Journalist, writer and former editor of the Lady magazine, Rachel Johnson goes on a quest to find out how to be a lady for BBC Four in How To Be A Lady – An Elegant History. But it’s not without its challenges – after all, her husband once described her as ‘the definition of everything a lady is not’!
“I was the last person I would ever cast to make a documentary about the history of elegant womanhood. In fact, ‘How Not To Be A Lady’ would have been a more suitable subject for me at the start of my personal journey into the world of debutante balls, white gloves, and fruit knives,” says Rachel.
In the film, Rachel explores the origins of the word ‘lady’, from the time when it stood for a specific code of behaviour, dress and speech, to the present day, asking why terms such as ‘ladylike’ are still with us.
Talking about why she wanted to front the programme Rachel says: “When I came to edit the Lady, everything I did from that moment on was judged only by one criterion: was it ladylike? I wasn’t sure I liked it. It seemed like a verbal corset, one that I wanted to loosen. So I set out to chart the life of the lady from 19th century fiction to Little Britain, and found that the word, and concept, is alive and kicking in the third millennium despite all attempts to kill it off from the moment the last debutante was presented at Court right through to David Walliams shrieking, in full drag, ‘I’m a lady’.”
With a handful of vintage etiquette books to guide her and a generous helping of archive footage plus extracts from drama and literature, the film follows Rachel as she embarks on a journey into the past, present and future of all things ladylike. Along the way she rides side-saddle, attends an etiquette school, visits her grandmother’s own Ladies’ College at Cheltenham, discovers where the gymslip was invented, and fails to learn how to open and close a door correctly (it’s more complicated than it sounds).
Richard Klein, Controller BBC Four, says: “I’m delighted to welcome the always opinionated Rachel Johnson to BBC Four to talk about a subject she knows so well. ‘Lady’ is a constantly evolving term with real cultural significance and this will be a fascinating opportunity for Rachel to explore what it means in contemporary Britain.”
Time Shift: How To Be A Lady – An Elegant History (1×60) was commissioned by Richard Klein, Controller BBC Four and Mark Bell, Commissioning Editor, Arts.