British life – from the bassinet to the crematorium – has been dissected, examined and reflected back through the prism of the TV since the earliest, pre-war transmissions from Alexandra Palace in London. And for a small island, there’s a surprising amount of stuff to get through, not least because some of the nation exists on other islands, and some of the mainland is broken into different nationalities.
So here are ten aspects of British life, by no means a complete list, and ten TV shows that best illustrate them:
Regional Variation – Coronation Street
It’s remarkable to consider that, before Corrie started in 1960, British TV tended to exist in one accent, the clipped and starchy Received Pronunciation, which was also sometimes known as BBC English. The huge success of Britain’s longest running soap changed all that. Within two years, Coronation Street was the most-watched show on TV, regional dialects became more commonplace, and stories of working class families getting by in the post-war era started to percolate through all of television.
The History of British Rock – Top of the Pops
In 1963, the British beat boom was a local affair, led by the Beatles, with the Rolling Stones close behind. A year later, and a full scale musical renaissance was under way. And there to document every chart hit was the BBC’s new pop show. They were also there for soul, folk-rock, psychedelia, the blues revival, glam rock, funk, heavy metal, reggae, punk rock, new wave, electropop, hip hop, new romantics, Madchester, acid house, techno, Britpop… everything from 1964 until 2006.
The Aristocracy – Jeeves and Wooster
Downton Abbey is many things — dramatic, moving, sharp of tongue — but it does rather leave you with the impression that being a member of the English aristocracy (or working for them) is something of a chore. Thank goodness, then, for PG Wodehouse and his dizzy toffs. The Brits have a fine tradition of mocking their superiors, and valuing humor over, well, most things, and Wodehouse is a master of the light dig in the ribs. The sublime crossing of wits between dapper, adept Jeeves (Stephen Fry) and the brash, disaster-prone Wooster (Hugh Laurie) was a staple of Sunday night TV.
Britain At War – Dad’s Army
The British experience of the Second World War was many things. Chastened as an empire, inspired as a people, utterly united against the threat of imminent invasion and as riddled with division along class and gender lines as always. You could pick any number of TV shows to illuminate those years — The World At War, Tenko, even ‘Allo ‘Allo — and still not come away with a full picture. But one show comes closest to defining the collective British view of the nation during the war, and that’s the comedy Dad’s Army. It shows us as a nation of bank managers and shopkeepers, slightly unfit for purpose, a little bit ragged and prone to needless bickering about status. Our heroes aren’t the master race, or even particularly adept at being soldiers, but they’re united, fierce of heart and deeply committed.
Politics – Our Friends In The North
If it was released today, Our Friends In The North would be a worldwide obsession, and a starting point for the fiercest of internet arguments. This is partly due to the notability of the cast – Christopher Eccleston, Daniel Craig, Mark Strong, and Gina McKee act out three decades of social upheaval, from ’60s to ’90s – but also because it shows the complex relationship between the personal and the political being played out across an entire lifetime. Careers rise, careers fall, stolen nights of passion become children, optimism is beaten down by reality, and entire communities are fundamentally altered as old values die away and new ones arrive.
Scientific Pride – Doctor Who
Empirical knowledge should know no nationhood and have little truck with the cult of personality, but, as Darwin pointed out, humans are animals, and can be relied upon to react instinctively, irrationally and intellectually, depending on the circumstances. So there is such a thing as a national identity towards the sciences, and while Britain has produced some of the finest minds in human development, we still tend to think of ourselves as talented and passionate amateurs; Newton’s achievements are fondly condensed into a story about a falling apple, Faraday found penicillin by accident, these are the foundation myths of our national scientific identity. And the biggest hero of our science fiction is a brilliant man who appears to have run away from formal study, understands science on an entirely instinctive level, celebrates every new discovery with a childlike glee and is constantly tinkering with his mode of transport. Never mind the Englishman making a computer in his garden shed, the Doctor carries his shed with him, like a snail shell.
The Melting Pot – Til Death Us Do Part, In Sickness and in Health
Britain, like America, is a mongrel nation, a dish made of leftovers from all over the world, and sometimes the ingredients clash. Alf Garnett, like Catherine Tate’s ‘Nan’, is a working class bigot with a short fuse, a comic monster created to say the unspeakable, to mix uncomfortable truths with outright prejudice and distortion, in the best traditions of political satire. He remains an uncomfortable figure, in that a lot of people didn’t see the satirical intent and applauded him for speaking out, while others, who got the joke, remember a time when racial epithets could be freely used on British TV and flinch. Political correctness was never as mad as Alf.
Sarcasm – Blackadder
There seems to be an international fear of the scathing British wit – the cocking of the snoot, the glacial undercut of all pomposity – which would partly explain the Hollywood obsession with British actors as villains with British accents (as distinct from British actors as heroes with American accents), and also the fact that Chandler Bing, the most British-witted of the friends in Friends, is seen has having some kind of personality defect, using humor as a shield. Edmund Blackadder is exactly the same, having constructed an imperious carapace of dark wit around himself in order to fend off the attentions of the morons in his immediate vicinity.
Manners – Pride and Prejudice (the Colin Firth one)
In which a novel about a woman melting the heart of a frosty man using propriety and etiquette (as well as the more traditional tools of wit and charm) is given an iconic makeover, when the frosty man takes a dip in a lake, introducing further social embarrassment for the characters, and utter seduction for the audience.
Birth of a Nation – Horrible Histories
It says something about the Brits that our most celebrated attempt to teach history to our children involves finding the most disgusting aspects of the past –whether it’s the gong-farmers, employed to clear feces from the streets of Elizabethan cities, or bewildering variety of gruesome ways in which people have accidentally killed themselves – and making comedy sketches and songs out of them. Heroism is all very well, patriotism is a fine thing in its place, but nothing celebrates Britishness like a jolly good laugh at something gross.
Fraser McAlpine is British, this explains a lot.