One Day probes the British class system better than Saltburn ever could

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The British class system is a funny thing. While 200 years ago you might have neatly slotted into one of three classes – the working class, the bourgeoisie, or the nobility – today, the situation is more complex. According to the 2013 Great British Class Survey, there are seven different social classes in the UK, ranging from the “elite”, who comprise the wealthiest six per cent, to the underpaid “precariat”.

But it’s not just about the numbers in your bank account. It’s about your hobbies, your tastes, your mannerisms. It’s about whether you own a chaotic hotchpotch of mismatched mugs or a tasteful set from Emma Bridgewater. It’s about whether your house smells of wet dog or of pomegranate Jo Malone candles. It’s about whether you say “rich” instead of “wealthy”, “lunch” instead of “dinner”.

It’s difficult to faithfully capture, unpick, and critique all the baffling nuances of the class system either on the page or on screen. Take Saltburn. While the film was billed as a whip-smart class satire, it fell flat, with Emerald Fennell’s characters little more than shallow and unpleasant caricatures: Oliver the conniving, bitter arriviste, Felix the naïve, blameless aristo. But One Day doesn’t fall back on such stereotypes. The story, originally a 2009 novel by David Nicholls, follows Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew as they dip in and out of each other’s lives over the course of 20 years, and has now been adapted into a popular Netflix series starring Ambika Mod as Emma and Leo Woodall as Dexter.

Though 'Saltburn' was billed a class satire, its characters felt like shallow caricatures (Photo: Chiabella James/Prime Video)
Though ‘Saltburn’ was billed a class satire, its characters felt like shallow caricatures (Photo: Chiabella James/Prime Video)

In the show, Emma and Dexter are immediately established as coming from two very different backgrounds. As Dexter stumbles around their graduation party, he’s invited to spend “10 days in the Dordogne” with the “Marlborough lot” – including someone called “Biscuit” – and a bottle of champagne is thrust into his hands by his friend “Magnus”. Emma, meanwhile, scoffs at the champagne and is visibly anxious to haul herself up the social ladder with her shiny new first class degree.

So far, so cliché. Another story about love across the class divide? Yawn. But while One Day doesn’t entirely subvert the usual tropes, it does complicate them. The characters feel real, as opposed to two-dimensional caricatures. Dexter isn’t merely a cartoonish facsimile of a toff; we see real, human anxiety and insecurity under the cracks in his self-assured image. Plus, Emma is hardly a saint. She’s leagues above Dexter intellectually and knows it, often patronising him to a point that verges on cruel.

Still, much of the conflict in their relationship is stoked by their difference in class. One year after graduating, Dexter is swanning around Europe, while Emma is miserably traipsing around the Midlands as part of a painfully average theatre troupe. A few years later, they’re still in similar positions: Dexter is afforded the room to fail, fail, and fail again, while Emma is forced to wait tables and do the cucaracha for customers at a Tex-Mex restaurant, putting her writing dreams aside just to make sure her bills are paid.

Ambika Mod as Emma and Leo Woodall as Dexter in 'One Day' (Photo: Netflix)
Ambika Mod as Emma and Leo Woodall as Dexter in ‘One Day’ (Photo: Netflix)

The argument that puts their friendship in jeopardy is also, ultimately, triggered by their wildly different backgrounds. During an evening dining out at a swish restaurant – where Dexter orders oysters and the onglet, Emma fish and chips – Dexter ribs Emma relentlessly about how she seems to spend more time talking about writing than actually doing the writing. Emma eventually storms out, incensed by Dexter’s inability to truly understand the struggle of finding time to be creative while simultaneously working nine to five to keep a roof over your head. Her boyfriend Ian, for all his flaws, at least understands Emma’s plight.

The series also acknowledges that the British class system is not straightforwardly divided between “haves” and “have-nots”. In episode nine, Dexter meets the family of his new girlfriend Sylvie at their palatial home in the Cotswolds. Keen to impress this decidedly “old money” family, Dexter plays a tape of “The Four Seasons” on the drive there in a bid to familiarise himself with the sort of highbrow culture he assumes Lionel, the Cope family patriarch, will want to chat about. “Don’t bother with Vivaldi – he’ll hate that,” Sylvie says. “He’s pig-ignorant.” Dexter, usually undaunted in social situations, frets about making a good impression.

He is later grilled by the Copes, surrounded by Fabergé eggs and large Persian rugs in their dark, oppressive lounge – or “drawing room”, as they would call it. When asked about the line of work his parents are in, Dexter explains that his father is a businessman while his late mother was an antiques dealer. Sylvie’s mother finds this all very quaint and middle-class and makes a cutting remark about his mother working in “a shop”. But the most excruciating moment comes when Dexter is asked to play the Victorian parlour game “Are you there, Moriarty?” with the family. Unfamiliar with the rules of the game, Dexter accidentally hits Sylvie with such force that he knocks her over, giving her a nosebleed. It’s most evident in this excruciatingly awkward moment that Dexter, while posh, privately educated, and well-spoken, is nothing but a grubby interloper to the blue-blooded Copes.

One Day resists drawing totalising conclusions about class. Dexter inevitably (albeit briefly) ends up with Emma. But it’s unclear whether Dexter truly understands the significance of their different backgrounds. One of the last conversations the couple have is about politics. “Afghanistan’s a mess,” Emma says, poring over a newspaper, while Dexter struggles to muster up an opinion on the matter. He admits that he found talking about politics at university “boring” and could never understand why they couldn’t just talk about something else, like “people”.

“Politics is people,” Emma hits back, evidently more attuned to what it’s like for your life to be tangibly impacted by decisions made by self-serving politicians. The line is even more loaded given the decision to cast Mod, a South Asian woman, in the role (although the series, in general, glosses over the significance of race in Emma and Dexter’s relationship – a real-life Em would have doubtless been on the receiving end of some troubling microaggressions from Dex). Even then, in the show’s final episode, Dexter – though noticeably more mature – remains blinkered by his own privilege. “What does that even mean?”, he says.

As Britain modernises, questions about class are growing ever more urgent. Can your class change? Or do you carry your class identity with you forever? Does class have more to do with money, or cultural capital? Can a cross-class relationship ever really work? These are hard questions. One Day is so refreshing and brilliant precisely because it doesn’t pretend that there are easy answers.

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