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[COMMENT: This is an amazing piece of evidence on the power of the imagination. God wants to give us our identity, security, and purpose in life. But we cannot receive what we cannot imagine.
The play acting worked much like
inner healing, giving permission
to the women to think better of themselves. E. Fox]
By their own admission, this lot are every parent's nightmare - a bunch of the most foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, under-achieving, over-exposing young women in Britain. They have the manners of an ape house, the grace of a dumper truck. 'We're geezer birds,' says Clara Mayer. Becky Squire puts it another way. 'We're slappers.'
These girls are part of a fascinating social experiment which should be compulsory viewing for every education minister and teacher training college even if it is the height of political incorrectness. It may also offer hope to despairing parents up and down the land.
Because, as I am discovering with my own eyes, there is nothing like a brisk course of supposedly outdated upper-class twaddle to turn a social disaster zone into a decent human being. Last year, ITV had the bright idea of taking a group of bad girls and putting them in an oldover
fashioned finishing school. Called Ladette To Lady, the series was surprising for two reasons. First, here was a programme in which the producers were trying to get the participants to behave normally rather than to shock. Second, it worked.
In a relatively short time, most of the girls realised that there was more to life than aimless debauchery. It is no exaggeration to say that, for some, it changed their lives.
So ITV has decided to make a second series. This time, though, they have unearthed even naughtier girls. The tasks and challenges are harder still. What's more, the stakes are much higher. Not only will the new intake have to learn how to behave everywhere from the shooting field to the Alps but they will even be put on parade alongside some genuine toffs at a debutantes' ball. What's more, there will be some eligible bachelors on hand. In between, the girls must learn posture, flower-arranging, elocution, how to disembowel a duck…
It's enough to make an ardent feminist burn her bra all over again. Isn't this a patronising attempt at a real life My Fair Lady? Is it not only a sexist timewarp but downright elitist, too? Who cares? It's gripping. And no one is discussing feminism when I cross the moors of County Durham for a tour of the newlyreopened Eggleston Hall Finishing School For Young Ladies.
Round here, the only philosophy is 'girl power', the dominant ladette creed.
'Back home, I'm just like one of the lads,' says Vicky Jenkins, 21, a lorry driver's daughter from Pontefract, Yorkshire. 'I go out at seven in the evening, start on Jack Daniels and carry on drinking it all night, then start falling about, spill half me drink in me handbag, roll about on the floor and wake up the next day and not remember a thing.'
She spends £200 a week, most of her wages from the local tanning salon, on alcohol. But now she is here, she is determined to make a go of it. 'I want to become more feminine,' she says. 'I don't think I've worn a dress more than once since I was five.'
We are sitting in large armchairs in the girls' common room. They have now been away from home for a week and, for the first time in their adult lives, they have no mobile phones and no alcohol.
Furthermore, they are all wearing tailor-made tweed jackets and skirts, pearls and sensible shoes. Imagine the Osbournes doing Antiques Roadshow. 'We look like right d***s,' Vicky observes, to general agreement.
Television is strictly rationed - 'what's happening on EastEnders?' they beg as I walk through the door - and so are trashy magazines. The only reading material looks rather heavygoing. 'We've got to read this book on "etikwet",' moans Emma Phillips Martin, 21, a sales girl from Essex, brandishing a copy of Debrett's Guide To Etiquette.
There used to be a copy of Country Life and The Lady in here, but no longer. 'We chucked 'em on the fire to keep it going,' says Clara Mayer, 18, a trainee mechanic from Kent. The girls are finding it hard work. Most have never cooked an egg, let alone stuffed a goose. And no one has ever made them sit bolt upright reciting 'mouse brown gowns now worn in town' like a pre-war BBC radio announcer.
They are all still very bruised from a lecture on sexual etiquette by social expert Liz Brewer. 'She told us we was the lowest of the low and we're not,' says Vicky angrily. Right now, there are no lessons but they still have a task - writing a thank- you letter to the owners of Burton Agnes, an Elizabethan mansion in Yorkshire where they have just attended a shooting weekend.
It was their first experience of a black tie dinner party and their first encounter with the eligible bachelors. It has clearly been a fairytale experience for some. As one exclaims: 'Cor, the wallpaper's got fur on it!'
'That was the best two days of my life,' says Laura Hearsum, 20, an unemployed Chelsea fan and occasional theme park attendant from Staines in Middlesex. I thought the owners would be two old gits but they were our age and lovely. I was shaking walking down the stairs, but everyone was fantastic. And there were these lovely blokes who made me feel normal.'
The shooting weekend was not a complete success. True, Becky Squire, 21, a Lancashire barmaid, excelled herself. 'I managed to go to bed with a book. Normally, I'd be a predator ladette and snog a couple of blokes.'
Over dinner at Burton Agnes, though, the girls' lurid behaviour shocked the staff, although it hardly bothered the chaps. Indeed, the bachelors were no saints either and one or two even strayed into the ladettes' quarters later - without success, they assure me.
Back at Eggleston Hall, two girls are now in serious trouble. Louise Porter's catwalk features might have wowed the young blades, but she got so drunk that she started downing the port like tequila shots before passing out.
