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Britishness by Michael Brooke
Introduction The British Character Ancient & Mediaeval Royalty & Empire The Class System Conflict
Landscape Foreigners Culture Leisure Eccentricity Shopkeepers

What is Britishness?

It's a question that has been asked many times in the three centuries since the modern British nation state was founded by the Act of Union in 1707, which tied England and Scotland together. And it will be asked a great many more times over the centuries to come, since it's impossible to answer - at least in the kind of machine-readable soundbites beloved of politicians and bureaucrats.

It doesn't help that Britain itself is made up of four countries with quite distinct cultures: England, Scotland, Wales and northern Ireland - and the whole island of Ireland was also part of Britain until the early 1920s. Added to this is the fact that it has long been a magnet for immigrants, whether from continental Europe, parts of the former British empire, or further afield, and the notion that 'Britishness' can be pinned down to a single definable quality looks absurd. Accordingly, BFI Screenonline's Britishness tour doesn't pretend to offer any conclusive answers.

However, in drawing on moving images dating back to the late nineteenth century (thereby covering more than a third of modern Britain's existence), it can at least offer plenty of illustrations. Not least among these is a vivid depiction of how much Britain has changed in a relatively short period, while recognisably retaining the same core values. This is the land of William Shakespeare and William Wallace, Rab Butler and Rab C. Nesbitt, Leonard Rossiter and Lenny Henry, Lloyd George and Loyd Grossman - the latter proving that you don't have to be born in Britain to qualify as an authentic Great British Eccentric.

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Still from The Go-Between