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The death of British television It is being produced by people with a skewed view of the country


September 21, 2021   5 mins

Writing a script a couple of years ago, for a show with an eye to foreign sales, I was told to avoid specific British cultural references. “International” ones were fine, which essentially meant things anyone in the western world might get. So Star Wars or Marvel were okay, but Earl Grey, less so.

I remember feeling slightly perturbed — was globalisation starting to flatten out the differences between cultures? But then again, the instructions were strange, because the globe seemed to love Britishness: the most successful British shows abroad, from Keeping Up Appearances to The Crown, seem very British. It’s literally impossible that the latter, which just cleaned up at the Emmys in LA, could be set or made anywhere else.

Is the Britishness of the nation’s television industry under threat, then? The Government seems to think so. Hours before being relieved of his responsibilities as Minister of State for Media and Data, John Whittingdale MP addressed the Royal Television Society convention in Cambridge, announcing that plans are being drawn up to protect “distinctively British” television programming. Ofcom have been asked to provide a definition of Britishness for public service broadcasters to adhere to, to ensure their shows are “iconic, not generic”.

It’s not clear what that actually means. Whittingdale offered up some examples of programmes apparently containing the required amount of Britishness, but his selection was wildly random. Fleabag, Derry Girls, Doctor Who, Line Of Duty and, very peculiarly, the Carry On films, which weren’t made for television and which spluttered out over 40 years ago. Perhaps realising this, Whittingdale was forced to say that Britishness is a “nebulous concept” that’s “hard to define,” but that “we all know it when we see it”.

If opaque blather is one of these nebulous British qualities, then Whittingdale’s speech definitely flies the flag very proudly. Reading through it again, I think (though it’s hard to be sure) that what the government are concerned about is a fear that global investment — and the increasingly global reach of television audiences — will flatten out particularly local cultural differences. The focus is programmes made by the UK’s public service broadcasters, which essentially means our five terrestrial channels and their offshoots. Shows made by the streamers in Britain — like The Crown or Sex Education — won’t face this requirement at all.

More from this author
The death of British television

By Gareth Roberts

Personally, I can’t wait for Ofcom’s definition — and to see it leap into action used to vet scripts and productions to meet these requirements. Imagine the notes programme makers might get. “Needs more tutting”. “Ten per cent more awkward diffidence, please.” “Not enough spinsters cycling to communion down country lanes on misty autumn evenings.” But the principle isn’t as absurd as it sounds. The French have had a system — a much more rigorous one, the exception culturelle — for decades, supposedly protecting French culture through things like a 40% quota on French music on radio, and a limit on non-French TV programming.

The irony in this is that global investment into streaming technology has actually given viewers much easier access to distinctive TV shows from countries with smaller cultural heft. Shtisel from Israel, Babylon Berlin from Germany, Suburra from Italy are all very much products of their particular heritages — and come with the option of dubbed versions or subtitles in a multiplicity of languages.

The problem, then, is not globalisation but Americanisation. That’s what people usually mean when they talk about global culture becoming generic. Let’s face it, nobody is concerned that their culture is in danger of becoming more Polish or Indian. British TV is uniquely vulnerable to being Americanised because of our common language, but again this process is very hard to pinpoint or prevent. Phrases and concepts that once seemed very American have always passed into our culture without our even noticing — it can be a jolt to realise that phrases like “out to lunch”, “reaching out to” someone, or even “going for a drink” were not so long ago regarded as amusingly American. You can’t really blame TV for that; and TV won’t stop it from happening.

The Britishness directive strikes me as a very British fudge, then, and deeply silly. But, predictably, the reaction to this daft idea was even sillier — and revealed something far more telling about British culture, and the British cultural establishment, than Whittingdale did. Because across Twitter the great and the good — writers, programme makers, academics — immediately went bananas.

Actor Mark Dexter tweeted “So basically this truly chilling announcement 
 means it’s now up to Nadine Dorries MP to decide whether or not your exciting new TV drama is ‘British enough’ for broadcast. A sprinkle of fascism on your cucumber sandwich, sir?” Professor Tanja Bueltmann, chair in International History at the University of Strathclyde, had a “real shivers down the spine moment”.

There were reams of this stuff. “Can’t wait to see shows chocked (sic) full of xenophobia and institutional racism”; “the return of serfdom, degradation and poverty”; “Bet there is a bidding war on the rights to On The Buses and other pro-colonialism tv shows”; “more “Britishness” on tv is a small way of making war an easier sell”.

