avengersBack in 2011, David Cameron’s desperation to be Barack Obama’s Bezzy Mate was a predictable move from an unpopular Prime Minister in relation to a popular President, serving burgers in the back garden of No.10 in the hope that some of Obama’s movie star sheen would rub off on him. By contrast, Theresa May’s quick-off-the-mark dash to get to Donald Trump before any other world leader made sense in the context of an uncertain post-Brexit future, though both actions tell a familiar story where the Special Relationship is concerned. With the odd rare exception, the wartime scenario of the gum-chewing GIs that swept a generation of British girls off their feet seems to have been the blueprint for summit meetings between UK PMs and US Presidents ever since. Culturally, the same pattern has been replicated in recent years, though it hasn’t always been the case.

Take Gerry Anderson. ‘Stingray’, ‘Thunderbirds’ and ‘Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons’ may well be the notable Supermarionation series that spring to mind whenever the name of Gerry Anderson is evoked, but how many of you remember ‘The Secret Service’?

‘The Secret Service’ was commonly regarded as Gerry Anderson’s first flop. It was the last series he made with puppets in the 1960s and was only seen on Southern and ATV back in the days when ITV was a collection of competing regional broadcasters that often went their own obstinate ways when it came to scheduling. If you don’t know much, or anything, about this near-forgotten series, ‘The Secret Service’ was a bizarre mix of puppetry and live action; the close-ups are puppets whereas the long shots, including a character stepping out of a car and walking up to a door, are all live action. The master of gobbledygook, Professor Stanley Unwin, plays himself as a country vicar who also happens to be a secret agent – yes, that’s right! It was the 60s, after all.

‘The Secret Service’ taps into that strange, brief period in the 60s when a very English eccentricity was given a kitsch Technicolor makeover and was actually chic for a while. It’s also there in ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Prisoner’ as well as hit records of the era, from Syd Barrett’s Psychedelic nursery rhymes on the first Pink Floyd LP to the story of Grocer Jack in Keith West’s ‘Excerpt from a Teenage Opera’ – quirky, whimsical, nostalgic and childlike. It was even reflected in British comics produced during this period, with surreal characters of the calibre of Robot Archie, Adam Eterno, and The Spyder, all of whom illuminated drizzly childhood Saturday afternoons as they appeared in the pages of ‘Lion’ and ‘Valiant’. A decade ago, when some of these characters were revived in the comic miniseries and graphic novel, ‘Albion’, penned by Alan Moore’s daughter Leah, she made a valid point justifying their resurrection.

‘The British sensibility from those times has been imprisoned’, she said when ‘Albion’ was published in 2006. ‘The anarchic silliness and weirdness of the comics was just part of the way we saw the world back then. Sadly, we’ve lost that, along with some of our civil liberties.’

Speaking at a moment when Tony Blair was still extending his insidious reach into so many facets of British society, on one hand Leah Moore’s statement expresses a subliminal longing for an irretrievable Golden Age – a common thread in English art and literature stretching all the way back to ‘Paradise Lost’ and even evident in the soothingly melancholic Oliver Postgate series such as ‘Noggin the Nog’ and ‘Bagpuss’; but in reviving comic characters she was probably too young to recall from her own childhood, she demonstrated a refreshing awareness of a once singularly English identity within home-grown pop culture that has been gradually eroded by an unstoppable tidal wave of American cultural colonialism. It has to be said, however, that we have been complicit in this.

In the immediate post-war era, the juvenile crime-wave that saw young men who had been raised in the absence of fathers imitating stars of US gangster flicks like Cagney, Bogart, Raft and Robinson was portrayed on-screen in ‘The Blue Lamp’, the movie that introduced Sgt Dixon to popular culture; it also set the scene for one of the great miscarriages of justice in British legal history, the hanging of Derek Bentley after his pal Christopher Craig shot dead a policeman in an early example of ‘Gun Crime’. After the gangsters came Marlon Brando, James Dean, Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll as well as every iconic American television series from ‘Rawhide’ and ‘Star Trek’ to ‘Batman’ and ‘Starsky and Hutch’ – all entertaining, all worthwhile in their own right. They competed for our attention along with The Beatles, Monty Python, James Bond and Doctor Who; we were still capable of holding our own.

Over the past twenty-five to thirty years, though, we seem to have conceded defeat. Yes, there have been small-scale and determined revivals, whether the self-conscious Englishness of Britpop or even the short-lived vogue for cock-er-nee gangster movies shot by Guy Richie; but the subtle and stealthy immersion of purely American cultural traditions into the British way of life, especially for anyone born after around 1980, has been steady and consistent.

