A fairy tale view of Britain: The Royal Wedding and American television
Los Angeles Times, April 25 2011
by Simon Reynolds
From the tourist trade to romantic comedies such as "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Love Actually," the British themselves have often pandered to American Anglophiles' out-of-date impression of what the U.K is like. A perfect example of this syndrome is "Royally Mad," BBC America's two-part special about five Americans competing in a contest of obsessive knowledge concerning the Windsor family. Flown to London, they're put up in an old-fashioned hotel where they're served full English breakfast in bed by a portly butler and get to stand on the very aisle in Westminster Abbey down which the royal groom and bride will soon "process." Apparently, that's the verb form of "procession."
The explanation for the American love affair with this upper-crust view of England might have something to do with the phrase "like a fairy tale," which trips off lips frequently during "Royally Mad" as the contestants describe the enchantment of gadding about London to visit palaces and cathedrals. Anglophilia is all about the romance of history. Despite having several centuries of colorful, dramatic and just plain weird history to boast of, America seems to feel the absence of castles and ceremony from its physical and cultural landscape.
Looking at the output of mainstream TV and cinema, it can sometimes feel like Britain owns the past. Britishness and the idea of "the olden days" are totally entwined. Go back to the swashbuckling premodern past and you'll find, curiously, that everybody speaks with an English accent. OK, it makes sense that historical or legend-based dramas such as "The Tudors" or "Camelot" based in old Albion would have all-British casts.
But "Game of Thrones" is set in a medieval fantasy kingdom that never existed, so there's no earthly reason why American actors can't play the parts and speak in their own voices. Of course, its cast is almost entirely British. One of the only exceptions is Peter Dinklage, wonderful as the licentious and caustically witty dwarf Tyrion Lannister, and he's obliged to put on an affected, flowery English accent. And then there are such series as "Rome" and "The Borgias," both of which are set during different eras of the country that would later become Italy but whose credits are crammed with U.K. thespians. There's something about the English voice that simply fits dramatic situations involving armor, sword fights, banquets, scheming courtiers and power-corrupted bishops and the rest.
True, most police constables still don't carry firearms, and yes, we still have those old red phone boxes. But gun crime is rising, and because Britain was one of the first countries to embrace cellphones and texting, the phone boxes now mostly serve as urinals for desperate drunks and places where prostitutes leave "call this number" stickers.
If you look hard enough you can find glimpses of this other Britain on American TV, in shows such as the classic "Prime Suspect" or in the youth-oriented series "Skins" and "The Inbetweeners." Excessively hyper and often toppling over into implausibility, "Skins" did nonetheless capture many aspects of young Britain in the 2000s, from the routine and almost unremarkable drug use to the obsessions with clothes, gadgets and sex. The more humdrum and bathetic "Inbetweeners" follows the misadventures of four hapless, sex-starved teenage boys as they traipse through the modern-look suburbia (not a thatched roof or duck pond in sight) that covers much of the U.K. To get a shot at the U.S. mainstream, they've both had to be remade (by MTV) with American settings and characters.
And so televised Britain remains how Americans seem to like it: a fantasy land of castles and cucumber sandwiches, trusty valets and well-spoken villains, and a valiant prince marrying his fairy tale princess.