Oh! Take me back to dear old Blighty
By Mark Jardine
What was your favourite Richard III moment of the last fortnight? Was it Cumberbatch in the Cathedral? Toynbee’s ‘Britain mourns a monster because he was a King’? Olivier’s ‘now is the winter of our discontent’? Or Baldrick’s ‘Oh dear Richard III’? For me, it was a friend’s Facebook post of Peter Sellers doing ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. Priceless.
It is a beautiful moment that fuses Richard III with The Beatles, Olivier and Sellers, an iconic triumvirate of British culture. Right in the heart of a decade that defined modern Britain, Merry Old England finds its place.
The media has loved the return of Richard III and so, it appears, have the British people. Why? Because the last Plantagenet is a central figure in England’s pageant of history, the dominant story of Britain. The tangible excitement over his discovery and reburial reflects our widespread familiarity with Shakespeare’s ‘rudely stamp’d’ Tudor villain.
What does the media frenzy over Richard III tell us about Englishness? Probably nothing new. At the core of modern English identity, at least in the television version for decades, lies Shakespeare’s sceptred isle of the Tudors, a lost country where England really was England and not Britain.
Historians debate when England became a nation. Some precociously argue that Tudor England was the first nation, others that English nationalism was created in the modern, industrial age. Wherever you stand on that argument, it is clear that “Tudor times”, the last hurrah of Merry Old England before James VI’s Britain descended on it, are crucial to the collective English imagination of today.
We frequently see it on our screens in Wolf Hall, Elizabeth, Elizabeth R, The Tudors, Horrible Histories and Blackadder etc, etc. Almost every other day, the fascination with Henry VIII and Good Queen Bess is fed, refreshed and retold. And why not? It is great drama. It is their history.
The media fixation on the Tudors is, of course, a selective version of England’s history. It is one that avoids the complexities of Britishness and the Empire. Subjugated Wales and Ireland barely get a look in. It ticks the box marked White British. And the Poor? They are almost invisible as the great lords and ladies flirt, plot and scheme their way either into power, or into bed.
The Tudor cult can be engrossing and entertaining television. But what about the Celtic nations? What about Scotland? Are the touchstone historical stories of our identity given similar treatment? Yes, on the odd occasion, like the excellent docudrama ‘After Bannockburn’ shown on BBC Scotland. However, as every Scot knows, we have to endlessly imbibe the pageant of English history in the UK broadcast media. It is an inevitable price of being British.
‘The Wallace’ the miniseries, ‘The Clearances’ the movie, or ‘The Secret Life and Loves of Bonnie Prince Charlie’? You can pretty much forget them unless the rules of the media landscape change, even though the histories of Scotland and Ireland are global brands. At the centre of UK broadcasting it is generally assumed that those tales are of little, or at best of occasional, interest to the core audience down south.
The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Of the nearly three million viewers of every episode of ‘A history of Scotland’ (2008–2009), most watched it from the comfort of an English sofa. That is quiet an achievement, as just over three million watched Simon Schama’s ‘History of Britain’ in the very different media landscape of 2000. ‘A history of Scotland’ was very successful in worldwide sales.
If a Scottish series can make it onto the UK network it can do well both in England and around the globe, but there is a catch. What goes on UK network television is not just a matter of choice. There is an economic dimension to it. To make great television history or drama costs an unbelievable amount of money. Big budgets are generally linked to being on the UK network. The main place to get the additional money required to make “landmark” television is, of course, London, where the ‘of occasional interest’ commissioning problem is at its most acute.
One way the Celtic “regions” can get round that problem to some extent is to collaborate – ‘After Bannockburn’, which is about the Bruce’s invasion of Ireland, was funded by RTE, BBC Scotland and BBC Northern Ireland – but the price of that strategy is that your story must directly involve the histories of the other regions or nations to be funded. There are many good things to be said about that model, but it does limit which touchstone stories you can tell.
The other apparent option of putting all you eggs in one basket and forking out for your touchstone series does not make sense within the strictures of the UK network, as a ‘region’ has no access to worldwide sales and other cultural output would be restricted with knock on effects on employment and budgets.
At a push, it is possible to envision a truly open British broadcasting network that is well-informed of, and fed from, all the nations of these Isles. One in which the Celtic nations get to tell their histories for all Britons alongside the English version. However, that kind of Britishness is not what is on offer in the UK at present and there is little sign of it changing. What we get on screen is the English interpretation of Britishness, where English history is more or less synonymous with British history. If we want that interrelationship between English-British identity, History and UK broadcasting to change, we have to demand the devolution of broadcasting or drive on to independence. Otherwise, Richard III and his ilk will return again and again to obscure Scotland’s story. The King is dead, boys, and it’s so lonely on limb.