x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Britain's class system is sold for £20 a plate at lunch at the Savoy

Some of the older members of the establishment may be horrified, but London is becoming less class conscious.

It was the playwright Alan Ayckbourn who famously observed: "Put three Englishmen on a desert island and within an hour they'll have invented a class system." One of my favourite examples of the rigid divide between the upper and lower classes that once prevailed in Britain features a documentary clip of the 6th Earl of Carnarvon (allegedly the inspiration for one of the characters in the hit TV series Downton Abbey) sitting down to breakfast at the Savoy Grill in the early 1960s.

This central London restaurant is nearly as old and elitist as the earl himself, which is perhaps why he made it a point to have his breakfast there in isolated splendour every morning.

While a waiter fusses about, the aged nobleman waxes lyrical to the camera on the subject of his humanitarian credentials. To be fair, he was indeed a notable fundraiser and philanthropist throughout his life. Yet to see the way he berates the poor manservant while he speaks tells a very different story and proves that talk, unlike breakfast at the Savoy, is cheap.

The eggs are too runny, the toast is cold, the serviettes are not folded in the correct manner and the tea strainer is in the wrong position. Witnessing his contemptuous manner, you'd have thought he was a judge dispensing summary justice to an imbecile. Even more strikingly, the poor waiter seems content to take it without so much as a murmur of complaint. If the same condescension had been dispensed 50 years later, the Earl would, I suspect, have ended up with a plate of devilled kidneys on his head.

Well, the old boy must surely be turning in his grave after the announcement that the Savoy is to introduce a special £20 (Dh117) all-in meal designed to dispel the restaurant's exclusive image and increase its clientele. For a modest sum you, too, will be able to enjoy cauliflower soup with blue-cheese Welsh rarebit followed by pan-fried salmon with crushed English peas - and you'll be able to rub shoulders with the aristocracy while you're at it.

Were he still alive, what would the 6th Earl of Carnarvon have made of having to share his precious privileges with the hoi polloi such as myself? I imagine most of his soft-boiled egg would have landed on his shirtfront, such would have been the spluttering.

The Savoy's decision to encourage the plebeians to dine there is another example of a modern trend of egalitarianism sweeping 21st century Britain. Gone are the days when the commoners knew their place and were happy to defer to entitlement. We all want to dine at the Savoy now.

No fewer than 134 new restaurants have opened in London in the past year, in what has been described as "an extraordinary flowering" of the capital's culinary scene. And they're doing a roaring trade. When I was a child, the only time my parents would contemplate dining out would be New Year's and weddings.

In 2012, with the recession still biting deep, you'd have thought a meal out at a swanky eatery would be the first item to disappear from most people's budgets. Yet at a price up to £50 a head, there's a shortage of availabilities at these venues, with one already booked until next May.

And it's not only in the world of cuisine where doors are being flung open to anyone with a reliable credit card. Golf clubs, casinos and even health spas are now the province of anyone with a bit of cash, while cruising the world on ocean liners - once the sole preserve of the fabulously wealthy - is seeing a boom in popularity, with annual passenger bookings soaring to 1.5 million from the UK alone.

Of course, there will be those who bemoan the loss of the "them and us" society. But for all the quaint charm and historical texture, it's surely a good thing that primordial social barriers have been softened and in some cases dismantled. In modern Britain, government ministers ride to work on their bicycles while dustmen and nurses can, if they work hard enough, drive around in a Ferrari or even dine at the Savoy without anyone blinking an eye. That is surely how it should be.

In fact, if the opinion polls get much worse for the current government, those who take advantage of the Savoy's new budget menu may one day soon find Prime Minister David Cameron waiting on their table. If so, please don't shout at him.

 

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London

On Twitter: @michael_simkins