Is British culture dying on its feet?

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The Observer 21 September 2015

If you had told a British television executive 40 years ago that television drama would be the great art form of the early 21st century, he (for it would have been a he, with long hair, flared trousers and a hungry ambition) would have been in no doubt that British drama would still be “the envy of the world”.

In those days, the British compensated for the loss of empire by abandoning our “quintessential” understatement and bragging like drunks at a bar. We were the greatest. We were the tops. We had the best health service, best police force, best judiciary, best monarchy and, of course, best television.

Britain exported Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Jewel in the Crown, Prime Suspect and took our “rubbish” from America. Britain, and only Britain with its combination of public and private funding, could produce the popular quality drama the world wanted. We still export TV programmes. But overwhelmingly they are the “format” shows we used to import from America – Come Dine With Me, Pop Idol, The X Factor and the like. The great stories that move the world are made in the US and Scandinavia. Even George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones, which feels so English, was written by an American and adapted by an American TV company.

In their place, British television gives us formulaic crime stories, soap operas and costume dramas that combine polite porn with snootiness. They revive Lady Chatterley once again, and even offer us the sex lives of the poor old Bloomsbury group – surely the most sexless intellectuals Britain has produced. It is hard to imagine British television creating anything as good or as popular or, crucially, as modern as Breaking Bad. Our culture bosses are too refined to allow melodrama, which makes for great popular fiction, and too populist to allow complexity, which allows for serious work. Worst of all, they cannot do both at the same time, as much great art does.

Falling between all available stools, they offer us the worst of all possible worlds.

Martin’s Game of Thrones series is a great example of what GK Chesterton called “good bad books”. Like Sherlock Holmes, Raffles and Dracula, readers and viewers will admire and lose themselves in it long after many of the winners of the Booker prize have been forgotten.

Dominic Sandbrook’s history of popular British culture is a good bad history book. Indeed, it is a delightfully good bad history book full of love for and fascination with everything from the origins of heavy metal in the metal-bashing industries of the West Midlands to the ruthlessness of John Lennon’s and Damien Hirst’s lust for money. (Never imagine, he says, that working-class artists are only motivated by the quest for the sublime.) Sandbrook writes without snobbery. He explains why British but not American admen went on to make great films. (British advertisers had only one channel to advertise on until the 1980s, so they had to be good.) As admirably, Sandbrook writes without the inverted snobbery which holds that highbrow culture is just state-subsidised junk.

But he does not explain why the hunger has disappeared from so much of television or worry that we are becoming mediocre and predictable.

The American journalist Christopher Caldwell wrote last year about how old “modern” culture is. The Sex Pistols’ first concert (1975) is closer in time to Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony (1936) than to us. Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers of 1973 is as close to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves of 1931 as it is to the present.

Britain has certainly “punched above its weight” in culture, to use another phrase that oozes post-colonial nervousness. Sandbrook has every right to ask what medium-sized country can match the Beatles, Stones, Bowie and the Sex Pistols in music; Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie in crime fiction; Tolkien, Pratchett and CS Lewis in fantasy; Hitchcock and Bond in cinema; Elite, Tomb Raider and Grand Theft Auto in computer games; and JK Rowling, Enid Blyton and, lest we forget, the Reverend Wilbert Awdry in children’s literature. The Beatles are the biggest-selling pop group ever. Only Shakespeare and the Bible have sold more copies than Christie. Doctor Who is the world’s longest running sci-fi series.

No wonder we are so pleased with ourselves.

But look at his list again. Only JK Rowling and the computer games makers are contemporary figures producing original work. The BBC broadcast the first episode of Doctor Who in 1963, a date closer to the start of the first world war than 2015. Conan Doyle published the first Sherlock Holmes story in 1887, a date closer to the end of the seven years war of 1756-63 against France than the present.

The middle- and occasionally working-class grammar school boys, who overthrew the traditional British cultural establishment in the 1950s and 60s, fill many of Sandbrook’s pages. But he does not stop to think that yesterday’s rebels become today’s bores. Attempts to find the ideal conditions for good culture are futile. The postwar generation produced three great playwrights in John Osborne, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. Now Britain has no great playwrights. You can argue about state funding and the education system for ever, but in the end, talent does not come to order like a meal in a restaurant. It arrives when it is ready, not at the snap of someone else’s fingers.

But talent must have a culture ready to accept it. Instead, it meets a complacent cultural establishment that squats like a toad on creativity, as much now as it did in Noël Coward’s day. Our culture industries never admit for a moment that they may not be as good as they could be. On the BBC, or at the Edinburgh television festival, or in the arts pages of the serious press, everyone criticises what the government does to the Arts Council and licence fee; no one criticises what they do. The tedious results of the self-congratulation are there for all to see, if you can stay awake long enough to look at them.

Dominic Sandbrook has produced an exuberant and learned celebration of British culture. One day, perhaps, he will have to write its obituary.

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