For these people, modern Britain, quite possibly the most racially harmonious society in human history, is permanently on the teetering brink of fascism. Poor creatures, for whom the sight of Sid James chuckling randily from his tent-flap as Barbara Windsor’s bra pings off into the scandalised face of Kenneth Williams summons a vision of labour camps and jackbooted stormtroopers. This fear of imminent totalitarianism appears to be serious, and they appear to think the British government does have the will, and the power, to control culture like its Chinese counterpart. It’s a shame, and really quite bizarre, that their first reaction to thinking about the cultural qualities of their own country is to associate them with political factions that never got a hold here even when they dominated in parts of Europe.

Not that the last five years of discourse recognise it, but being distinctively British is very different from being fascistic. I work in the industry, and I can’t think of any British TV show, ever, that you could think was explicitly, unquestioningly patriotic, let alone nationalistic. Downton Abbey and The Crown have the trappings of heritage but they’re hardly unquestioning uncritical flag wavers. Further back, Dad’s Army and It Ain’t ‘Alf Hot Mum, made by people with a recent living memory of the last war, portrayed the British as hapless, incompetent blunderers. Any junta that’s relying on Clive Dunn’s Corporal Jones as a role model for its ĂŒbermenschen has a serious problem.

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of distinctive Britishness in TV is just that sort of affectionate self-deprecation. A very large percentage of the icons of British television, from Tony Hancock all the way up to the Captain in Ghosts, are loveable idiots with an inflated or totally inaccurate vision of themselves and the world around them — in a strange way, rather like the people who exploded at Whittingdale’s speech.

Television is overwhelmingly produced by these quite posh, or posh-grovelling, people whose view of the country, its past and its people, is skewed — you only have to look at any recent BBC drama set before the Sixties, such as World On Fire or The ABC Murders to see that, or that episode of The Crown with the council street party celebrating the end of the Falklands War too — and as we can see from the reaction to Whittingdale’s naff wheeze, often quite crazily so. Almost every TV show, good or bad in itself, comes from the same lofty standpoint, which sees the working class as either cosy, hopeless victims or easily led, bigoted troglodytes. This is the problem — not global investment.

But perhaps it’s also the solution. The most British thing I can think of? A jumpy, grumpy, upper middle class white man convinced the country is on the brink of fascism. Make a TV show about that.


Gareth Roberts is a screenwriter and novelist, best known for his work on Doctor Who.

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Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
2 years ago

I think we need a whole bunch of TV shows lampooning and satirizing North London luvvies. That, I feel sure, would have a gigantic audience.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago

Given how “laughable” many of the comments of the wokerati are, this may well happen.
We just have to wait for the this absurd fad to diminish 


Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
2 years ago

You mean like “2012” (BBC, London Olympics parody), now that was good. It was an unexpected gem that probably perfectly encapsulates the self deprecating ‘cultural’ humour that is suggested. ‘Goodness gracious me’ also worked well, and was loved because of it’s British comic sensibilities, even if done from a British Indian perspective.

John Montague
John Montague
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

yep – 2012 and it’s follow on W1A were just about the best comedy shows on TV – precisely because they were so close to the bone of how our producers behave.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
2 years ago

Monkey Dust’s middle class dinner parties came pretty close – but you’re right it’s lacking now
“Oh no….the AAGAA”

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Actor Mark Dexter tweeted “So basically this truly chilling announcement 
 means it’s now up to Nadine Dorries MP to decide whether or not your exciting new TV drama is ‘British enough’ for broadcast. A sprinkle of fascism on your cucumber sandwich, sir?”

I’ve never heard of him, but he’d be an utter ʞɔıÉčd, then?

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
2 years ago

I had written a diatribe about British corporations producing British interest programmes principally for British people who pay their bills rather than producing programs for other countries that might just, also, appeal to the Brit’s, but I now realise this isn’t what the article was about at all.
Given the included ‘reactions’, included in the article, it appears that what is being debated, or fought over, is for the right, for a sub-section of British society (Educated intellectuals) to take other peoples money (The pleb’s) ‘with menaces’ and then be able to use that to lecture those people about how bad they, or their history is, and maybe, just maybe, they should just stop laying it on quite so thick (in a typically British, bumbling, we might get there in the end, type of way) and that the ‘State’ really has no right to stop these ‘right on intellectuals’ from being able to.use other peoples money to look down their collective noses and sneer at them.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 years ago

Really, you are worried about “Americanization” of your television? I will tell you right now, hardly any one really watches tv in America anyone. Almost everything is now is either bland, a half-assed reboot no one asked for, woke, unoriginal and boring, or has gone on way too many seasons, and the twitter crowd tries to destroy anything good. If they are really trying to do that across the pond, I will warn them right now, it is a terrible business model.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

I’m more concerned about the “Americanisation” of the language than what’s on the telly

Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Absolutely, Billy, such as ‘I dove into the papers this morning’ – yuk!

