Common Problem: Julie Burchill Stumbles on an Age-Old Working-Class Dispute

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Chavs (Sky 1)

Now I have truly seen it all: Julie Burchill ticking off another columnist for being outspoken. On Sky 1's thorough and thoroughly entertaining documentary Chavs (21 February, 9pm), she and Vanessa Feltz got into a row over Lizzie Bardsley, the work-shy chav who achieved a perverse, Heat-level celebrity by admitting on Channel 4's Wife Swap that the state funded her bulging family. Feltz felt that, as a taxpayer, it was not her purpose in life to support the indolent. Burchill disagreed, suggesting (to the surprise, surely, of anyone who has ever been on the sharp end of her pen) that the purpose of life is to "spread the love around". "How much love has Lizzie Bardsley spread around?" asked Feltz. Burchill replied: "She's got eight kids--she's spread it around lots." To which Feltz, with rapier wit, countered: "She's spread her legs a lot." Burchill blanched and flapped a hand at her: "That's bad!"

Burchill's defence of Bardsley made me regret that she and Auberon Waugh never debated class on television. But then, class has not been a subject that television has been prepared to discuss full-frontally for decades. The blanket of silence will have descended after the Second World War, when the classes were supposed to be working together to build the new Britain. By the Sixties, when I was growing up, "common" was a taboo word we middle classes were teaching ourselves not to use. But just by eradicating a term, you do not abolish the thing that it describes. In the mid-1980s, vocabulary found a regional loophole and invented Essex Man and EssexGirl. Then, a year or so ago, Inoticed the words "pikey" and "chav" were being used as synonyms for "common". My heart leapt: it was OK to make remarks about class again.

Except, said Burchill, it is not OK. You have to admire Sky 1, even as it attempts to crawl upmarket, for confronting the image of its mainstay audience. And you have to admire Burchill--or, more likely, her director and producer, Caz Gorham--for finding the right interviewees and film footage to illustrate the arguments that Burchill delivered in the back of a limo to her acolyte Jackie Clune (she who plays the great woman on stage).

Although there was a bit of supporting history and sociology, Burchill's case was buttressed mainly by her personal and, perhaps, sexual preferences. Her argument was not always easy to discern: as in print, brilliant writer though she is, Burchill's sentences are stronger than her paragraphs and her paragraphs stronger than her columns. In the end, her argument seemed to boil down to this: she liked chavs and chav values and it was all right for her to say this. It was not, however, all right for the middle classes to identify chavs and dislike their values, because that was being unfair. …