The defining feature of the UK culture wars is to pick a battle no one wants or cares about and turn it into a hot button issue. So it is with media minister John Whittingdale’s pronouncement at a Royal Television Society Conference that UK public service broadcasters may be required by law to make “distinctively British” programmes. It’s fine for the BBC and C4 to sell shows overseas, apparently, but they must authentically reflect our nation. Ofcom is to draw up guidelines.
How’s that going to work, then? Will EastEnders scripts be vetted to ensure they include sufficient mentions of union jacks, imperial measures and the actual Queen, not just the Queen Vic? Will armed police storm the set of First Dates and forcibly replace Fred Siriex with Alexander Armstrong? Will Michael Portillo’s Great Railway Journeys now stop at Dover?
I’m being facetious, but so is Whittingdale. Just look at the list of cultural artefacts he considers acceptably British. Only Fools and Horses, Doctor Who, Bake Off, The Bodyguard, Derry Girls, Fleabag, Gogglebox and the Carry On films all make the cut. It’s pretty hard to find a common thread expressing our national character among that lot, unless it’s that we’re a land of light entertainment lovers who will only watch a drama if it’s got Keeley Hawes in it. I’d guess Derry Girls made the cut as a sop to Northern Irish sensibilities. It’s a surprise Whittingdale didn’t mention Rab C Nesbitt and Gavin and Stacey to placate the other home nations. Goodness knows why the quintessentially British Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t on the list.
Tellingly, he doesn’t cite any examples of un-British shows (though I bet he’d secretly like to name the combative Channel 4 News as an enemy of the people). Instead, he suggests that TV series on streaming platforms feel generic because they are devised according to an algorithm. Tell that to the producers of Call My Agent, Lupin, Money Heist or the approximately one million Scandi noir dramas we all watched during lockdown. Indeed, tell that to the producers of Succession, a show with an unmistakably American energy and gloss, devised by British writers around a Scottish star.
Cultural identity is hard to define but easy to weaponize. If there is such a thing as Britishness, it’s surely located less now in vague, old-school values of fair play, stiff upper lips and dry humour, and more in a flexibility of mind and attitude. We’re a small but polyglot nation of countless influences and associations and our creative industries thrive on co-operation and co-production. Now, though, this government seeks to conjure up a monolithic notion of Britishness under threat from chimerical dark forces. They did it with flags and statues, now they’ve come for the TV schedules. The proposed law is another stick with which the government can bash the BBC, which it wants to weaken and defund, and Channel 4, which it wants to flog off.
The proposed law probably won’t happen and it certainly won’t work. There won’t be court cases where the Beeb is fined for breaching some arbitrary notion of cultural purity. Racking my brains, I can think of only two UK series that look specifically designed for an international market. One is Sex Education, a deliberate mashup of UK and US fictional tropes, made for Netflix but as British as they come. The other is ITV’s Downton Abbey, a blend of snobbery and class-consciousness that always looked tailored for the American market. It’s top of Whittingdale’s list of great British shows.