Return of the Bright Young People

Article excerpt

Glamour's Golden Years: Episode 2, "Beautiful and Damned." Dir. Colin Lennox. BBC4 TV. October 2009; repeated December 2010. Reviewed by Jeffrey Manley.

This episode appeared as part of a series of three devoted to the cultural revolution that occurred in Britain in the years between the wars. The first dealt with architecture and design, with a focus on Art Deco and modernism, the third with the influence of Hollywood films on British culture. The second was devoted to the so-called Bright Young People of the 1920s. Presenters included Philip Hoare (biographer of Stephen Tennant), Selina Hastings (biographer of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford), Lucy Moore (author of Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties) and D. J. Taylor (author of a cultural survey entitled The Bright Young People). Indeed, Taylor's book (reviewed in EWNS 41.2 and 39.1) seems to have been the basis for the program's script, which follows his description and interpretation of participants in the BYP and their cultural/historical importance. No scriptwriter is mentioned in the credits.

The program follows the careers of three participants in the BYP (Stephen Tennant, Elizabeth Ponsonby and Brenda Dean Paul) and two observers and chroniclers of that movement (Evelyn Waugh and Cecil Beaton). The three examples of BYPs were all from well-established upper-class families. Philip Hoare provides most of the narrative on Stephan Tennant, whose primary talent seems to have been drawing attention to himself as a thing of beauty. Nancy Mitford drew heavily on Tennant for her character Cedric Hampton in Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, and Caroline Blackwood compared him to David Bowie (unfair because Bowie can sing). Taylor provides much of the narrative on Ponsonby (a prime party-giver and goer) and Dean Paul, who like Tennant managed to draw attention to herself but in a more flamboyant manner that attracted not only newspapers but also police. Ponsonby is said to have been the model for Agatha Runcible in Vile Bodies. All of these BYP are seen as precursors of today's celebrities, famous for being famous, and cleverly manipulating the media to promote themselves.

Waugh and Beaton despised each other in childhood and would probably resent their linkage. They were both middle-class boys who worked their ways into the fringes of the BYP. They were not leaders or participants but observers. Each used what he observed to produce records of the BYP which remain among the most valuable cultural legacies of the movement. Philip Hoare is shown browsing the photo archives left by Beaton and housed for some unexplained reason at Sotheby's. He selects and explicates numerous photographs, many of which also appeared in Taylor's book. Waugh's first two novels, particularly Vile Bodies, are cited as primary sources for insights into the life of the BYP. …