and his gang extorting money from Birmingham publicans, shopkeepers, and bookies, or using their razor-lined caps to slice open enemies’ faces.

Downton is supposed to be only a hundred or so miles north of Brum in Yorkshire, but it could be on a different planet. True, we see the working class again, but this time they are domesticated, waiting hand and foot on the landed gentry, taking orders, no matter how unreasonable, with a smile, bowing and scraping, their role in life to cater for every need of their social and moral superiors. The enchantment of Downton Abbey lies partly in its plausible depiction of Britishness, replete with class distinctions, meticulously observed prejudice and downright snobbery. Looking backwards from the 21st century, these practices seem both elegantly civilized and cruelly archaic.

This was a time when women were renegotiating their social status. For long paralyzed politically, they were awarded voting rights by the legal reforms of 1918, after an often-painful campaign by suffragettes. The extension of franchise reflected changing though not altogether enlightened attitudes towards women. For decades before the War, manliness was synonymous with moral goodness as well as physical health and vestiges of this are apparent in both shows: women are always peripheral to the main narrative and either support, encourage or express their appreciation.

The dramas’ embodiments of gender irruptions take the form of Lady Mary, who unexpectedly and unconventionally decides to play an active role in the running of the Downton estate, and Polly Gray, a Brummie Valkyrie, who masterminds criminal operations for all-men gangs. Birmingham, by the way, never looked so gorgeous on screen, shot through a smoky industrial haze with sprays of furnace sparks decorating its streets like firework displays (compare with Martin Scorsese’s New York in his Gangs of New York).

The 1920s were known in America as the “Jazz Age,” a period characterized by carefree hedonism, wealth, freedom and the kind of exuberance we find in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald and, of course, the movies based on his work, The Great Gatsby being the most famous. There’s no evidence of this at Downton yet, but it promises to arrive over the coming weeks with two new characters: a breezy relative from Scotland and the show’s first black character, who is a jazz musician.

The narratives of both dramas are congruent with both the laissez-faire doctrine of individual action unrestricted by government interference and a conception of masculinity in which the vigorous, physical and pursuit of goals is the ideal.   Both chime with the free market ideology. The gangsters of Peaky Blinders are almost character studies in cutthroat capitalism, individualistic, operating privately and driven solely by profit; they are friends of anyone with whom they can do business, regardless of political or any other kind of affiliation. So we see them dealing with the IRA, the British government, other gangsters – anyone who can be used to turn a penny.

If Peaky Blinders is inspired, if not based on reality, it is also ludicrously fantasticated: whenever it threatens to become believable, there is a comically false Brummie accent, a contemporary phrase or an outfit that is so glaringly out-of-place that the drama’s plausibility, weak at best, crumbles. This is a pity because the subject matter and the social context is so promising and the issues seems so fresh. The worst offence of Downton Abbey, apart from the clichéd characters and its social Manichaeism, dividing upper from working class as if Britain still had a strictly two-class structure with no emergent bourgeoisie, is its uninspired inclusion of a comic character in the form of the  Dowager Countess of Grantham’s Father, who might, in another script, be a vile, imperious, heartless matriarch who looks down on … well, everyone apart from the upper class. In Downton, she comes across as a basically well meaning, if misguided but deeply implausible figure with a nice way of putting people down.