When a communications specialist such as Lord Birt loses his rag after his keynote MacTaggart lecture, it is time to review the basics of social etiquette
I should be guilty of false modesty were I not to aver that this column is the glass of fashion and the mould of form. But, accustomed as I am to receiving requests from readers for tips and advice on style and manners, I have been quite overwhelmed by the bulging postbags following recent reports of Lord Birt’s dinner conversation.
For the benefit of those of you who were away on holiday or for some other reason unaccountably missed the event to which I refer, here is a brief summary. Lord Birt, the former director-general of the BBC and now blue-sky thinker by appointment to the Prime Minister, delivered this year’s MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival. Afterwards, he was guest of honour at a dinner hosted by The Guardian newspaper. During conversation around the table, he was asked a question by the paper’s media editor Matt Wells. His response was: “Who the fuck are you? Who the fuck are you?” Wells repeated his question and Lord Birt, confident that he had found les mots justes replied: “Who the fuck are you?” adding, “And why are you wearing a tie? Nobody else here is wearing a tie.” When Wells finally managed to introduce himself, Lord Birt, who in his lecture earlier that evening had called for more truth and beauty, replied: “So you write bollocks and now you’re going to talk bollocks too.”
From my correspondence I have chosen a few representative examples of the problems of etiquette and style raised by Lord Birt’s example. I trust they will be of help to other readers who may also be perplexed by the requirements of modern manners.
Is it now acceptable to use four-letter words in polite society? Not merely acceptable but de rigueur. If, for instance, at the dinner table of a duchess who, after the fashion of Jane Austen, were to say: “My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation,” the polite response is, “Too fucking true, Your Grace.”
But don’t some people find these words offensive? Ignorant people might, but as director-general of the BBC Birt gave us guidance on this point. When scores of viewers complained about Billy Connolly’s swearing, he said: “These complaints must be set against the fact that a large audience thoroughly enjoy one of Britain’s funniest comedians”.
We are fortunate in having Lord Birt among us. Earlier generations had to make do with fictitious characters, but in Birt we have the Vicar of Bray, Mr Pecksniff and Mr Pooter all made flesh in a single being. He is truly a national treasure and anyone who finds his language colourful, his mien outrÃ©, should set that against his inestimable amusement value.
Why is it wrong to wear a tie? Artistic, creative, thinking people, a group at whose apex sits Lord Birt, have long dispensed with neckties, which are a symbol of stuffy conformity. Perhaps The Guardian’s media editor overlooked the stipulation at the bottom of his invitation, “No tie”. Women should note that in their case the rule is “No earrings”, though this does not apply to men.
It ought to be noted here that John Birt pioneered the style that has become known as sac des furets. This fashion requires its devotees to buy expensive, designer clothes and to wear them in such a way as to resemble a bag of ferrets.
When meeting a journalist, is “Who the fuck are you?” the correct form of address? Most certainly, especially when, as was the case with Lord Birt, you have but recently issued a lecture ex cathedra. Since your words are infallible they cannot be challenged, so it is appropriate to question the would-be interlocutor’s name and indeed his sanity.
Those who were fortunate to be in the audience when Lord Birt of Blue Skies delivered his sermon were amazed at the breadth of his experience. Eyes widened as he recalled his influential presence at every significant event in broadcasting history, and recalled his meetings with everyone of any consequence in public life, including every prime minister since Mr Gladstone. They listened in rapt admiration as he described how, on a helicopter trip, Marianne Faithfull “unselfconsciously ground her bum against me”. Seldom can two such conspicuous bums have been in such close proximity.
According to the entertainment publication Variety, many members of the Edinburgh audience later described Lord Birt’s address variously as “painful”, “self-serving”, and “tedious”. Such ill manners can be put down to nothing more complicated than simple jealousy. Confronted by these critics, this latter-day fusion of Beau Brummel and Ludwig Wittgenstein would no doubt flick a globule of spittle from his crumpled Armani, peer owl-like through his designer specs, and ask, “Who the fuck are you?”