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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 A Diary For Timothy

John Gielgud's Hamlet in
'A Diary for Timothy' (1946)

The British have a long and distinguished cultural tradition. William Shakespeare has already been cited several times in this tour, and remains the supreme exponent of his art: no single individual has contributed so much to the language. The story of the woman who went to see Hamlet and said she was distracted by all the quotations acknowledges this, and she might equally have gone to see Richard III, Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth - or Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), perhaps the most quotable comedy of the last 150 years.

In the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens' novels established a similar grip on the public imagination, helped by their serialisation in popular newspapers. As with Shakespeare, the great set-pieces are familiar even to those who barely pick up a book: Oliver Twist asking for more, Scrooge dismissing Christmas as "humbug", Sydney Carton facing the executioner, and so on. Equally far-reaching in its influence was Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (1866). It was one of the first novels to be adapted for film (in 1903) and has seen many since, most notably Jonathan Miller's 1966 BBC version which anchored the text into the Anglican Victorian tradition from which the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Carroll's real-life alter ego) originally came.

Literature was one of the few creative spheres open to nineteenth-century women, with the pseudonymous George Eliot, Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters fully matching their male counterparts in both the quality of their work and its lasting popularity: Austen in particular has had countless film and TV adaptations of every single one of her books. In particular, the runaway success of the BBC's 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice (which, with the assistance of Bridget Jones, established 'Mr Darcy' as shorthand for a certain type of sensual, brooding British male) proves that their appeal remains undimmed. As do the novels of Agatha Christie, with Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple worthy successors to Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.

Historically, Britain's musical tradition has fared less well, with the brief 17th-century flowering of Henry Purcell followed by two centuries of relative mediocrity. Sir Arthur Sullivan's genius turned out to be best applied to the light operettas he wrote with W.S. Gilbert, of which The Mikado is the best known - and, for all its Japanese setting, a thoroughly British piece. Edward Elgar was the composer who achieved the renown denied Sullivan, and while he would come to hate the overly patriotic spin put on his 'Land of Hope and Glory', other works such as the 'Enigma' Variations and the Cello Concerto are instantly recognisable. Ralph Vaughan Williams spent much time researching English folksong and editing hymns, which found their way back into his own music.

As far as popular music is concerned, the Beatles remain the most successful British musical export, as much for their Britishness as for the undoubted quality of their work, and it's worth noting that George Harrison's post-Beatles career was partly spent backing some of the most characteristically 'British' films of the 1980s via his company HandMade Films. Other musicians and bands whose nationality is at least as important a factor as their music include Cliff Richard, David Bowie, Ian Dury and the Blockheads and The Jam.

But when it comes to shared cultural experiences, the last half-century has produced little to beat the box in the corner of the living room. From the moment it became a genuine mass medium in the early 1950s to the point just under fifty years later when the television landscape started to fragment into hundreds of different channels, the British have amassed a huge encyclopaedia of shared cultural reference points. In many ways, children's television offers the most potent examples: there's a scene in the 1999 film East is East where the family, following a particularly traumatic incident, sits down to watch an episode of the Clangers (BBC, 1969-74). The fact that the family is of Asian origin only serves to underscore the universality of Oliver Postgate's creation.

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