Made in Mystery

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Once or twice a year, usually at Lent or another significant liturgical time, major towns across medieval England would host a run-through of a ‘Mystery Cycle’. The name has nothing to do with intrigue, but comes from the Latin ‘misterium’ meaning ‘occupation’: they were funded by the newly developed city guilds. As a series of plays, they essentially served two functions: to act out famous scenes from the Bible, and to impart readily packaged morality. Because they needed an enormous cast (of up to two hundred or so), and because they soaked up enormous amounts of money for sets, travelling-wagons and costumes, they often became self-conscious spectacles of frivolity. As an audience member you might see a play once or twice a week, and huddle in the drizzle to watch Christ get reincarnated in a puff of smoke, Satan emerge from painted wooden flames, or the Three Magi offer empty boxes to a doll of Jesus. This medieval tradition is alive and well in some of our most popular television events, as exemplified by Made In Chelsea. Coincidentally, around Easter and Thanksgiving, we huddle around a glowing box once a week to watch a series of predictable character types act out a nexus of easy moral dilemmas. Because it has an enormous cast, and because it soaks up enormous amounts of money for filming, editing and production, it often becomes a self-conscious spectacle of frivolity. Made In Chelsea echoes the Mystery Cycle by constructing itself as a glitzy troupe of supernatural beings playing down to a goggle-eyed and muddy horde. Some of the audience may well be private-school educated horse riders, but it couldn’t exist without that sense of frolicsome superiority endowed to the actors in a Mystery play – even if that is an illusion.

The Made In Chelsea characters themselves, for all their claims of ‘reality’, are essentially medieval archetypes. There is a malignantly rigid gendering of men as ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ and women as ‘Seven Heavenly Virtues’, but a good Mystery play always keeps its misogyny just so. Mark Francis is clearly Pride, Jamie Laing Sloth, Spencer Matthews Greed, Andy Jordan Envy, and so on. Each of them will play a different role in turn, with all having a punt at Lust. The women of Made In Chelsea, to reverse this, each embody one of the Seven Heavenly Virtues. We have Binky as Temperance, Lucy as Diligence, Cheska as Chastity (willingly?), and so forth. Again, at times these are all swapped around, and the sin/virtue binary does get crossed over, man or woman. However, the standout characters all exist as a few abstract nouns series after series, year after year, and part of the joy of the show lies in the fact that every time we return we know exactly where it’s all going.

Perhaps the most interesting comparison with a Mystery Cycle play is the background wash of boring toads. The writers of these allegorical plays in the 14th Century would always try to have a good dollop of randomers on stage at poignant moments to act a bit like a chorus and represent ‘a load of normal peo-ple’. Dare we name names? Rosie, Fran, Louise’s brother, Riley, Sophia, Robbo, Poppy, Oscar, Josh, (lost yet? Remember these?), Olivia, Harriet, Alice, Agne, Karin, Natalie, Carly, Frederick. The sheer vapidity of these people – who swim on and off screen like no-one’s business – serves a distinctly medieval function: to remind us that there is a multitude, just like the audience, who are not sheer cartoons and totems of abstract ethical concepts. It keeps us rooted in the back and forth of normal people, it reminds us that no-one can be so malign or cherubic but these superhuman allegories. These people are often fairly ugly, have nothing to say, trip over things, have normal jobs, and eat normal food. They are our budgie in the mine, they let us know what’s what.

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The allegorical characters, the Jamie Langs and Lucy Watsons of the world, often clash in typically medieval situations. Carnality – food, drink, sex – is the central locus of the programme, and we are constantly taken to dinner parties, drinks receptions, and spaces of intense intimacy. The social significance of this hedonism, in the medieval mind, can be glimpsed in linguistics: the word “Lord” comes from Latin via the Old English word “Hlaford”, meaning “loaf-holder”. Its sibling word “hlafæta” – “servant” – conversely means “loaf-eater”. 21st Century dinner-party etiquette has bubbled up to us from this loaded predisposition of holder and eater, and in Made In Chelsea it sparks a special kind of social awkwardness that we can trace in lines like “I can’t believe you went to his dinner party and said (x)”. The configuration of disrespect in our upper social echelons still retains its flavour of giver and taker, host and guest that originated during a time where food was scarce and putting on a show was key. We shouldn’t forget that part of the Chaucerian sense of generosity is that façade of endless wealth, of supplies sufficient enough to accommodate whoever may arrive. Guests themselves once represented a real threat, a real possibility of eating you “out of house and home”, and though this is never a problem in the land of the superrich, Made In Chelsea still retains that flavour of suspicion and hierarchy. No wonder, then, that the camera pans across fizzy drinks, ornate pastries and lavish cloches of nibbles: the social strains of an artificial dinner party have to be frittered away by delectation, by guilty dribbling over fancy foods. It is an exact revival of the medieval ‘Feast of Fools’, a standard trope of the medieval Mystery Cycle where normal clerical hierarchy is briefly inverted by the power of food.

Made In Chelsea, then, satisfies its audience in much the same way as a medieval mystery play. Not only is the form strikingly similar, the characters rehashes of old allegories, but its fascination with carnality is used as a gentle pacifier against real social awkwardness, a diffusion of social hierarchy that would have appealed to a community that was weaned on the ‘Feast of Fools.

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