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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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Royalty and Empire
Still from Victoria the Great

Anna Neagle as
'Victoria the Great' (1937)

British history doesn't exclusively consist of royalty and Empire, of course, but it often seems that these are key ingredients of its perceived 'Britishness'. Learning kings and queens by rote has long been a traditional method of teaching British history, which can be productive in the case of important monarchs like Henry VIII, whose actions contributed a great deal to the shaping of modern Britain, but considerably less so in the case of minor royals. But though the debate about whether Britain needs a royal family has been running for decades, the public seems overwhelmingly in favour of its retention. Two recent events underscore this, the surprisingly high turnout for the present Queen's Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2002, and the huge critical and box-office success of Stephen Frears' film The Queen (2006) which, though hardly a slavish hagiography, was nonetheless a genuinely affectionate portrait of one of the few current royals that nearly everyone respects.

Part of the problem is that royalty attracts myth-making. Biased coverage is hardly a recent phenomenon: the popular image of the fifteenth-century king Richard III is heavily skewed by Shakespeare's depiction of him as a black-hearted villain, though this owes at least as much to a century of Tudor propaganda as to fact. Conversely, Henry V is seen as being an entirely admirable figure, though this is partly Laurence Olivier's fault: his film version (1944) stripped out much of the ambiguity that Shakespeare introduced, both in the play itself and the two preceding Henry IV plays, in which young Prince Hal finds his feet. Richard the Lionheart is the subject of a popular television series (ITV, 1961-65), while Queen Victoria saw a memorably fawning biopic, Victoria the Great (1937) released to mark the 100th anniversary of her succession to the throne. More recently, Stephen Poliakoff's The Lost Prince (BBC, 2003) explored a royal legend from the early 20th century.

If the attitude toward the royal family is ambiguous, the reputation of the once-mighty British Empire has almost sunk without trace, though in the 1930s it was explicitly celebrated in a series of films produced by Alexander Korda's London Films: Sanders of the River (1935), which was disowned by its star Paul Robeson, Sabu vehicles Elephant Boy (1937) and The Drum (1938) and the Technicolor extravaganza The Four Feathers (1939), while at the same time the comedian Will Hay was mocking colonial administrators in Old Bones of the River (1938). It's fascinating returning to them now to see how much attitudes have changed - though even at the time Robeson was consciously trying to persuade producers to create more rounded African characters than the usual crude stereotypes. After World War II, Men of Two Worlds (1946), Cry, The Beloved Country (1952) and Simba (1955) were altogether more thoughtful than what had come before, though Diamond City (1949) and North West Frontier (1959) eschewed serious historical reconstruction in favour of trying to make rousing British Westerns, not a genre the British cinema has ever really suited.

Much more recently, the 1980s saw a number of films and television programmes and series about the British Raj, of which Richard Attenborough's Gandhi (1982) and the Granada series The Jewel in the Crown (1984) had the highest profiles. Unlike the Korda films, these were made with the benefit of hindsight, and the sense of an ending era is all-pervasive. But the British Empire film that may be the most affectionately remembered is Carry On Up The Khyber (1968), which became a surprise box office hit in India in the early 2000s after having been withheld from distribution for decades lest it offend sensibilities there. But it's difficult to see how anyone could be offended by something so cheerfully idiotic and self-mocking, especially as it's unusually sophisticated by Carry On standards. In particular, the grand finale, where the colonial administrators attempt to maintain decorum at afternoon tea while being assailed on all sides provides one of the cinema's classic images of British unflappability.

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