The report from the London School of Economics called it “opportunity hoarding”: the way that well-off parents create a “glass floor” to protect their untalented offspring and, in the process, stop the poor from rising up. They were good phrases, but Britain already had a name for it. What the report really described, as the Mail put it, was “the triumph of Tim Nice But Dim”.
There’s perhaps a slender chance that you won’t know who the Mail – along with the Express, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph and, naturally, the Guardian – were talking about. Tim Nice But Dim was a character originally created by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, but brought to life by Harry Enfield in a series of sketch shows in the 1990s. Tim put a self-explanatory name and a confused face to something that everyone already knew existed: the thick posh boy (or girl) whose wealth and connections kept him happily ignorant of all the striving in the world.
People may argue about whether Tim, or Enfield’s other characters, were funny (chalk me up as a “generally, no”), but, with hindsight, his record of producing useful British stereotypes is kind of amazing. It’s a quarter of a century since Harry Enfield’s Television Programme first aired on BBC2, yet when there’s a need to evoke the layabout underclass, Wayne and Waynetta Slob (his character with Kathy Burke), are still where the tabloids go. When we need a working-class cash maniac, we remember Loadsamoney, whose origins are even older. Who knows how long it will be before people stop doing a funny voice when they say that a celebrity, like Smashie and Nicey, “does a lot of work for charity”, or before the city of Liverpool outlives its link with shell suits, bubble perms and people telling each another to “calm down, calm down”. People don’t voluntarily read much Dickens, but they still talk about Scrooge, Mister Micawber and Miss Havisham after more than a century and a half. You may still hear “yeah but no but yeah but” now and then, but do you remember that Little Britain’s voice of indignation was called Vicky Pollard? Well, how about her grumpy cousin, the Catherine Tate character who was so seldom “bovvered”? You mean you’ve forgotten already that she was Lauren Cooper?
Clearly, some major (and better) comic characters have been invented since Enfield’s heyday. It’s hard to believe now, but people once had to explain the awkwardness of a rebel in authority or of someone mentally imprisoned by the banality of television. Now we can all just say David Brent or Alan Partridge. But Enfield was prolific, and seems to have endured – perhaps simply by being blunter than others dared, giving his characters not so much names as labels, taking them so far from real mortals that they can never grow old. He was certainly not naive about it. “I want the biggest audience possible, so I need to get catchphrases, because kids control the telly,” he has said of his thought process. He also grew up with wealthy parents, of course. Maybe that’s where the ambition came from.