Commentary: A fairy tale view of Britain
Strange but true: The British public is simply not that excited about the royal wedding. According to the Economist, only a third of the population is definitely going to watch the nuptials on TV, while close to half are actively uninterested. My own secret source on the English streets (OK, it’s my mum, who lives in a small town called Tring) reports that “people seem much less bothered” about Will and Kate than about Charles and Di in 1981.
FOR THE RECORD:
Americans on Britain: A commentary in the April 25 Calendar section about Americans’ fairy-tale impression of Britain said that PBS is largely responsible for “maintaining the illusion that Britain is a country where everybody takes afternoon tea.” However, the headline erroneously referred to “high tea,” which is a different meal. —
Here in the U.S., the situation is quite different — at least if television mirrors the mood of the nation. Judging by the blanket coverage of the wedding lined up for this week, nearly every network is banking on the belief that average Americans are enthralled by all things royal. The other side of this fascination for the quaint old Britain of pageantry and aristocracy is a lack of awareness about the gritty reality of contemporary U.K. pop culture. This is the country that pioneered reality TV, invented soccer hooliganism and whose most widely read newspapers are tabloids featuring whole-page nude pin-ups.
From the tourist trade to romantic comedies such as “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Love Actually,” the British themselves have often pandered to American Anglophiles’ out-of-date impression of what the U.K is like. A perfect example of this syndrome is “Royally Mad,” BBC America’s two-part special about five Americans competing in a contest of obsessive knowledge concerning the Windsor family. Flown to London, they’re put up in an old-fashioned hotel where they’re served full English breakfast in bed by a portly butler and get to stand on the very aisle in Westminster Abbey down which the royal groom and bride will soon “process.” Apparently, that’s the verb form of “procession.”
The explanation for the American love affair with this upper-crust view of England might have something to do with the phrase “like a fairy tale,” which trips off lips frequently during “Royally Mad” as the contestants describe the enchantment of gadding about London to visit palaces and cathedrals. Anglophilia is all about the romance of history. Despite having several centuries of colorful, dramatic and just plain weird history to boast of, America seems to feel the absence of castles and ceremony from its physical and cultural landscape.
Looking at the output of mainstream TV and cinema, it can sometimes feel like Britain owns the past. Britishness and the idea of “the olden days” are totally entwined. Go back to the swashbuckling premodern past and you’ll find, curiously, that everybody speaks with an English accent. OK, it makes sense that historical or legend-based dramas such as “The Tudors” or “Camelot” based in old Albion would have all-British casts.
But “Game of Thrones” is set in a medieval fantasy kingdom that never existed, so there’s no earthly reason why American actors can’t play the parts and speak in their own voices. Of course, its cast is almost entirely British. One of the only exceptions is Peter Dinklage, wonderful as the licentious and caustically witty dwarf Tyrion Lannister, and he’s obliged to put on an affected, flowery English accent. And then there are such series as “Rome” and “The Borgias,” both of which are set during different eras of the country that would later become Italy but whose credits are crammed with U.K. thespians. There’s something about the English voice that simply fits dramatic situations involving armor, sword fights, banquets, scheming courtiers and power-corrupted bishops and the rest.
Perhaps it all stems from America’s self-conception as the upstart that’s outstripped its past-its-prime ancestor. The Old Country has to be kept firmly in the past. America wants England to be antiquated and charming. Hence the popularity of “The King’s Speech” and costume dramas such as “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs, Downstairs” (a revival of the Masterpiece Theatre favorite of the 1970s recently aired on PBS). These transatlantic coproductions are bonanzas for the actors of Great Britain. Who else can they get to play all those stock characters like the stern butler, the snooty dowager, the flinty cook, the plain but good-hearted scullery maid? Period dramas such as these and the endless Austen and Brontë adaptations have practically saved the U.K.'s theatrical class from destitution. (That and Hollywood’s bizarre typecasting of bad guys as Brits.)
More than any other institution, PBS is responsible for maintaining the illusion that Britain is a country where everybody takes afternoon tea. Watching its period potboilers like “Cranford” with its cast of bonnet-clad gentlewomen, its mysteries involving sleuthing spinsters and its dated Britcoms that were often made back in the ‘80s or ‘70s, you’d never guess that contemporary Britain is a rather lively and dangerous place, a country with as many ghettos as stately homes.
True, most police constables still don’t carry firearms, and yes, we still have those old red phone boxes. But gun crime is rising, and because Britain was one of the first countries to embrace cellphones and texting, the phone boxes now mostly serve as urinals for desperate drunks and places where prostitutes leave “call this number” stickers.
Contrary to the archaic stereotype of refinement and restraint, contemporary Britain is rowdy and coarse. Binge drinking and early pub closing times mean that on Friday and Saturday nights, the country’s high streets transform into pageants of violence and vomit. The public broadcasting that was once admired across the world seems to plumb lows every year, with chat shows doused with gratuitous cuss words and “documentaries” with titles such as “My Big Breasts and Me” and “Britain’s Worst Teeth.”
If you look hard enough you can find glimpses of this other Britain on American TV, in shows such as the classic “Prime Suspect” or in the youth-oriented series “Skins” and “The Inbetweeners.” Excessively hyper and often toppling over into implausibility, “Skins” did nonetheless capture many aspects of young Britain in the 2000s, from the routine and almost unremarkable drug use to the obsessions with clothes, gadgets and sex. The more humdrum and bathetic “Inbetweeners” follows the misadventures of four hapless, sex-starved teenage boys as they traipse through the modern-look suburbia (not a thatched roof or duck pond in sight) that covers much of the U.K. To get a shot at the U.S. mainstream, they’ve both had to be remade (by MTV) with American settings and characters.
And so televised Britain remains how Americans seem to like it: a fantasy land of castles and cucumber sandwiches, trusty valets and well-spoken villains, and a valiant prince marrying his fairy tale princess.
Simon Reynolds is a British music critic and author who lives in South Pasadena.
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