'Apparently I woke up in the middle of the night trying to wee on the carpet,' she admits. Laura Hearsum is also in disgrace for discussing her eyewateringly intimate body piercings dinner. Unsurprisingly, the thank-you letters are proving tricky. After a while, the girls get bored and launch into a little 'Essex song' which Emma has composed.
To the tune of 'This old man', they chant: 'Ladette girls/We are here/**** our boys and drink their beer/With a nick, nack, paddywack. Give a boy a ****/Ladette girls are on the go!' It would appear that, one week in, the staff have an uphill struggle.
In the drawing room the school's principal, Gill Harbord, and her team are reflecting on the task ahead. 'These are some of the worst girls in this country,' she sighs, 'and some of their sexual behaviour is simply ghastly.' She has seen it all. Immaculately dressed, she could give Helen Mirren a run for her money when it comes to a steely impersonation of the Queen.
She taught flower arranging here for many years during Eggleston Hall's era as a famous finishing school. In the 1990s, the school closed and, these days, the owner, Sir William Gray, rents out the family seat for events and weddings. He has sensibly moved out altogether while the ladettes are in residence.
But Gill was encouraged to find that the last series struck a chord with a huge cross-section of society. 'I get people of all backgrounds coming up to me in the street wanting help with their children and even women in their 50s who want lessons themselves,' she says.
Her staff are a no-nonsense collection of eminent experts including Lindka Cierach, former royal dress designer, and the magnificent Rosemary Shrager, the cookery teacher, who is part kitchen tyrant, part Mother Hen.
As we sit by the fireplace, guarded by greyhounds sculpted from the Gray family's coat of arms, Liz Brewer tells me that these girls do not need any fluffy counselling from youth workers. They need some brutal home truths. The problem, she says, is that the girls in here have been deluded by society and by the education system.
'I'm very fierce,' she says. 'I tell them: "You are the lowest of the low and the worst of your kind." No one's told them that girl power has got them nowhere. That's why I have tried to get them to look closely at this shooting weekend.
'No one's explained to them that what men really love is the chase. I tell them that it's like shooting or fishing. You have to be the fish that's hard to get. If you're easy, they'll throw you back.'
The next day, it is time for the first expulsion from the school. As we will see next Thursday, it is a draining experience. I sit in on the full, gruelling two-hour session and there is nothing staged. At one point, the entire house seems to be either blubbing, shrieking or both.
In future episodes, we will see tears and aggro from the slopes of Verbier to the ballrooms of our grandest stately homes. I will give nothing away except to say that this series, more than the last, reveals a sad if reassuring truth.
The ending is rather moving. These girls don't want to be 'slappers' at all. They crave what their parents want. They want to improve themselves and, above all, they want respect.
Not the self-obsessed street 'respect' trumpeted by flaky celebrities and pathetic 'yoof' icons, which is simply arrogance by another name. They just want to be treated like ladies. And, they know that, for their part, this means behaving properly. That is why they are here.
'These girls have never been criticised like this before and it hurts,' says series producer Roddy Williams, of production company RDF. 'But the results are astonishing.'
'I've been the black sheep and I want my family to be proud of me,' says Angie Mott, 24, a part-time topless model from Essex. 'I miss home but I've been a lazy bitch until now and I want to learn more in here.'
Laura Hearsum has been trouble for as long as she can remember. 'As a child, I used to run away in Tesco just so I could hear them call my name on the Tannoy,' she says. But she says that she already has a new-found confidence which, she thinks, will help reshape her future. 'After that shooting party, I could walk into Buckingham Palace with my head high.'
The girls are back in the real world now, but I track them down to see what has happened. As with the last series, many are transformed. 'I've got a career now, I've never been happier and I haven't flashed my boobs since I left,' declares Fran Rowe, 19, from Essex, who has abandoned the hair salon for smart new office in a recruitment consultancy.
At last, Louise Porter is employed, sober and, like Fran, full of confidence. She wishes she'd had teachers like Gill Harbord at her Liverpool school. Until this series, Clara Mayer never knew what it meant to be ladylike. Despite the looks of a young Jemima Khan, her world had been all-male, living with her divorced father and working on a building site. Pre-Eggleston, she'd never used a hair-dryer.
'I've never felt prouder and nor has my dad,' she tells me. Now a gym addict, her dream is to be a chalet girl in the Alps. The staff feel proud, too. 'It was pretty gruelling seeing them go,' says Gill Harbord. 'It was very sad when it all ended because we could have done so much more. Some of these girls really have something.'
The bachelors were impressed. 'Some of those girls were pretty wild - I even had to break up a fight - but there was nothing nasty about a single one of them,' says Rupert Lund, a Chelsea property contractor who shares a godchild with Prince Edward. 'In fact, I've seen a lot worse from supposedly grander girls.'
A few ladettes have reverted to their old ways. You might meet one of them collapsing in a bar near you tonight. You can't make a lady out of everyone. But do today's educationists have any right to sneer at traditional teaching methods like this? After all, the Eggleston Hall approach clearly works.
And long after their first meeting at that eventful shooting party, one of the girls is still seeing a handsome young viscount who is in line for an earldom. Ladette to Countess? Why not?
Ladette To Lady. Thursdays, ITV1, 9pm.
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