'I would go even further: we need Warhammer Britain' (Henry Cavill in Warhammer 2)

April 2, 2024   9 mins

If the BBC is the cultural expression of the British state, then the omens are surely unfavourable. Its funding contested and overstretched, bogged down in interminable culture war disputes, the BBC does not know what it is for. Every few years it pivots to some bold new global vision that invariably fizzles out: in the meantime, it has found itself outpaced by technological change, struggling to assert its relevance abroad while winning dwindling approval at home. If the BBC’s role is to reflect modern Britain, it amply succeeds.

The BBC’s malaise as compared with the big streaming platforms, addressed in the Director General Tim Davie’s speech last week, is a cultural expression of other national failings — primarily the inability to capitalise on success that has bedevilled British industry for generations. Just as the birthplace of the jet engine, of the worldwide web and of television itself finds its innovations adopted and then outpaced by other nations, so Britain serially underperforms in its cultural exports. As Davie observed, “On global streamers, a minority of the offer is UK content,” with the result that “global economic models drive you to a different place, editorially, from a UK player”.

They certainly do. There are few more revealing exercises than burrowing deep within the algorithmic suggestions of the big streaming platforms to see the cultural production subsidised by Britain’s state rivals. For some years now, the Russian state has overseen the production of big-budget war dramas, with a theme of painful sacrifice in the service of the Motherland: it does not take a conspiratorial mind to see this output as a foreshadowing of current events. China, similarly, has produced countless lavish historical epics on the past glory of the Middle Kingdom, a flexing of civilisational confidence that reflects the priorities of the rising superpower. India’s increasingly nationalistic output, equally, should be recommended viewing for British policymakers keen to win New Delhi’s favour: Britain most frequently appears in current Indian cinema as the source of cartoon villains, brutal sneering foils to the patriotic heroism of the leading actor. It is not an exaggeration to say that, buried within the bowels of Netflix and Amazon, we gain a clearer sense of the worldview of the rising powers of the coming decades than in all the sensible think-tank pieces driving British foreign policy.

What, then, does Britain’s outward-facing cultural production say about us? Frankly, nothing good. There are few more heart-sinking phrases in the English language than “Home-grown British Drama”, given the British film industry’s strange fascination with preachy kitchen sink parables, and unwatched gentle boomer comedies set in neglected regions. If a nation is defined by its culture, then ours is Jim Broadbent going on a bittersweet late-life journey of self-discovery across the Durham coalfields, forever. There are two opposing strands to the British imagination, the astonishing, visionary creativity that, we too easily forget, still characterises Britain to the wider world, and the suffocating tweeness around which our state-funded cultural exports revolve. The wrong strand still dominates.

And if our external efforts are drab and lifeless, British television’s domestic output, like our high streets, increasingly appears a blasted wasteland. The bulk of the BBC’s programming can be characterised as Blue Peter for adults, whose presenters address the audience with the cheerily patronising, dead-eyed bonhomie of staff in a nursing home. If ITV expresses the inner world of the British working class, then it is alone a rebuke to any post-liberal project: surely no hope lies in the proles. And Channel 4, whose executives to this day see themselves as edgily groundbreaking innovators, produces by some margin the most formulaic programming on British television, endless “blue-light” observational formats set in maternity hospitals and animal shelters that blur interchangeably into each other. From its daytime roster of programmes warning pensioners about telephone scams and featuring aspiring slum landlords buying up rundown terraces at property auctions, to its evening output following the artificially constructed sexual quandaries of dazzling-toothed Deanos, British television presents an almost surrealist vision of modern Britain in all its claustrophobic grimness.

In these circumstances, it seems delusional to lament the audience’s drift towards American streaming services: it is the rational choice for any discerning consumer. It is perhaps too late for the BBC to catch up with Netflix, given its inattention to technological investment: until recently, it was impossible to even favourite a programme for later watching on iPlayer, one of the most basic functionalities of any streaming service. Yet as with everything else in modern Britain, the malaise is easily fixable with a clear reformist vision and a ruthless wielding of the scalpel. If British cultural production is an industry in decline, then it requires an industrial strategy to address. And as with heavy industry, that overperforming fellow middle power, South Korea, perhaps provides the clearest model to follow.