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

‘Snuck’ also grates

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

The most absurd political party in the UK is The Greens but no TV political satirist dares to mock them.
“Fascists Everywhere” would be funny though. A posh Wolfy Smith.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

My 9 year old daughter hasn’t watched broadcast television since she grew out of Peppa Pig. She watches YouTube shows which are essentially teenagers/ young adults acting out endless role-plays. It is very unsophisticated stuff – goodies versus baddies, escape from the baddies prison etc – but with no subtlety and certainly no inserted political or environmental messages like normal kids TV. They cost almost nothing to produce and the most popular episodes have been viewed 5 BILLION times!

She literally doesn’t know how to turn the TV on or what a TV channel is.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt M
Clive Mitchell
Clive Mitchell
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

Very good point. My son does know how to change a channel, but hasn’t switched on a tv in years. It’s all YouTube or Tik Tok.

His generation (a bit older than your daughters) and it would appear the next generations don’t seem to care about TV. The BBC, Channel 4, ITV and the other one, are on the highway to extinction.

Robert Pay
Robert Pay
2 years ago

British TV is uniquely vulnerable to being Americanised because of our common language, but again this process is very hard to pinpoint or prevent…Unfortunately, media and academia are in full thrall to US thinking. There is virtually discussion of newish neoracist theories such as CRT or “Climate Emergency” on the BBC because they accept it lock, stock and barrel. This is true of the whole Anglosphere. We are lagging in the total hostility to Western Culture on full display in the Ivy League and the New York Times but we are well on our way.

Stephen Rose
Stephen Rose
2 years ago

I think you’re on to something with the idea of a North London progressive, a cross between Mr Pooter, Milly Tant and Tony Hancock. The excellent Jason Watkins would be a shoe in.
British humour, humbles the powerful, the pompous, comforts the disillusioned and pities our flaws.
In the current ideological quest for power, we sorely need a banana skin under the foot of the ranters. The SNP
minister who came off his scooter, provided a little low comedic chuckle.

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Rose

Don’t forget Peter Simple’s ‘Mrs Dutt-Pauker’.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  David McDowell

Don’t forget Peter Simple.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
2 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Rose

Is that the Jason Watkins who gave us such a splendid portrayal of Harold Wilson in “The Crown”? He would also be ideal in a remake of “Dad’s Army” – which, as the writer says, was a perfect example of the ability of us British to send ourselves up!

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

Funniest British sitcom of the last ten years was Friday Night Dinners, which never quite got the audience it deserved, and now Paul Ritter is gone.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

That affectionate self-deprecation extended to television production itself. One good example of that is the very funny wartime-set ‘Allo ‘Allo which had established itself as a satirical swipe at the almost-forgotten, but excellent BBC series about the Belgian Lifeline resistance network, “Secret Army”, broadcast in the late Seventies. The question today is if the tendency to send oneself up is still ingrained in the British character, or at least in the culture executives. Have they still got a hold on the reins?

There was a lot going on in Secret Army. The Belgians apparently loved it. I don’t know if they might take offence today, culture-appropriation-speaking. (I shouldn’t think so!). But their country had been appropriated by Germany. The culture appropriation of the airwaves one hour per week in the late 70s was small fry compared to that. The characterisation of Britishness from working-class rear gunner to well-spoken navigator was all very convincing, I recall. As were the people of Brussels, both Flemish and Wallon. The Germanness particular to the time and place was also excellent, and not stereotyped. One episode I recall was about a German soldier who was a widower, a sergeant, who was dating a Belgian widow whose young son was sneaking food out to an injured airman in hiding.

What I’m saying is that if the culture executives are just sincere about who they are supposed to portray, and have done a little research, they give us a decent hook to cling to. We want to see what we’re like! Aren’t we still like something? If the British culture executives back in the day could portray the people of Brussels well, and the patrons at the CafĂ© Candide, then they were bound to deliver good all-round characterisations of the British, as they did. Has the appetite to deliver on a rounded picture disappeared today?