Okay, so McDonald’s is an obvious conquering invader; but what of high-school proms or sleep-overs or baby showers? None of these have any connection to this country other than their persistent appearance in the US movies that constituted video rental shop viewing in the 80s and 90s and the US TV shows that have filled-up the schedules of 24-hour television since the same period. So pervasive have they become in the lives of anyone under 35 that many cannot imagine Britain without them. This is equally applicable to the dolt whose call to the emergency services resulted in him dialling 911 as it is to the sudden pronunciation of the letter ‘a’ in ‘patriotism’ switching from lower case to upper case.

All Hallows Eve is a classic example; as a festival, it predates any American element and yet one could imagine it was invented by the US sometime in the 80s, almost in the same way Christmas has been refashioned by Disney and Coca-Cola, whereby rosy-cheeked Santa Claus has usurped the druid-like spectre of Pagan Father Christmas. I was exposed to ‘trick or treat’ as a kid in a memorable ‘Charlie Brown’ cartoon, where poor Linus sits out all night in the pumpkin patch, awaiting the arrival of the Great Pumpkin; but nothing of that kind happened here on Halloween then. Lo and behold, by the time I’d progressed from ‘Peanuts’ to subtitled French movies on BBC2 in the hope (usually realised) of seeing some naked mademoiselle, the younger residents of the street had suddenly taken up trick or treat as an annual tradition.

I’m not necessarily advocating a Morris Dancing tournament to replace the OTT Americanisation of Halloween as it’s been here for the last quarter-of-a-century, but there are enough weird and wonderful native traditions without importing another cynical retail shindig to these shores. Mind you, Brits seem so permanently in awe of anything American (as long as it’s not Donald Trump) that this has even extended to a UK TV series such as ‘Peaky Blinders’, which owes so much to HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ that it borders on embarrassing.

With some of the best non-Scandinavian TV shows I’ve seen in recent years emanating from the States, I’m not opposed to US culture at all; but I do resent the way in which it has served to obliterate so much of what once made us so distinctive from our old colony. As far as the Special Relationship stands, Britain seems to have become the nation equivalent of a 1970s TOTP covers LP. Do we still possess the ability to stem the tide or have we surrendered as shamefully as Theresa May?

© The Editor

16 thoughts on “LESS HOMAGE, ALBION

  1. “very English eccentricity”

    I was inclined to disagree that British eccentricity has disappeared, thinking of Mr Bean, Absolutely Fabulous and The Office, which succeeded on both sides of The Pond, as did Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. Also Yes, Minister / Prime Minister and House of Cards, so thoroughly British that neither transplanted very well (I don’t count the Netflix remake of HOC as that’s more “based on” than true to original).

    The likes of The Fast Show and The Vicar of Dibley probably didn’t even make US cable but nonetheless are indisputably British (and a honorary mention to Father Ted, made in Ireland but definitely eccentric and funny).

    But, as you’ve probably noticed, they’re all long in the tooth, all last century. I never found The Inbetweeners or Little Britain funny but Harry Hill could make me laugh aloud. Not much at all so far this century: more originality in any one year of the sixties to nineties than the combined sixteen and a bit years so far of the 2000s (though that’s a judgement doubtless coloured by age – I dare say the TV I watched and the music I listened to in my teens and twenties left my parents cold).

    How much that’s down to lack of fresh ideas or down to an unwillingness of TV producers to take risks on flops is a moot point. No excuse for the BBC avoiding risks – they get paid regardless or we go to prison – but many observers have pointed out that today’s BBC caters politically to right-end left and its comic and dramatic output to the LCD. What do others think? I’m not much of a TV watcher so maybe I’m overlooking a lot.

    None of which has anything to do with the relationship between British and US leaders, because I’m not sure that politics is downstream from culture, as some assert: god, bad and indifferent programs seem to get made regardless of whichever gang of troughers is in the ascendant. Could you perhaps elaborate?

    As to commercialisation of Halloween – it pleases the kids so why not? And not being organised, as such things as Morris Dance Festivals, firework displays and cheese-rolling days need to be, the Bully State can’t interfere and demand minders, stewards, St. John’s Ambulance in attendance and public liability insurance so mums and children are free to have a bit of fun.

    As to modern music, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IP0wuwJBdMI

    Caution – contains bad language and worse music.

    Regards, Fred

    P.S. You may fin this interesting, though I never watched any of them regularly except Father Ted:- https://www.pastemagazine.com/blogs/lists/2014/06/funniest-british-comedy-series.html

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    1. I think, having observed several summit meetings between PMs and Presidents and the general dynamic in recent years – Blair & Bush being an obvious one – it seemed aspects of the Special Relationship were being mirrored in the way home-grown pop culture has become subservient to its US counterpart. Of course, I’m only looking at things from this side of the pond; I know there were the twin ‘British Invasions’ in the 60s and 80s that impacted over there and (as you point out) there have been several UK TV shows that have been successful stateside in recent years; but it sometimes seems we’re a little too enamoured of all things American here to the point where our own produce often appears to be a pale imitation.


