Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Greg Dixon: A real touch of class

John Spencer, the 11th Duke of Marlborough plays tour guide.
John Spencer, the 11th Duke of Marlborough plays tour guide.

Thank God for Britain's class system.

Without those chinless toffs at the top, the bowler-hatted money-grubbing middle classes in the centre and the lovable working classes doffing their lovable cloth caps at the bottom, my television entertainment choices down the years would be so much the poorer.

Some of my favourite TV series - to name three, Brideshead Revisited, The Good Life, Auf Wiedersehen Pet - have been saturated in British class consciousness, comment, clashes and observation. Even from the other side of the planet, you cannot help but understand that there is us, there is them and there is the other lot.

Of the three classes, I have to say (sorry Auf Pet's Oz and Barry and The Good Life's Tom and Barbara) that I find the toffs vastly more entertaining than the rest (only on TV, of course). This is why I approached the first episode of The Aristocrats (7.30pm, Fridays, Prime) with such relish.

This is not a class-conscious comedy. Nor is it a class-conscious drama.

It is a class-conscious documentary. Though the series' first part, The Aristocrats: Blenheim Palace, about the 11th Duke of Marlborough, his heir and their vast country pile, was certainly a documentary with laughs and plenty of drama.

Made by a Bafta-winning documentary-maker called Patrick Forbes, it was a study of a family in crisis, which was why Forbes chose to open the programme by quoting the opening sentence of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

The Spencer-Churchill family, for it is they who own Blenheim, are unhappy in their own way because the present duke, an 86-year-old ex-Guards officer called John, and his eldest son Jamie, the Marquess of Blandford, fell out rather dramatically in the 1990s after the latter ended up doing porridge because he was a coke-head.

The father tried to disinherit the son from the palace (one of the biggest in England, bigger even than the Queen's official residence, Buck House), which the father, 11th Duke, had in the meantime turned into a upmarket tourist trap for the middle and lower classes.

We find father and son (who has recovered from his wild years and now has a family of his own) trying to rub along in spite of the old wounds.

Forbes, who seems to have been granted quite extraordinary access, played a straight bat on the feud. He let father and son say their piece and - how rare for so much television documentary and current affairs these days - let the audience make up their own minds about these very different men.

I just wished Forbes had shown us a bit more of the palace, which would clearly be a bloody brilliant place to spend a day. It's got a huge forecourt and what look like amazing gardens, and it might have been nice if he'd let the viewer be just another tourist for a bit.

The family's quite clearly fascinating history (Sir Winston Churchill is a distant relative) was given only a once-over-lightly at the very beginning show. But I suppose, when you have family whose present generation is as f***ed up as this, who cares about the 18th century?

In any case, I can't wait for the other three episodes for the simple reason that if happy families are all alike then unhappy families are completely madly entertainingly mental in their own ways.

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Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Canvas deputy editor Greg Dixon has spent more than 20 years working as a journalist for the New Zealand Herald and North & South and Metro magazines. He has been deputy editor of Canvas since 2008 and has won awards for his writing and editing, but would have preferred a pay rise.

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