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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    
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Heroic Failures
Still from Billy Liar (1963)

Billy Liar (1963)

One of the most striking British cultural traits is our fondness for celebrating people that other cultures would dismiss as 'losers'. By most yardsticks, Captain Robert Falcon Scott's 1911 expedition to the South Pole was a disaster, not only in failing to achieve his aims but even in surviving the journey. Yet his career was celebrated on film (Scott of the Antarctic, 1948) over half a century before that Ernest Shackleton, an Antarctic explorer whose achievement was rather more conventionally heroic.

Similarly, King George III, a man largely famous for "losing the colonies" (i.e. the United States of America) and going mad as a by-product of hereditary illness, is not the most obviously heroic figure amongst British royalty. Yet who could deny that the character, as played by Nigel Hawthorne in The Madness of King George (1994), comes across as weirdly triumphant?

British film history is filled with similar celebrations of fictional and real-life failures. The title characters of The Rebel (1960), Billy Liar (1963) and Withnail & I (1986) are consumed by the desire for stardom, yet they all fail to get anywhere near reaching their goals. Tony Hancock's would-be artist goes to Paris and becomes the toast of the art world until they realise that he has no talent whatsoever, Billy actively rejects an opportunity to cut ties with family and birthplace and go to London (with Julie Christie, no less), while Withnail is reduced to reciting Hamlet to a clutch of bedraggled wolves, as if realising that that's the only audience he's ever going to get.

Why do we react so sympathetically towards these people, when we would doubtless find them maddening in real life? It's partly because because they fail on our behalf, at least attempting to realise their (and our) dreams while we watch from the sidelines, secretly envious that they've even got that far. But it's also because the British have always been fascinated by failure, partly thanks to a natural tendency towards self-deprecation but also to a culture that is traditionally suspicious of over-achievers. Though the title character in Bridget Jones's Diary (2001) eventually triumphs over adversity, it's what she sees as her negative points - her weight, her awkwardness, her gullibility - that audiences respond to most warmly.

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