  2. It is inevitable that, by sharing a roughly common language with such as huge nation as America, our ‘cultural’ aspects will usually become overwhelmed by their commercially-driven outpourings.

    What I find more concerning is the progressive elimination of our own cultural history, either accidentally or with deliberate collusion – one prime example being ‘Bonfire Night’.
    Do you recall the huge national commemoration in 2005 of the four-hundredth anniversary of this significant event ? No, neither do I, as a combination of Halloween proximity and political correctness has almost erased it from public record. Yet it tells us so much about our own history, if only we could be bothered to notice – about our politics, sovereignty, parliament, religious history, all wrapped up in a joyous evening of neighbourly fraternity. What’s not to like ? But we’re not supposed to like it, so instead we teach our kids to exercise cynical blackmail on neighbours, with the threat of ‘tricks’ in the absence of demanded ‘treats’ – hardly a morally-superior substitute. Give me a ‘tuppenny cannon’ or a team of flower-bedecked Morris dancers any day.

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    1. Yes, it seems the only coverage Bonfire Night receives now is when somebody burns a giant effigy of a figure in the headlines – and three guesses who’ll be burnt this November 5th! There was also an institution when I was a kid known as Mischievous Night, always the night before the 5th; that seems to have disappeared completely.


  3. as it happens, I do remember “The Secret Service” rather well. it had cool music, and a cool car which sped along country lanes. With its weird blend of real life camera work and puppetry it was so odd I often used to wonder if I had really seen it or whether I was suffering from sort of false memory syndrome. I am glad to know I wasn’t deluded:

    Joe 90, Captain Scarlett – these were the great joys of my childhood self, especially the latter. They were wonderfully creative, playful and yet kind hearted programmes. I still swoon at the memory of the beautiful “Angels” – Destiny, Harmony, Melody, Rhapsody and Symphony.

    SIG. Spectrum is Green!

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  4. Both UK and USA are in decline, economically, imperially and culturally. They cling to each other like two casualties of a shipwreck clutching a plank in a raging sea – the plank in this case being a shared use of English which has commanded the world as the lingua franca for the past 120 years… but will soon be eclipsed by Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese and Hindi. So the world turns. It doesn’t matter at all in the long run. We are just another staging post in history. It just seems important because we are witnessing it.

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    1. The current world order does seem to sometimes have the air of the great crown heads of Europe at the end of the nineteenth century – and we all know what happened to most of them.


    2. Whilst agreeing that the ‘old order’ is being succeeded by other emerging regions (as always happens), I’m not sure it is inevitable that English will be replaced by any other global tongue.
      English has now become established as everyone’s second language, hence it is the one common denominator across the world, much aided by the common vehicle of IT, enabling global communication for all. I can’t see any other language achieving that status, so the language may become the sole lasting legacy of our own brief time as ‘top dog’ nation.
      In two thousand years’ time, they’ll ask “What did the English ever do for us?”. . . . .

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  5. Halloween is an Irish tradition. It was certainly a thing in Dublin growing up in the 1970s and 1980s (and probably well before) . The ‘trick or treat’ expression is American. I don’t remember us using it when I was a child.

    Personally I think it’s a good thing that Halloween seems to have supplanted Guy Fawkes night in the UK in recent years. The latter is a tradition which basically celebrates the state sponsored killing of a man.


      1. But Guy Fawkes bonfires involve the burning of an effigy? Which is meant to symbolise the burning of the corpse of Fawkes, or so I had always interpreted it?

        As you say it probably is all about perspective….mine is that of an Irish (albeit firmly lapsed) Catholic. Halloween is definitely an Irish, and therefore European, tradition….I would guess it was introduced to the US by Irish emigrants …granted, the Yanks then commercialised and tackified it, as they do to everything.

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  6. As for popular culture, my personal tastes lean far more Anglo than American.

    In recent years the Yanks apparently remade two of my favourite Brit-flicks – “Get Carter” and “The Wickerman”. I don’t even get how those remakes would work. Those movies to me are so quintessentially British in their sensibility that I wonder why anyone would want to try to put an American coat of varnish on them.

    I don’t think Hollywood has as yet attempted a remake of another classic Brit-flick and favorite of mine, ‘The Long Good Friday’, but I suppose it’s only a matter of time.

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