The Duchess vs ‘white trash’ Britain

Yes, it was sickening to see Sarah Ferguson on TV lecturing a poor family about food. But all food-makeover shows come with a side order of snobbery.

Rob Lyons

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Could anyone have devised a more patronising situation? A failed royal with a history of weight problems parachutes into one of the poorest and most run-down areas of Britain to offer a ‘typical unhealthy family’ her wisdom on how they can shape up. And yet, as nauseating as this idea might be, the fact is that television has been the authorities’ partner-in-crime in a condescending approach to the poor for some time now.

The Duchess in Hull, shown on ITV on Monday and Tuesday night this week, showed Sarah ‘Fergie’ Ferguson, Duchess of York and former wife of Prince Andrew, relating how her own problems of body image and self-esteem have led her on a tortuous journey; now, she says, she can just about deal with her anxiety and self-loathing. Having left Britain under a cloud as the gauche ex-member of the royal family most famous for being caught on camera sucking the toes of a Texan businessman, she managed to reinvent herself as a ‘personality’ in the US, winning a guest appearance on Friends and becoming an ambassador for Weight Watchers.

Each morning, we’re told, Fergie (not to be confused with the ruddy-faced manager of Manchester United or the skinny blonde chick from the Black Eyed Peas) gets up and has a vigorous workout with her personal trainer. Only by doing this, and thus feeling better about herself, can the duchess face the day ahead. ‘I find it difficult to deal with the darkness in the morning’, she shares. Then, it’s straight back to her apartment overlooking Central Park, where a friendly member of staff has run her a bath filled with ice. She doesn’t seem to know why she should bathe in ice, other than that top athletes do it. Never mind – the depressed duchess is now full of beans and everything is fun, even sticking your naked butt into freezing cold water.

Meanwhile, 3,400 miles away, the Sargerson family live on a council estate in the English east coast city of Hull. In 2005, Hull was declared the worst place to live in the UK by Channel 4 property show, Location, Location, Location. Fortunately, things have improved since then: in 2007, Hull was voted the second worst place to live. The only way is up.

The Sargersons are the TV world’s stereotypical working-class (but not actually working) family. Mum Tonya is 47 years old and has heart problems; she could do with a little cosmetic dental work, to say the least. Dad Mick is a 51-year-old ex-squaddie who knackered his back in the army, hasn’t worked for years and now has type-2 diabetes. They’ve been married for 22 years. Daughter Teri, 25, doesn’t live at home any more. She’s the only one in the family with a job. But she’s as chubby as her mum and smokes like her, too. In fact, all of the Sargersons like a fag, including Harry (17), Mikey (14) and Mark (13). The only one who doesn’t smoke is soon-to-be-adopted daughter, Olive. She’s only seven.

You can tell Fergie’s been away from Britain because when the mysterious stranger comes to call on the Sargersons, none of them recognises her. But they’ve heard of her and they are slightly overwhelmed. Tonya and Mick seem delighted that someone famous, someone from ‘out there’ as it were, is taking an interest in them. Fergie’s personable and unselfconscious manner wins the parents over. The kids, on the other hand, are more cynical. Mark carries on smoking in front of her. Harry calls her visit a ‘publicity stunt’.

The Sargersons have just £80 per week to feed Tonya, Mick, Harry, Mikey, Mark and Olive. So Fergie goes to the local budget supermarket to see for herself how they manage to feed six people on so little. She can’t resist the urge to push a trolley around. ‘I don’t normally go to supermarkets!’ After a week of psychobabble conversations, about ‘helping each other’ and not wanting to impose solutions on the family, Fergie departs to consider a plan of action.

Incredibly, the plan of action is… er… the same as everybody else’s plan of action these days: change eating habits, do more exercise, quit the fags. All of these proposals are fronted by a professor. And, luckily, there are more National Health Service schemes to support these behavioural changes than you can shake a stick at. There’s the cookery classes, where you can learn how to make chilli and find out about nutrition. There’s the subsidised gym membership so you don’t have to jog around the estate. There’s the smoking cessation sessions.

The Duchess in Hull is one big advert to show how jolly nice Fergie is. So it’s not surprising that it avoids asking one very obvious question: why does she have an apartment in New York and staff while the Sargersons – who seem like thoroughly decent people in a rut – have to feed themselves on 80 quid a week? The Daily Mail‘s Allison Pearson was suitably cynical about the whole affair: ‘Truly, there is nothing our brave Duchess won’t do. Marvel as she leaves her New York penthouse and roughs it in a humble B&B for a whole week! Gasp in admiration as she enters a supermarket, where the lower orders are rumoured to do their shopping, and identifies some pears!’

Poor people being patronised by the upper classes is nothing new, of course. In The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937, George Orwell recounts the anger of one communist activist: ‘In London, he said, parties of Society dames now have the cheek to walk into East End houses and give shopping lessons to the wives of the unemployed. He gave this as an instance of the mentality of the English governing class. First you condemn a family to live on thirty shillings a week, and then you have the damned impertinence to tell them how they are to spend their money.’

Fergie’s self-serving mission to enlighten the lower orders, it is true, is rather sickening. For all her gauche charm, the programme seemed to be All About Her. She may have spent the past 20 years getting a kicking from the British press for Not Being Diana, but that hardly compares to the problems faced by the Sargersons. Fergie’s problem is trying not to eat too much; the Sargersons’ problem is struggling to eat enough – at least, enough of anything that isn’t just fat and stodge.

What Fergie brings to the table, as it were, is a piping-hot, three-course meal from the kitchens of the Therapy Culture. This kind of thing goes down a storm in America where ‘couch potato’ could just as easily refer to someone spending all their time with a therapist as a wobble-bottom stuffing their face with Pringles in front of the TV. What’s so sad about The Duchess in Hull is that people who, even quite recently, would have told the privileged Ms Ferguson to shove her advice up the ample place where the sun don’t shine are now open to the intervention of duchesses – and more normally health experts – into the most intimate areas of their lives.

And television has been only too happy to promote these themes, most notably with the odious Gillian McKeith in You Are What You Eat, but also in innumerable other programmes, too. The standard format for these shows is ‘guilt-trip-the-fat-people-until-they-cry-and-surrender-to-the-expert’. Surprise, surprise, there were plenty of tears in The Duchess in Hull.

So yes, let us attack the duchess and her patronising TV trip – but let us recognise that posh woman vs poor ‘white trash’ is only a more explicit version of the kind of snobbery that is rife in TV food and makeover shows these days, from St Jamie Oliver’s school dinners crusade to Channel 4’s morally-pornographic shock-shows on horrible fat Americans. If the duchess and others want to improve their self-image, let them – but not at the expense of our self-respect.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons described the obesity panic as a ‘war on the poor’, demanded a ceasefire and warned about the way the government was using obesity to start weighing into family life. Dan Travis thought giving children pedometers was a step in the wrong direction. Josie Appleton said there’s more to childhood than counting calories. Or read more at: spiked issue Obesity.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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