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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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The British Character
Still from Dad's Army

Arthur Lowe and Clive Dunn in
'Dad's Army' (BBC, 1968-77)

The cartoonist Graham Laidler (1908-1940), better known as 'Pont', spent much of his sadly short life attempting to capture 'the British Character' in a series of indelibly simple images. In a tranquil country pub, the unruffled population listens calmly to news that the threat of a Nazi invasion has flung Britain "into a state of complete panic". A man is trapped on an ice floe, surrounded by polar bears and armed with nothing but his fists, which he raises defiantly, thus embodying 'Refusal to Admit Defeat'. Other Pont masterpieces were titled 'Absence of the Gift for Conversation', 'Importance of Not Being Intellectual' and 'Absolute Indispensability of Bacon and Eggs for Breakfast'. The fact that these stereotypes are still recognisable today proves both how perceptive Pont was, and how old traditions refuse to die. Accordingly, this part of the Britishness tour celebrates some of the most stereotypical images of the British character.

There's Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army (BBC, 1968-77), valiantly trying to defend his country with the help of a motley band of mostly decrepit elderly men (each of whom embodies a memorable cultural stereotype in his own right): he's insufferably pompous but also strangely heroic. There's the fat schoolboy Billy Bunter, forever stuffing himself while dodging the cane. There's PC Dixon of Dock Green, everyone's favourite bobby on the beat.

There's the upper-class twit Bertie Wooster, and his vastly more intelligent manservant Jeeves, from P.G. Wodehouse's stories. There's the urbane, bowler-hatted John Steed in The Avengers (ITV, 1961-69), the waspish Ena Sharples (Coronation Street, ITV, 1960-) and the monstrous social-climbing Beverly (Abigail's Party, BBC, 1977), while two real-life figures perfectly embody the "refusal to admit defeat" aspect of the British character: Captain Ronald Falcon Scott and Group Captain Douglas Bader. Significantly, each was portrayed on screen by actors who were also considered icons of a certain type of Britishness: John Mills and Kenneth More. Trevor Howard belongs here too, as does his romance with Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter (1945).

But there's also the timorous Hopkins in Alan Bennett's Me! I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf (ITV, 1978), mummy's boy Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em (BBC, 1973-78), prissy Cecil Vyse in A Room with a View (1985), Charlie Drake's unnamed workshy layabout in The Worker (ITV, 1965-70), the obsessive-compulsive Keith in Mike Leigh's Nuts in May (1975), narcissistic harpies Edina and Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous (BBC, 1992-2003) - all recognisably British as well. Or there's Trevor, the intelligent, articulate but racist and amoral skinhead in Made in Britain (1983), Cockney gangster Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday (1979), East End bigot Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part (BBC, 1965-75) or Carlin, the Borstal 'daddy' in Scum (1977). And talking of someone who cheerfully describes himself as "scum", there's Govan philosopher Rab C. Nesbitt.

All these are unmistakably British, and most have caught the popular imagination at some time - which gives some idea of how impossible it is to encapsulate Britishness as a single concept. Instead, this tour will look at aspects of the subject under various themed headings.

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