David Cameron returns to government and the film Saltburn, a horror version of Brideshead Revisited and its longing for aristocracy, opens to greet him. Both offer an irresistible mirage of the British class system. Both have a David Cameron at their heart.
Cameron is part of the Etonian hegemony that rose after Tony Blair; in 2010 Gordon Brown just didn’t seem right. A centre-Left government will always struggle in a constitutional monarchy — we expect our leaders to look like Imperial-era portraits — and Brown wasn’t as soothingly upper middle class as Blair. The Cameron administration was gaudy, superficially competent, and, in retrospect, it failed utterly, leaving us ripe for Brexit, Boris Johnson and other emerging horrors. I am surprised that Cameron has the nerve to return, but they don’t teach shame at Eton. Everything that terrifies us — the populism, the growing lack of trust in liberal democracy, the contempt, the rage — grew in the embers of Cameron’s inborn incuriosity and complacence. This is an unequal country with a corrupt or gormless political class, failing public services and a population drugged by trash culture who will take to the streets to terrorise elected politicians and vulnerable minorities at weekends. Austerity broke us, and Cameron built a shepherd’s hut in the wreckage: David Antoinette! At least the housing stock increased by one unit. I don’t believe the pig story for one moment. It is too pure a metaphor for a man with no imagination.
With the film Saltburn, the monied make satire about themselves, which only enriches them further
If he minds what I say — and he won’t — he might console himself by watching Emerald Fennell’s film Saltburn. Fennell is the daughter of the jeweller Theo Fennell, and she played Camilla Shand in The Crown. The monied make satire about themselves, which is rather pointless since it only enriches them further; this is class anxiety written by a woman named after a jewel, which deserves satire of its own. Saltburn is named for a mythical palace in the English countryside. It’s a fixed point in the collective British imagination. It’s Brideshead, Thornfield Hall and Hogwarts Castle.
There is a David Cameron here: Felix, the titled, wealthy heir to Saltburn. He is superficially kindly and superficially guilty. Everything about Felix is superficial; he is the empty hero at the heart of all imagined love affairs. He has an antagonist in Oliver, the middle-class boy he meets at Oxford, who would consume him. Felix means luck, and he has it. Oliver doesn’t. He has nothing, and so he does what no one does in life: he takes it all, and the film tells you how he does it. Saltburn is a revenge fantasy, with the emphasis on fantasy. It is all plausible — except the end.
You might think the century-old Brideshead aesthetic is dead: Charles aching for Sebastian, Jane for Rochester, Oliver for Felix. It isn’t. Rather, it thrived again under Cameron, who began to return us to a second Edwardian age. It doesn’t matter that the gilded can’t be happy in Brideshead/Saltburn/ Thornfield, where they are addled by their privilege. (The female characters go to rehab. The male characters — Felix aside — are mad). That part is a comforting lie. The rich are different, it is true. They are happier. So Saltburn meets the aesthetic of the age. If it is derivative, then so are we.
Why I'm tired with The Crown
The Crown, Peter Morgan’s long series about Elizabeth II, is ending. The first four episodes of the final season have been released, and they are about the last days of Diana, Princess of Wales. It seems cruel, in retrospect, to fictionalise such an unlucky woman, but we are all guilty of that. Morgan lets himself off by sanctifying her, creating a woman incapable of malice or self-deception; a fairy princess from the beginning. (Her first appearance is in ballet costume). In Elizabeth Debicki's hands, Diana is simply tired. Six seasons in, I am too: tired of myths and princesses; tired of projecting importance onto things that do not have them. The Crown, like the class system it fetishises, is a distraction from real life where dangerous things lurk. We must make culture about ourselves while we still have it. Can we?
Tanya Gold is a columnist