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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 Brothers in Trouble

New arrivals in
'Brothers in Trouble' (1995)

When a national newspaper asked for its definition of 'Britishness', the most quoted reply was this: "Being British is about driving in a German car, wearing Italian clothes, heading to an Irish pub for a Belgian beer and some Greek olives, then going for an Indian curry washed down with some Australian beer before going home to collapse on your Swedish furniture to watch American shows on a Japanese TV. And the most British thing of all? Being suspicious of anything foreign."

Like many stereotypes, this has more than a grain of truth to it, but British attitudes towards foreigners are more complex than the popular image of Basil Fawlty goose-stepping in front of bewildered German guests (and even that is more nuanced than it seems: despite appearances to the contrary, Fawlty was trying not to offend them). For one thing, Britain has always been a nation of immigrants. One would struggle to find more convincing examples of patriotic Britons than Leslie Howard and John Betjeman, but they came from Hungarian and German stock respectively (at school during World War I, Betjeman was even known as "the German spy"). Emeric Pressburger, the writer of some of the most acute film analyses of what it means to be British (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, A Matter of Life and Death) was Hungarian, and English was his fifth language.

So despite the cheerful (and not so cheerful) deprecation of foreign influences, the British have always been happy to absorb them. Whether they're happy to absorb them intentionally is a somewhat different matter. The British are traditionally very poor at learning languages and taking any more than the most superficial interest in other cultures. Matters are complicated further when immigrants start families in Britain - as a British-born interviewee of clearly Asian origin in Gurinder Chadha's documentary I'm British But... (1989) explains, she feels British, yet she cannot forget the atrocities that the British committed against her ancestors. Many Irish people could say something similar, despite being resident in Britain for decades.

One of the uglier faces of Britain is racism, whether practiced overtly or surreptitiously. This has a long and ignoble history, whether expressed through anti-Semitism in the 1930s (coming to a head with the Battle of Cable Street on 4 October 1936) or directed at more recent black and Asian immigrants after World War II - or their British-born offspring. The subject of immigration and its consequences has produced a rich body of work in film and television, from A Man From The Sun (BBC, 1955) to Michael Winterbottom's In This World (2003) and beyond: outstanding examples include The Colony (BBC, 1964), Brothers in Trouble (1995) and the delightful short Jemima + Johnny (1966).

At the time the latter was made, British television routinely showed variety programmes like The Black and White Minstrel Show (1958-78) and racially dubious sitcoms such as Till Death Us Do Part (BBC, 1965-75) and the notorious Curry and Chips (ITV, 1969), Love Thy Neighbour (ITV, 1972-76) and Mind Your Language (ITV, 1977-79). More intelligent analyses of racism can be found in Pressure (1975), the first Black British feature, and Alan Bennett's Afternoon Off (ITV, 1979), in which an innocent Asian waiter finds himself the butt of erroneous assumptions as much as overt prejudice.

But things have changed: it's unthinkable that a programme like Curry and Chips would be broadcast today, and Goodness Gracious Me (BBC, 1998-2000) and The Kumars at No. 42 (BBC, 2001-03) have proved that it's possible to make successful mainstream comedy programmes without pandering too much to a mainstream British audience: their strong and unapologetic Anglo-Asian identity is what makes them distinctive.

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