This may or may not be part of an occasional series in which I respond briefly to things I’ve just watched, called ‘I’ve just watched…’
I’ve just watched episode 4 of BBC3’s horror series Life is Toff. It’s not really a horror series, it’s a reality show following a family of aristocrats called the Fulfords. They’ve already been the subject of a BBC series, The Fucking Fulfords– I watched about five minutes and had a hate aneurysm, so I can’t say much about that. Life is Toff focuses more on patriarch Francis Fulford’s children, who are aged between 18 and 21. Arthur and Tilly are the oldest- they are twins but only Arthur, because of his penis, can inherit their vast, grimy, crumbling house, Great Fulford. Humphrey is younger, he is in the territorial army and likes killing squirrels and making them into novelty ashtrays, with a terrifying gleam in his eye. Edmund is the youngest.
Although I am a feminist and do try to root for women in all things, Tilly’s ineligibility to inherit Great Fulford is about one millionth on my list of feminist concerns. The show wants me to feel for her but I just don’t. Honestly I think she is dodging a bullet, where the bullet is spending the next decades lording it over a mouldy, broken, filthy house, being watched over by paintings of judgey ancestors, before dying in a horse riding accident or revolutionary retribution murder. Imagine Grey Gardens but lonelier because at least they had each other.
The opening scenes of this episode invite the Fulfords to talk about the history of their family. Shots of Tilly making a mould for a bust of Arthur, for posterity and to get some good footage of Arthur looking foolish, are edited together with various still shots of the judgey ancestors, and Edmund talking to camera about how he doesn’t know who the fuck any of them are, and he doesn’t want to know because he doesn’t really care. Francis, in an interview, expresses some fine sentiments about the history and traditions of their family and his hopes that Arthur will take care of their legacy. All I have seen the Fulfords do so far is kill small animals, fail at simple tasks, and hurt each other. This must be the legacy Francis is referring to.
The Fulfords way overvalue the history of their family, and talk a lot about it being 800 years old, something I find really uninteresting. I mean my family is 800 years old too, in the sense that I am the descendant of many different people, some of whom were alive 800 years ago. Some of them were alive 10,000 years ago! I wish Francis would say what he means- that he’s better than everyone else.
Every week the children take on a task that is clearly beyond their capabilities. Last week, having no cheese experience, they tried to make, brand and sell a line of cheeses. This week, to rebuild the family’s relationship to the people in the nearby village they used to own, they were tasked with running a stall at the village show and raising money for the local primary school. They raised about £12, by getting children to stick their hands into a tub of baked beans and pull out some prizes.
My favourite moment is when Francis is asked if he plans to strengthen his family’s ties to the village, and he answers “Well they can’t let you buy the fucking village back! Don’t ask a silly question. That’d cost millions!”, and then snorts loudly as if the man interviewing him is an idiot. I find it priceless and fascinating that he is asked a question about relationships between people, but only heard a question about the relationship between himself and some property. Things get dark as Francis and Arthur go to look at the graves of their ancestors, and we see a sequence of different gravestones for men named Francis Fulford- this made me feel like their whole universe, and the pride they take in coming from a long line of feudal lords named Francis who lived exactly the same life, is intensely creepy. The closing minutes which show the whole family having a food fight and frolicking in the garden are so forced, they change nothing of what you have already seen.
As usual, the show wants you to laugh at the incompetence of the Fulford children, their bad ideas and poor grasp of how things work, and then for a few minutes at the end to find them charming and eccentric. I think it would be extremely easy to argue that Life is Toff trivialises England’s history of extreme racist violence and its brutal class system, or buries it in the story of these bizarre human relics who are both cruel and quaint, sinister and sympathetic. One local man interviewed for a montage at the end of the show says, excusing their strangeness, “They’re part of England, isn’t it? That’s what it’s part of. England.” I think that if the show retains some ambivalence, it is because what you see the Fulfords doing is too disturbing to be folded back into the dominant story with its upbeat ending.
And so…to the baked beans. I cannot deal with the fact that at the end of the village show they tipped the whole tub of beans out next to a hedge, as if they were going to vanish into the ground like water. Cannot. Deal. The shot that revealed this was so brief- less than a second- but I’ve been thinking about it for like an hour now. I feel like it’s details like this, that can’t be recuperated into the narrative about them being daft and worrying but also just harmless British eccentrics, that reveal how truly anachronistic and wrong this whole family is. There is no accounting for this moment.
I want to talk to them about the baked beans. I’d say, “Do you realise that you can’t get rid of a bathtub full of baked beans by just tipping them onto the ground? They will just stay there for ages. I know you have all these beans now, and that’s a problem, but this is not a solution to your problem.” I want to ask them what other ideas they had for dealing with the beans, and why they rejected them. I want to see them regret it. I want to get them to imagine coming back to that spot in a week and the sauce has soaked into the dirt but the beans are still there. They may still be there right now.
I don’t feel bad for the Fulford children, even though they are these tragic, doomed, useless, miserable, abused people. I think they’re awful. They make me feel vaguely ashamed. I have no doubt that they’re all racist. But I have taken the bait and am saddened and somewhat moved by Edmund. It might be because he is the only one who doesn’t look exactly like his family wed brother and sister for 300 years to keep the bloodlines pure, Targeryen-style. And his siblings are so cruel to him. A lot of this episode was dedicated to the family’s animals, and we learned Edmund’s take on their respective places on Francis Fulford’s hierarchy of priorities- dogs at the top, then sons by age, then Tilly, then lesser animals such as horses. Accordingly I will leave you with this speech by Edmund about the day he found out that someone in his family had killed his favourite sheep, Shaun, one of a flock he was given for his twelfth birthday. And some screengrabs of the judgey ancestors, with humorous captions.
“I opened the freezer one day and there was fucking…a whole lamb in there, all cut up into pieces for fucking dinner, lunch, whatever. One of my lambs. No, I wasn’t really that surprised. They’re always doing these…my family are cold, let’s be honest. I have a cold family. They wouldn’t give a shit about hurting my feelings, they never do. Like when they told me that they shot Percy the pigeon, my old pigeon. You know, you’ve kind of grown up with it, and so it’s fine. It’s a Fulford thing to do! To go kill your one of your brother’s lambs or whatever and put in the freezer. Dad always says, “Fulfords, we don’t have feelings.”