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The British Hero by Michael Brooke
Introduction Stiff Upper Lips Working-Class Heroes Heroic Outsiders Heroic Failures The Antihero
Historical Heroes Literary Heroes Cultural Heroes Local Heroes    

What is a hero?

The dictionary definition is something along these lines: the principal character in a dramatic work, someone of exceptional courage and nobility, someone idealised for having superior qualities generally.

But when we talk about British heroes, we have to filter those concepts through our cultural expectations. These differ from country to country: in France, intellectuals are often considered heroes, whereas in Britain they're regarded with suspicion bordering on hostility. At least in their mainstream popular culture, Americans prefer their heroes square-jawed and upright, whereas the British are as likely to champion abject failures (Scott of the Antarctic, Billy Liar), antisocial louts (Scum, Trainspotting) or even ruthless killers (The Wicked Lady, Kind Hearts and Coronets).

Even our concept of the conventionally heroic figure changes over time. Before World War II it was Bulldog Drummond, racist, sexist and not overly bright. During the Cold War (and beyond) it was the rather more dashing and intelligent, if equally sexist, James Bond, who only survived into the 1990s and beyond thanks to his creators' willingness to subvert his image over time, not least by giving him a female boss who regards him as a "misogynist dinosaur". In 1944, Laurence Olivier turned Henry V into a straightforwardly patriotic symbol of British hopes, but 45 years later Kenneth Branagh brought back Shakespeare's original ambiguities to create a much more complex figure, just as heroic as Olivier's, but with more human failings to identify with.

Who is the British hero of today? Is it the stammering, floppy-haired William Thacker (Notting Hill), sneering, cynical Mark Renton (Trainspotting), thirtysomething singleton Bridget Jones or the boy wizard Harry Potter? Or is it all of these, each representing different aspects of heroism in the vast melting-pot of contemporary Britain? And how do they compare with British heroes of the past?

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