As a concerted effort of state policy, the South Korean government has championed film and television in service of the country’s soft power, with remarkable success. Launched by the Korean government nearly two decades ago, as “a distinct cultural policy based on state-developmentalism, public diplomacy, and nation branding” with the explicit aim of using culture “as both a domestic and foreign policy tool to strengthen its economic diversification, export profile, and cultural and public diplomacy outcomes”, the Korean Wave or Hallyu has been a remarkable global success. As one academic study observes, through the Hallyu policy Korea’s “export of cultural goods and services has grown exponentially; between 1998 and 2019, it chalked up a forty-time increase from $188.9 million to $12.3 billion in 2019”, with a ripple effect on other industries, so that between 2011 and 2016, every $100 of exported Hallyu content “generated an attendant export of USD248 worth of consumer goods from South Korea”.

Seeded by government grants and a concerted, joined-up state effort to enhance Korea’s global standing, the Hallyu policy has matured over time to depend on private finance. While the government bore the initial risks, as the Korean Wave has blossomed, a corporate ecosystem has evolved, generating both revenue and cultural and diplomatic capital in the service of the state. South Korea’s cultural diplomacy does not strive, like the BBC does, to compete with American platforms: instead it employs the Netflix and YouTube infrastructure in clear-eyed pursuit of its own goals. Working with laser-guided efficiency towards global success, South Korea’s cultural output nevertheless remains firmly Korean. Perhaps it is this unapologetic Korean-ness, that unabashed cultural self-confidence that makes it so appealing to a global audience. It does not fawningly attempt, as we do in every sphere, to seek American approval, but wins international esteem for being so resolutely of itself.

Yet international success does not mean playing to the gallery: from Old Boy to Squid Game, Last Train to Busan and Parasite, South Korea’s international film and television hits have been marked by formal experimentation, dark and disturbing themes and a relentless quest to construct new visual worlds. It is the precise opposite approach to Britain’s cultural strategy in recent decades, a strategy which has not only failed but goes against what is most striking about the British character: its seam of visionary, innovative imagination, too often crushed by uninspired management, a timid desire to play it safe, and the relentless national trait of letting others exploit and benefit from its own low-hanging fruit.

Tim Davie’s assertion that the BBC’s “most successful approach is to focus on our point of difference: authentic British stories produced beautifully, not worrying too much about an abstract notion of global appeal” makes the right noises, yet his focus on “a shared British culture and our democratic, tolerant society” and gobbledegook pursuit of “unique algorithms to serve our values, for good… that bring us closer, not drive us apart” naturally makes eyes glaze over. There is surely no more interest globally than there is domestically in a televisual cross between Very British Problems and a period of detention in a Michaela school, or in being lectured on our Brilliant British Values by Marianna Spring. All of this is an expression not of cultural self-confidence but of its absence, the state broadcaster uneasily papering over cracks that threaten to bring down the roof. Like the country itself, British programming is hidebound by timidity and self-doubt.

In his 2021 essay “After Brexit, We Need an Iron Maiden Britain”, the writer Jeremy Driver posits the unfashionable, but undeniably successful, rock band as a model for a reformed British state: bombastically self-confident, freed from the tiresome restraints of good taste and unashamedly hungry for global success. In pursuit of soft power and prosperity, I would go even further: we need Warhammer Britain. The unfashionable, but wildly popular hobby is an underexploited national champion which a country like South Korea would long ago have swung behind in pursuit of soft power. More profitable than Google, worth more than Marks & Spencer, the Games Workshop company behind it has turned the Warhammer 40k intellectual property into a global phenomenon. It is remarkable, for example, that both sides in the Ukraine war have displayed a tendency to allude to Warhammer’s fictional universe, with Ukraine even fielding two units named after its fantasy factions: that is what soft power means. Warhammer’s lucrative gaming figurines are all made in Britain, with the company about to open its fourth factory, bucking national economic trends. During lockdown, the company didn’t claim any government subsidies despite shuttering its more than 500 shops: it’s so profitable it didn’t need to. Its characters are “ridiculous, over-the-top pastiches, created by people who were bored and angry” in a world where “hope has been extinguished for millennia” — and what could be more British than that?

