Taking the Bait

Bear Baiting, Benedict Cumberbatch And Upping Sticks When The Going Gets Posh

As blood sports go, bear-baiting is up there among the most brutal and repugnant. Still, there is always a silver-lining to be gleaned from our primitive, ancestral fetishes and bear-baiting is no exception. I made a pleasing discovery recently; it was responsible for the idioms ‘top dog’ and ‘underdog’ entering our vocabulary. The top dog was trained to attack the bear’s head and was practically guaranteed survival. The other, less fortunate mutt attacked below the beast and was doomed to be crushed to death.

From one delightful blood sport to the next, we arrive at the 21st century equivalent; ‘posh-bashing’. According to Benedict Cumberbatch, the top dog of the British acting elite, you can’t leave your front door for ‘all the posh-bashing that goes on’ in Britain today. Yes, it’s true; Robespierre has returned and is murderously gallivanting around the British countryside, guillotining the landed gentry at will, baying for both blood and le pain.

Well no, posh-bashing is hardly the past-time du jour. But we should forgive Cumberbatch for getting us into an excitable frenzy over this non-event; he is a thespian, and his hyperbolic tendencies know no bounds. After all, this is Cumberbatch, who heroically shunned Oxbridge to go to Manchester University and seems to expect a medal for it. ‘Not that Manchester was really roughing it’, he clarifies (it was just semi-roughing it, right?). His childhood was ‘all a bit Just William’ and he describes his new found fame as nothing short of ‘vertiginous’. But Cumberbatch has had enough of all the sniggering; ‘It’s just so predictable, so domestic and so dumb. It makes me think I want to go to America,’ he declared airily. Talk about #FirstWorldProblems.

What do the underdogs make of all this? While there is grudging acceptance that emigration is an excellent idea when times get tough, (ask any Irish potato farmer from the nineteenth century) upping sticks because of a (deeply misguided) sense of victimhood is a bit far-fetched.

Cumberbatch should realise that class distinctions are part and parcel of British society and culture. The French and Russians all rather boringly did away with it with their bloody revolutions, but no, not us. From the battle of Waterloo, supposedly won on the ‘playing-fields of Eton’, to Thatcher’s war against the miners and their communities, class has infused our cultural heritage and sense of identity, leaving us with a rich residue of Billy Elliots, Just Williams and raging debates over the worth of the Royal Family and the cast of The Only Way is Essex. Who can forget the brilliant Monty Python ‘Four Yorkshire Men’ sketch, each man trying to outdo the other with preposterous boasts of poverty-stricken upbringings? Who can deny Cheryl Cole, proudly and publicly intoning her working-class roots? Who wasn’t interested when ‘commoner’ Kate married into the most exclusive family of them all?

But there’s also a more serious side to class distinctions. For all the romantic notions of identity they generate, posh-bashing serves an important societal purpose. Deriding ‘posh boys’, such as those running this country without knowledge of the price of milk, is an important form of social heckling that condemns injustice and reminds us that gnawing poverty remains an omnipresent feature of 21st century Britain. Cumberbatch should ease off the self-pity and instead exercise some humour and humility. He must gratefully accept his privileged place in our history or move on, to the States if need be. But he must be warned: there’s a paler cultural history there; not the mighty top dogs and magnificent under dogs, but only their inferior cousin, the hot dog. Then he’ll be really sorry.