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…