September 21, 2021

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.

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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 übermenschen 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.