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
2 years ago

We need a pushback against Americanisation, but perhaps should let in some Israeli or Indian stuff. It would be nice to have some Commonwealth* programs on. Where are the hyper stylised and colourful Bollywood musicals? What’s Singaporean television like?

If the tories want English culture back, they should try and get people going back to church. One hour a month going to a quiet non-woke village parish should do it. There are still plenty of those places left.

*Israel isn’t part of the Commonwealth but should be.

Richard Riheed
Richard Riheed
2 years ago

Thanks Gareth. Very articulate and witty. Could you not write a woke send-up drama. You’re made for it!

Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago

Thanks, Gareth, that was interesting. But definitions are impossible: try to define woke, or elite, or even worker! In terms of Britishness, my suggestion would be to send the scripts to GB News and if they like it, it’s British!

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

I’m sure people who fled Iran in 1979 and got to Britain must have loved the fare on the 3 TV channels that they encountered. And got some much needed cheer or amusement or consolation for just having some good and decent light entertainment programmes that they could watch. In ‘79.
Why in 2021 should there be a bee in many a bonnet about the kind of fare on TV that might be produced?

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Just to add, I imagine they would have enjoyed a showing of a Carry On film rather than something like Fleabag or Line Of Duty. Not quite sustenance for their mind, body and soul, but a filip, a little tonic to get them through a dank British night, or afternoon, in the lodgings they may well have been in, then.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Going by this piece, Whittingdale’s presumably in-the-heat-of-the-moment explanation of what Britishness is, reminds me of the closing scene in Hitchcock’s 1935 film, The 39 Steps, about that secret organisation rampant with extremely dangerous and extremely clever spies. Mr Memory, the great trotter-out of every fact known to mankind, off in the wings, gravely injured, with the dancing girls compelled onto the stage behind him to calm the horrified audience, is quickly asked, What are the 39 Steps? His answer was not thus, but could have been: The 39 steps? Ah, the 39 Steps is a nebulous concept, hard to define, but we all know it when we see it. As 
 we 
 have here 
 tonight. (slumps over). THE END.

michaelsweeney8
michaelsweeney8
2 years ago

Following the hype surrounding its Emmy success, I watched four episodes of Ted Lasso last night. I was struck by the USA/UK culture clash. Even though a comedy, it seemed to resonate – the Brits are presented as cussed, the Americans open and encouraging. Set in the UK, it captured us pretty well. Not sure it deserved all those Emmys though.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
2 years ago

The Americanism that’s taken over very suddenly is ‘passed’. I’ve only noticed it over the last year. I was surprised and pleased that ‘Manhunt’ last night still used ‘passed away’. Perhaps that was because the series is based on real events and real people.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

The best British films have a very definite sense of place: Get Carter, Brassed Off, Trainspotting. Everyone knows that Hugh Grant in 4 Weddings and a Funeral lived in Fulham – even though it wasn’t stated. The failure to make good British programmes is down to the centralisation of British programme making as much as the concentration in a small elite class.

Brian Burnell
Brian Burnell
2 years ago

I cannot define Britishness in words, but I know it when I see it.
BTW one series that tickles my fancy is The Darling Buds of May. Perfick!

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago
Reply to  Brian Burnell

Last Of The Summer Wine?

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
2 years ago

Would a docu-drama about mass delusions involving unthinking mass usage of experimental and supposedly prophylactic drugs produced, without liability, by global corporations with a nasty habit of falsifying trial data and a penchant for criminal fraud; a collapse in the capacity of the legislature’s ability to provide any meaningful scrutiny or opposition to the government’s latest madcap plans; a child-like unthinking, belief in the virtues of those in scientific, medical, or political authority; cowardice amongst professional so-called elites who should know better but who are more concerned about paying their kids’ school fees than the sanctity of the objective truth; widespread abuse of established liberal democratic norms and human rights; censorship of the established and social media; and a sense that we’re all the precipice of a moral, economic, and societal collapse be considered sufficiently distinctively British?

Sadly I suspect not, although you could argue the toss on the professional cowardice and the delusional belief in authority, which has been especially pronounced in the UK – we are just all too scared of standing out and we just don’t have enough recent cultural experience of oppression and tyranny.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

I think Mr Eastwood would concur with the sentiment to save British TV from Americanisation.

Interior of a Junkers 88. To the major:

— Do me a favor, will you? Next time you have one of these things, keep it an all-British operation.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

From “Where Eagles Dare”