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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
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Still from Open All Hours

David Jason and Ronnie Barker
in 'Open All Hours' (1973-85)

The phrase is popularly attributed to Napoleon, but the image of the British as being "a nation of shopkeepers" was originated by the Scottish economist Adam Smith in the late eighteenth century. In many ways, it remains true today, at least in the romantic view of British society. Though we are generally happy to transfer our business to the local supermarket chain if its prices undercut those of the family-run corner shop, most Britons do at least have the decency to feel guilty about it - though the penny-pinching motives are just as characteristic.

The small businessman is one of the defining British cultural archetypes, exploited by artists and politicians alike, especially in the 1980s. Perhaps the most incisive study of that era, at least from a business perspective, is Hanif Kureishi's My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), one of whose senior characters, Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey) has cheerfully renounced his Pakistani roots in favour of wholeheartedly buying into the Thatcherite dream, to the disgust of his more traditionalist brother. Eleven years earlier, the first British Asian film, A Private Enterprise (1974), showed a recent Indian immigrant also breaking with family tradition to try to make it as a small businessman.

There are many similar examples in earlier films. In the Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) manufactures cheap trinkets for tourists, until he is approached by bank insider Henry Holland (Alec Guinness) with a suggestion that he diversify into stolen gold bullion. The same year saw Guinness' inventor Sydney Stratton revolutionise the menswear industry in The Man in the White Suit (1951) - or rather, he would have done if it hadn't been for a conspiracy between management and unions to keep his career and industry-threatening product off the streets. And the very first Ealing comedy, Cheer Boys Cheer (1939) took the side of the small-scale Greenleaf Brewery against the giant rival conglomerate Ironside. Ealing Studios itself, it should be noted, was a relatively small-scale operation.

In the 1940s, the most genuinely independent businessmen were the spivs, who embodied the resourceful (if illegal) exploitation of the black market, as depicted by Stewart Granger in Waterloo Road (1944) and James Beck's Private Walker in Dad's Army (BBC, 1968-77). Their spirits live on in George Cole's immortal wheeler-dealer Arthur Daley, originally conceived as a supporting character in Minder (ITV, 1979-94) but rapidly stealing the entire show. At the same time, the Trotter brothers were trying to build a Peckham business empire in Only Fools and Horses (BBC, 1981-96). Indeed, businesses of various kinds have made ideal settings for sitcoms, whether they're in The Rag Trade (BBC, 1961-63), the rag-and-bone trade (Steptoe and Son, BBC, 1962-74), a department store (Are You Being Served?, BBC, 1973-85), a hotel (Fawlty Towers, BBC, 1975/79), a barber's (Desmond's, Channel 4, 1988-94), a Slough paper merchant's (The Office, BBC, 2001-03), or even a straightforward shop (Open All Hours, BBC, 1973-85).

Most recently, the BBC's runaway 'reality TV' hit has been The Apprentice (BBC, 2005-7), in which assorted would-be entrepreneurs compete with each other for the chance of a six-figure salary working for multi-millionaire businessman Sir Alan Sugar, who sacks one hapless contestant at the end of every episode. Originally screened on BBC2, it achieved the rare feat of being promoted to BBC1 after capturing the public imagination, proving in passing that Adam Smith's stereotype still has plenty of mileage in it.