Barry Foster as Saul Enderby in Smiley's People (BBC, 1982)
Old Etonians have had a bad reputation in this country for decades, often with good reason. Ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, latterly the flagbearer for the stereotype of the blathering and intellectually evasive OE, put the final nail in the coffin with his Partygate antics during lockdown. Simon Kuper’s recent book ‘Chums’ explores the the outsize influence of Oxford graduates on British politics, and the same case could be made with regard to alumni of Eton College: consider the intra-party wranglings between two Old Etonians, David Cameron and Johnson, that helped lay the groundwork for Brexit. The depiction of the Old Etonian as successful in life not through merit but through birthright and a healthy dose of charm is commonplace, if not accurate nowadays: the boys who were successful at Eton when I was there were talented and worked very hard; albeit those who didn’t work hard, and weren’t successful, mostly didn’t need to be. James Wood wrote beautifully in the London Review of Books about the ‘effortless superiority’, born out of entitlement but tempered with ‘strategic noblesse oblige’, that characterised Old Etonians going out into the world, and often, as with Brexit, resulted in catastrophe. The school itself has definitely changed in recent years, with a much higher proportion of students receiving some form of financial assistance from the school, and thus the school boasts a far more socio-economically diverse student body than it used to. I enjoyed my time there, but writing about it is difficult, for reasons hinted at above, but also because one ends up, given the baggage attached, walking a tightrope between trying not to sound too ungrateful, neither too proud (not that either extreme would apply to me).
Something that has interested me recently is spotting Old Etonians on screen. I don’t mean Old Etonian actors, although there are plenty of those about (two of them, Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston, faced off in the BBC’s excellent adaptation of The Night Manager). No, I mean Old Etonian characters. How can one identify them? Simple: they are often wearing an Old Etonian tie. Light blue diagonal stripes on a black background. We were given one when we left school, but my father warned me never to wear it, and I agree with him: wearing one’s school colours after you’ve left is odd anyway, but unforgivable when the school is Eton. However, they do often appear on television and in film, presumably because the director or writer enjoys them as a little character marker for anyone who happens to pick up on the detail (a vanishingly small number of viewers, I would have thought). The following is a survey of some of the ties I’ve picked up on over the years, and what I think they say about the characters who wear them.
Saul Enderby – Smiley’s People (1982)
John le Carré taught at Eton in the late 1950s and hated it (he spoke in a 1974 interview of Eton giving him ‘familiarity with crime, as well as an instinct for hypocrisy’). One gets the distinct sense that a number of his antagonists, or outright villains (as with Richard Roper in the Night Manager, described as ‘the worst man in the world’) are modelled on people he encountered at Eton. Saul Enderby is the Chief of the Circus (the fictionalised British Intelligence Service in le Carré’s novels) in Smiley’s People, the third novel in the Karla Trilogy, and although he’s not a villain, he is pompous, very much the intellectual inferior to Smiley, but perfectly happy to take the credit for the other’s discreet hard work. He’s not an Old Etonian in the novel, as far as we can tell, but he clearly is in the television adaptation, proudly donning his OE tie. Brilliantly portrayed by Barry Foster, he owns the room in a meeting with Smiley and others, not through intelligence, but rather gift of the gab, a supercilious attitude, particularly towards his toadying assistant Lauder Strickland, regular toppings-up of everyone’s glasses of Scotch, with more than a dash of casual misogyny thrown in. He’s not incompetent, and he knows, rather sinisterly, that he can take advantage of Smiley’s humble genius to further his own ends. Smiley loathes him, and loathes that he is sitting in the chair that he should be in, but there’s not much he can do about it.
Colonel Race – Death on the Nile (2004)
Agatha Christie adaptations have always been, amongst other things, a lighthearted way of skewering British stereotypes. Both the 1978 film of Death on the Nile, and the more recent ITV adaptation with David Suchet, manage to provide doses of witty social commentary alongside the drama, in the writing of characters like the Communist and reluctant aristocrat Ferguson, the highly sexed novelist Salome Otterbourne, and Poirot’s charming but dimwitted friend, Colonel Race. In the 2004 television version, Race is introduced to us riding up to Poirot on a camel, disguised in Egyptian robes but wearing a full double breasted suit underneath. Wood, in his LRB article (2019) diagnoses the modern Old Etonian politician as yearning for ‘lost imperial might’, and though Death on the Nile is set in the 1930s, this nostalgia is writ comically large in James Fox’s portrayal of Colonel Race (David Niven’s 1978 is much more dashing by comparison). In later scenes, Race dons his OE tie, appearing to signify that he is gentlemanly, a good sort of ‘chap’, but buffoonish. At one point Race cheerfully says to Poirot of the mystery: “don’t be downhearted, we’ll get to the bottom of it”, to which Poirot replies “oh, I know I will”. He is a caricature of a posh Old Etonian: well-intentioned, well-connected, and harmless. A far cry from Saul Enderby.
Minister of Defence – Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
Ian Fleming attended Eton, and James Bond spent a couple of terms there before being expelled for ‘girl trouble with a maid’, but no mention is ever made of Eton in the Bond films. It would hardly be interesting the flag up the school Bond attended; but equally, Bond is meant to be cool, and Eton, whatever else it may be, is not cool. Julian Fellowes, however, pops up briefly in Tomorrow Never Dies as the OE tie-wearing Minister of Defence. His screen time is fairly limited (and Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer steal the only scene that he’s in) but he is posh-sounding, pragmatic, and of course a politician. More a throwback to the Old Etonian politicians of the 1960s, like Harold MacMillan and Alec Douglas-Home, than a foreshadowing of Johnson and Cameron.
Philip Blake – Five Little Pigs (2003)
Another Agatha Christie adaptation, this one darker and more psychological. Toby Stephens plays Philip Blake, a stockbroker (the pig that ‘went to market’), childhood best friend of the victim, and convinced of the guilt of the accused (the victim’s wife). This conviction turns out to be rooted in his envy of her, when towards the end he reveals his deep love of his best friend. His homosexuality is foreshadowed by a homophobic comment he makes about his butler (“perfectly good egg, even though he does bat for the other side”), by way of introduction to Poirot, whose name he mispronounces, and whom he incorrectly identifies as French. And, you guessed it, he wears what looks a lot like an Old Etonian tie; I may be wrong on this one, but it would make sense. This is a particularly unflattering depiction: Stephens depicts Blake as repressed, slightly smarmy, and poignantly out of touch with his emotions. Immediately he has tearfully confided in Poirot, he recovers his stiff upper lip (“not that I care much anyway…”). This secret, forbidden love (the story is set in the 1920s) is a clever adaptation of the novel, where Blake’s love is for the accused woman.
What is to be gleaned from this survey? You wouldn’t think the wearing of a tie by a character on screen would be of much consequence, but the fact that a number of writers and designers have used this particular tie is interesting, and broadly speaks to a subtly negative depiction of Old Etonians in film. Whether this is some sort of industry-wide in-joke I have no idea, but it reinforces the often justified image of Old Etonians as, by turns, aristocratic, pompous, emotionally repressed and holding too many positions of influence. For le Carré, this was a sinister problem; for others, more inconsequential. At any rate, I shan’t be donning mine in a hurry. As Jeeves remarked to Wooster, “there is no time, sir, at which ties do not matter”.