With its global fanbase, its relentlessly successful pursuit of market dominance and ever-expanding profit, its rooting in British culture and commitment to local industry, the Warhammer intellectual property has the potential to be a British Disney or Marvel, an endlessly productive cash cow that simultaneously advances the nation’s soft power, not least within state adversaries such as Russia and China. As Games Workshop recently declared, “we own what we believe is some of the best under exploited intellectual property (‘IP’) globally”, a statement of self-belief that is surely correct. Yet — as so often — Britain lets America reap the full benefits, with Amazon set to exploit its popularity in a lavishly-funded series of TV shows and films produced by the British actor Henry Cavill. There is no reason why the BBC, with government backing, could not have picked this luscious low-hanging fruit as a national champion: all the elements for success present themselves with glaring obviousness.

“The Warhammer intellectual property has the potential to be a British Disney or Marvel”

But the same could be said for other under-exploited British intellectual property: given the relentlessness with which discourse in recent years has revolved around issues of empire, colonialism and race, the Flashman series of novels, which presents Britain’s imperial history with a far more sceptical and ambivalent eye, rooted in scholarly accuracy, than many perhaps realise, could have been a global success, deftly asserting Britain’s ownership of its own history. Why was the success of Peter Weir’s Master and Commander not capitalised on with a reboot of the Hornblower series? Given the success of BBC’s The Last Kingdom, an adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon series of novels — promptly sold to Netflix, with the quality declining even as the budget was boosted — could we not use the vast armies conjurable with CGI to reboot Cornwell’s Sharpe series for a new audience, or even better, adapt his Arthurian series on the forging of the British nation in a way that speaks, as the source material does, to Britain’s current, fissiparous challenges? From HBO’s Rome to Disney’s Shogun, the appeal of immersive historical worlds is enduring — and our national inclination to recreate them is surely the basis of our global brand.

The answer is that none of this is appealing to our cultural tastemakers, even if it would be wildly popular both at home and abroad. But, then, the British culture industry has been captured by people who are worse than political enemies: they are simply boring. It possesses neither the confidence to strive for high culture, nor the commercial instincts to exploit what is organically popular, leaving us stranded with a middlebrow output that, by trying to appeal to everyone, pleases no one. Who does not, when they hear a “topical” Radio 4 afternoon play, or listen to Mark Steel perform his notionally comedic circuit of provincial towns, reach for their proverbial revolver? It is like being trapped in a dictatorship whose cultural showpiece was the 2012 Olympic Ceremony. But the BBC’s rivals are no better: Channel 4 shows more of a commitment to showing quality European drama than making it, a reflection of our sad cultural cringe and lack of self-belief, while it would be an act of national self-harm to inflict ITV’s programming on the wider world. Like everything in Britain, in the interests of national survival, our cultural output requires total reform.

So where do we start? Conflicted though our tastemakers may feel about it, Britain’s Early Modern history is the basis of our global brand: it is the reason why the English language, the English men’s suit, and the game of football have become so widely adopted, globally, that it is hard to remember they are expressions of our national culture, surely the most widely adopted ethnic culture in world history. This is a vast seam of cultural capital, ready and waiting to be mined, which a South Korea could only dream of. But instead we let the wider world write our national story, turning Britain, as in Bridgerton, into a theme park for other cultures’ fantasies, a provincial museum whose captions are written by other people — and rarely to our best interests.

There is a vast market for a Britishness beyond our oscillation between tweeness and miserabilism, for a confidence that can be feigned even if it is hard to feel, and where even working out our doubts and insecurities in art — with a clear-sighted honesty absent in Britain’s current cultural output — would be productive. If we accept the argument, made in defence of the licence fee, that the BBC is a tool of British soft power, then in an era of global confrontation and self-assertion by rising powers, drawing on their history for worldly success, it must begin to act like it. For our age of moping twee to end, Britain’s new cultural imperium must begin.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.