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Mon 8 Aug 2011 11:00 BBC Radio 4

30 minutes
First broadcast:
Monday 08 August 2011

An insightful, humorous piece of reportage from inside the High Street "freemasonry" of the barber's, scene of one of the last rites of passage left to the modern British male.

Stephen Smith journeys from the old fashioned barber where his Dad used to take him to the exclusive world of Trumper's, barber to the great and good in Mayfair... via the colourful world of the black barbershop.

To the buzz of electric clippers, Stephen enters Gianni and Elio's, his dad's old barber's. On the walls are football memorabilia and a Page 3 calendar. Welcome to the Masonic world of the barber's - more (sexually) exclusive, these days, than even football grounds and the clubs of St James's. The barber's meant a bit of a chinwag with Elio in worldly tones that Stephen didn't hear his Dad use at home.

Ex-KLF pop star and art provocateur Bill Drummond is fascinated by the barber's and its unambiguously male environment: 'there is little in life that is as totally male as the barber's shop,' he says. He has a highly original theory about the primacy of the barber's in human culture. The skill on show is 'probably the most central craft in the existence of civilised man on this planet...Ever since man has considered himself civilised he has had his hair cut. Religions will come and go, empires decline and fall, but the barbers keep snipping.

Recalling the cutthroat shave he once enjoyed in the Mafiosi village of Corleone, Sicily, Stephen reflects on the macabre practice of the Mob in whacking its targets when they're at the barber's, in real life as well as the movies: targeting a place where a man expects to relax, to be pampered, but which was once associated with pain, gore and death. Step forward Sweeney Todd!

To the stropping noise of a sharpening blade, we enter the thoroughly pukka salon of Trumper's, Mayfair, where Stephen has a wet shave with hot fluffy towels and all the trimmings. We hear about the great affairs of state (and other affairs!) which have been settled over a short back and sides at Trumpers.

Finally, with a burst of hip hop, we're in the exuberant world of the black barbershop: part rap concert, part teenager's bedroom on a Saturday evening. It's all about 'styling', about getting the 'freshest' look while your mates gaze on - nodding their approval, or whistling their scorn, as the cut takes shape. Is it a welcome place of refuge and male solidarity for the often put-upon Afro-Caribbean male - not unlike the traditional High Street barber's, come to think of it?

Producer: Adele Armstrong.

  • What the barbershop is really all about

    What the barbershop is really all about

    The barbershop is not just a place to get your hair trimmed, it can be a barometer of financially uncertain times and a refuge to many, says presenter of The Barbershop, Stephen Smith.

    Read Stephen Smith's article on the BBC News website


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