HOW exactly ought we to live? What should we foster as the
proper relationship between the competing forces of our thoughts,
our feelings, and our moral determination? I was unprepared for
what serious considerations would be thrown up by the series
Ian Hislop's Stiff Upper Lip: An emotional history of
Britain (BBC2, Tuesdays).
Hislop's documentaries are admirable, but their one flaw is a
slightly queasy contrast between his unfashionable but important
points, and the jokey way he makes them. It is as though he is
constantly fighting the temptation to pull the rug out from under
his own feet, eager to entertain as well as instruct us, his
default mode a kind of cheerful mockery.
He explained that the British used to be thought of as
particularly emotional, wearing their hearts on their sleeves and
hotheadedly eager for action without much thinking about it first.
In the 18th century, the cult of sensibility took over,
demonstrating that real men (it was mainly men) were open to
But the subsequent restrained and reserved character of the
British was a reaction: first, to the horrors and threats of the
French Revolution, and then to Napoleon's conquests. Just look
where untrammelled emotions got you!
We had to find a different path, and Nelson stood on the cusp
between the older model and what was to come after: he had a
generous heart, and yet was actuated by overwhelming duty and
loyalty. Jane Austen's works chronicle the turning point. Her
clowns are overwhelmed by over-indulgent feeling, while her heroes
are ironic, controlled.
The model of British reserve was Wellington: in the heat of
battle he was disciplined, and aloof to pain and distress. But this
was not because he was unfeeling; his dry understatement of speech
was an act of repression, adopted so that he could focus on his
Our main interest here is how much this thesis is paralleled in
the character of the National Church.
The documentary series Servants: The true story of life
below stairs (BBC2, Friday of last week) puts all those
nostalgic costume dramas about sympathetic toffs and their chirpy
underlings into perspective. The work was back-breaking and
unrelenting, and many servants were considered to be essentially
interchangeable. Their masters did not know their names, and they
were in no sense, despite the influence of Christianity, equal. In
the 19th century, servants' hierarchies were ever more minutely
determined by different uniforms, their individuality sacrificed to
The triumph of today's more equal society is no doubt accurately
chronicled by the new thriller series Hunted (BBC1,
Thursdays). Here, a young woman calls the shots, despite a
traumatic childhood that means she can only enjoy a good night's
sleep crouched in the corner.
She works as some kind of secret agent, seducing one victim
after another, but keeping her heart unsullied. She managed to
kill, I think, five people in one sequence, but is clearly meant to
be the moral centre of the piece, desperately trying to work out
which of her colleagues is playing a double (or triple) game. It is
compelling - and reprehensible.