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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 The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The duel scene from
'The Life & Death
of Colonel Blimp' (1943)

Paradoxically, conflict often has the effect of bringing people together, and nowhere is this more true than in the Second World War. This may have been the last historical epoch where virtually the entire British nation came together as one, believing in an uncomplicated narrative whereby the good guys (the British, later extended to the English-speaking peoples) stood alone against the bad guys (the Axis Powers of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan) once the wimps in the middle (much of continental Europe) had let themselves be overrun.

But there was a good reason for this national camaraderie: Britain was faced by the greatest threat it had seen throughout its history. The Blitz saw nightly bombing raids whose casualties made subsequent terrorist campaigns look feeble by comparison. Humphrey Jennings' Fires Were Started (1943) is the definitive chronicle of the period, showing how the firemen's solidarity in the face of impossible working conditions was often all that stood between them and sudden death: the scene in which they all join in with a rendition of "One man went to mow" shows this in practice.

Jennings also made more general propaganda films such as Words for Battle (1941), one of many films made that sought to explain the conflict in terms of defending what Britain represented. From the Four Corners (1941) was another, a seemingly contrived but surprisingly subtle film in which Leslie Howard meets three soldiers from Canada, Australia and New Zealand and takes them up to the dome of St Paul's for a panoramic history lecture. Before his tragically early death in 1943, Howard embodied the British character, notably in such feature films as The First of the Few (1942), which celebrates the career of Spitfire designer R.J. Mitchell. Not to be outdone, Laurence Olivier turned Shakespeare's Henry V (1944) into a rousingly patriotic popular epic, quietly dropping the less admirable aspects of Henry's character in the process.

But for all the occasional complexity of these films, it was nonetheless unsurprising that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) should run into official disapproval: its message about Britishness in general and relations between the British and the Germans in particular were too rich and multilayered to suit the likes of Winston Churchill, who reputedly tried to have it banned. "War starts at midnight!", cries the crusty old buffer at the start, still clinging to the notion of fair play as his rivals run rings round him by breaking the rules - but rather than mock 'Colonel Blimp' (aka Major General Clive Wynne-Candy), the film delves back into his life to celebrate the virtues he represented, while at the same time cautioning against excessive nostalgia at a time of national peril.

Powell and Pressburger made an even more audacious film shortly after the war ended. A Matter of Life and Death (1946) was intended as a straightforward propaganda piece to celebrate the special relationship between the British and the Americans, but it ended up as a bizarre fantasy set in two parallel worlds, and culminating in a 'trial' in which an American prosecutor unsuccessfully tries to ridicule everything that Britain stands for, only to find that history is against him.

The Second World War was perhaps the last time a major conflict could be used as the backdrop for an uncomplicated celebration of Britishness. Post-Suez, national cynicism about politicians' motives has caused similar undertakings to be greeted with intense suspicion, as Ian Curteis found when production of his 1986 play about the Falklands conflict was blocked by the BBC, which thought that his portrait of Margaret Thatcher was too uncritical. It was eventually filmed and broadcast in 2002, though not without changes: tellingly, scenes ridiculing her Argentinian opponents were excised. A more caustic view of the conflict was Charles Wood's Tumbledown (BBC, 1988), which sought to dispel the popular image of the British soldier as being a plucky amateur, in the process raising often disturbing questions about whether the current British army is still essentially British. But was it ever, or is this simply another part of the mythological fabric?

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