Half-close your eyes, apply a bit of imagination, and you will see a startling resemblance between Harriet Harman, acting leader of the Labour Party, and Mary Portas, the TV bossyboots who likes to be known as “Mary Queen of Shops”. Both have brutalist hairstyles. Both have mouths which seem to have been shaped by years of saying the word “inappropriate” at regular intervals. Both convey, in their every word and gesture, the conviction that not only do they have the answer to life’s problems but that it is their duty to persuade the rest of us to be like them. Both suddenly seem to belong to a dying age. It is the twilight of the nanny.
Mary Portas is to be seen on the BBC attempting to revive and re-style ailing independent shops. It is a laudable enough ambition, but her approach, like that of many of the new generation of celebrity experts, is to impose her vision, her style and taste on the week’s victim. This she does in the manner of a busy woman in a hurry, with much winking, mugging and groaning to camera.
In a recent episode, the set-up went horribly wrong. Makeover programmes have as rigid a form as Greek tragedy: members of the public who are in a muddle over their house, kitchen, relationship, business are taken up by a celebrity expert and eventually find their lives transformed. In this programme, a bloody-minded woman who ran a bread shop quickly decided that she disliked being mocked in front of the television cameras and was unimpressed by Mary Queen of Shops.
The two women, one in favour of a fancy makeover, the other resolutely opposed to it, seemed to represent two kinds of Britain – traditional white-sliced and modern multi-grained. In the end, Mary Queen of Shops admitted defeat and was sent scurrying back to Maida Vale, baffled that the shop-owner had been blind to the joys of design and marketing. Yet it was Portas who looked out of touch, every bit as much a dinosaur as the member of the public who had daringly refused to play the role demanded of her by TV. Suddenly, the bossy expert seemed as if she belonged to a tradition that had become oddly dated.
Over the past decade or so, in entertainment and in life, we have been increasingly nagged by experts and the state. An absurd number of laws were passed to ensure appropriate behaviour, backed up by the full armoury of a security-conscious modern state. It has been the golden age of authority – caring but firm, smiling but stern.
The TV equivalent was the lifestyle show, in which a chef or designer or expert in child-rearing, acted out some little morality tale for the benefit of viewers. The way to contentment, it seemed, was to surrender your taste, the way you lived your life, to the pundit of the moment. With a sprinkle of celebrity magic dust, an ordinary, dysfunctional little life could be renovated and made over.
It was comforting, this sense that there was always some sort of authority figure to show how it should be done, but over time, it became disempowering. A propaganda war was being waged, in which we were constantly reminded of our own neediness. In the end, this dependence on authority has been depressing. There was a sense that the only way ordinary lives could change was through some instant external event – a lottery win or sudden celebrity.
It is unclear what will replace the age of nannying. The crude individualism of the 1980s and 1990s has also run out of social credit, while the dream of the moment – that we do community work outside the machinery of government – seems extraordinarily optimistic. But on TV the change is already evident. This week the two women who not long ago told people how to dress launched Trinny and Susannah: What They Did Next, a very funny mock documentary about their decline as celebrities.
Perhaps that is what the future holds for experts like the queen of shops. Having mocked others, they will be obliged to turn the joke on themselves.
Independent, Friday, 25 June 2010