The popular depiction of Britain in global television and film isn't only shockingly homogenous—it's a fictionby Caspar Salmon / October 21, 2019 / Leave a comment
Towards the end of September, American viewers of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert were treated to a clip of the ceremony in which parliament was officially closed by—cue howls of laughter from the audience!—Black Rod. Of course, Britain’s archaic governmental pomp prompted much hilarity from baffled spectators, who lapped up Colbert’s impersonation of Speaker John Bercow’s riled voice and comically ostentatious locutions.
“Is this how they see us?” I thought, watching Colbert trot out absurd phrases in his clipped English best. But, of course, it is. Brexit and cinema, currently the two most common ways of encountering British culture elsewhere in the world, sell just as incomplete an image of the country to the rest of the planet as they do to each other.
In former times it may have happened that some films taking on the British working class experience, such as Trainspotting or even The Full Monty, pierced through into international consciousness—but it seems to be the case now that movies associated with “Britishness” err much more towards the other side of the spectrum.
Films from Independence Day to Fantastic Four: Rise of the Siver Surfer consistently use the Houses of Parliament as a visual shorthand for London, and by extension the country. Westminster gets it in the neck in London Has Fallen; the most iconic scene in Danny Boyle’s 28 Day Later finds Cillian Murphy all alone by Big Ben; the James Bond film Spectre features a boat chase against a backdrop of the House of Commons.
It’s part of the iconography of London, of course, and therefore an easy shortcut for a filmmaker—but nevertheless it’s notable that so many films anchor peril so close to the heart of British politics. By extension, the Houses of Parliament are indomitable bastions of rectitude, and saving them represents a restitution of an orderly, comforting status quo.
Of course, parliament is closed by an emissary of the Queen. She, too, is a recognisable component of British film and television, standing as a figure in need of unquestioning devotion and an emblem of… well, it’s hard to say. Of upstanding Britishness, perhaps. The Queen finds herself right in the centre of two British productions with massive American appeal this autumn, with the release of Downton Abbey Da Movie, which finds the inhabitants of the stately home in a flap about the impending arrival of Her Highness, and The Crown, whose third season on Netflix will star Olivia Colman in the lead role.
Kings and Queens have been good value at the Oscars, with previous nominations for Judi Dench as Queen Victoria, Nigel Hawthorne as George III, Helen Mirren as Queen Charlotte and Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I, and victories for Mirren as Elizabeth II, Colin Firth as George VI and Colman as Queen Anne. Other recent Oscar wins—for Gary Oldman as Churchill and Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher—show this trend is not so much about the Queen as a character as it is about perceiving Britain through its politics and institutions; through its autocratic rightwingery, at that.
The Britain lived in and vaunted by Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg is one that few modern Britons would recognise: a place of nannies, and marmalade for high tea; a place mistaking itself for a still-great force, where sterling, Blitz-y, stiff-upper-lipness wins the day.
Recent entertainments like Paddington (whose poster depicts the bear in front of, where else, the House of Commons) and Mary Poppins 2 (whose plot hinges on winding back Big Ben), play into this, by depicting a cheery, Edwardian-lite London. Even The Great British Bake Off, which with its diversity of contestants is in other respects commendable for its representation, comes bedecked in Union Jack bunting and backdropped by a stately home.
One could even argue that the Harry Potter films and such Oscar-winners as the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything play into this fallacy. Focusing on boarding schools and Oxbridge, these films depict institutions whose architecture and hierarchies mirror the House of Commons, allowing elites to transition seamlessly from one to the other.
Of course, this image of Britain is sold not just to the world but to Britain itself, underpinning the very idea of Brexit. The Queen’s continued popularity is indicative of a generalised fondness for yesteryear, and for an idea of Britain still associated with a dimly remembered ‘majesty’. The Queen and the idea of royalty are a connection to the supposed glory days of Empire that hardcore Brexiters would like to return to.
These representations sell a false image of our country—one which neglects modernity and erases both non-white people and the working classes almost in their entirety. Part of the problem of Brexit is that British residents feel that parliament does not represent them. In both the Brexit narrative and the films we flog to the States, the stories of normal people do not get told.
Perhaps in that climate, one which recognises the real tenor of Britain’s cachet, new voices can come to the fore to show the world what we’re really like.