Donald Clarke: Class still rules – it’s just harder to tell

Being born to the right family is still invaluable when trying to hold the levers of power

The irreplaceable Sir Roger Moore died last week at the age of 89. Look into his background and you could be forgiven for thinking that one strain of the English class system died with him.

Sir Roger Moore was, on the surface, an archetypal English gentleman. He knew how to wear a double-breasted blazer. Most emotions could be expressed through the raising or lowering of an eyebrow. He knew the right mode of address for an archdeacon (I’m betting). Where did he school, I wonder. Harrow or the Other Place.

In fact, Moore was raised, the son of a policeman, in a little celebrated corner of south London. The gentleman you saw in films and in interviews was something of a creation. He was from the last generation of actors who felt they had to talk proper to get along in the theatre.

That all changed when, in the early 1960s, “regional” actors such as Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney stormed the business.


A few younger performers still made the transformation. Peter Bowles, another archetypal English gent, is the son of a chauffeur from the West Midlands. Sir Patrick Stewart, than whom there is none more Shakespearean, grew up speaking a thick West Yorkshire dialect.

The influence that results from being born into the right sort of family is still invaluable

Neither saw what was coming and allowed elocution teachers to make them what they are now.

Drama school

Those born in the 1930s and early 1940s couldn't have known what was coming. Michael Caine, older than Bowles or Stewart, had the good fortune not to attend drama school.

There was nobody to make him sound like something other than the son of a fish market porter (which he is).

Like his mate Terrence Stamp, he arrived with the perfect accent for the newly egalitarian 1960s. The end of national service, the arrival of the welfare state and relative prosperity allowed working-class actors and musicians the freedom to mould popular culture to their own ends.

Even the Conservative Party changed. Edward Heath, raised as a working-class boy in Broadstairs, felt, like Roger Moore (and this may be the only comparison between the two men), the need to talk as if plums were squabbling in his mouth, but his background did nothing to stop him from succeeding the sometime Lord Dunglass to leadership of the Tories in 1965. How's that for egalitarianism? They'll be electing shopkeepers' daughters next.

So this is all clear, then. At some point in the 1960s class ceased to matter in British society and opportunities opened up to all.

Dad’s Army and Fawlty Towers, two series whose humour hinged upon class, were funny because they ridiculed those who still cared.

Captain Mainwaring and Basil Fawlty – relatively ordinary men carrying massive chips – were relics of a bygone generation who remembered powdered eggs. Do I have that right? It’s all over now.

I'm being facetious, of course. In the world of acting, the public schools have more influence than they have ever had. Damien Lewis, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne and Dominic West all went to Eton. Benedict Cumberbatch went to Harrow.

Never forget that excruciating moment when David Cameron forgot what football team he was supposed to support

Etonian David Cameron’s cabinet was groaning with enough fellow schoolmates to satisfy the Marquess of Salisbury (and Theresa May’s is little better). The influence that results from being born into the right sort of family is still invaluable when attempting to get a handle on the levers of power.

Largely superficial

What changed in the 1960s was largely superficial. It became more acceptable to appear less upper class when manoeuvring one's way up the greasy pole. Indeed, by the 1990s, it was seen as essential to come across as a man of the people.

Pretend to support a football team. Don’t be seen too near the opera. Fake an interest in Coronation Street.

Tony Blair’s nauseating faux-blokiness made this all too apparent. The son of a barrister (admittedly himself from a humble background), Blair was educated at the distinguished Fettes College – “the Eton of the North” – in Edinburgh, but, when addressing the TV audience, felt the need to litter his conversation with the odd “you know” and the occasional “like” to emphasise his supposed ordinariness.

Never forget that excruciating moment when Cameron forgot what football team he was supposed to support.

There's not much to celebrate in the current grubby bust-up between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, but we can say that, in class terms, they are who they seem to be.

Both are middle-class in different ways. May is middle-class like a vicar’s daughter from the Home Counties: buttoned-up, clipped, socially reserved. Corbyn is middle-class in an urban geography-teacher fashion: scuffed, bearded, at home to jam-making.

Roger Moore would have recognised those types when, 60 years ago, he was starting out in the business. Did it all change back again? Or did it never change in the first place?