The raucous comedy Austenland, in theaters this week, pokes fun at Americans’ reverence for what they have been taught to see as a gracious British heritage — muslin, bonnets, tea time at the stately home with the bluebloods, good manners.
As well it might. For most of the English 99-percenters I grew up with, heritage meant feet up in front of the telly, watching Top of the Pops.
No family I ever knew gathered in the drawing room at 4 o’clock for a pot of tea and cucumber sandwiches. That sort of thing is laid on — with a trowel — for foreign tourists at Claridges or in period costume dramas with a sharp eye for the export market. We drank our tea industrial-strength, from a supermarket teabag, in mugs with milk and sugar. And it’s not Earl Grey we remember fondly, but the talking chimp who promoted those teabags on TV. He died recently, and a nation grieved.
Arriving in the States from London in the late 1970s, the first thing I noticed was how friendly, polite and civilized Americans were in public, compared to the grumpy English. The second was that a little British diction goes an awfully long way in America.
In my experience, “I love your accent” is usually the precursor to rhapsodies about the superiority of British culture and the sophistication of our dry wit. That’s nice, but the awful truth is that we didn’t imbibe Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Dickens and the sonneteers via our mothers’ milk. We got our literature the same way most American kids do — on the school curriculum, because it was going to be on the test, because it was good for us.
And because I had a great English teacher in high school, I did grow to love Austen, Dickens et al., and have read them for pleasure ever since. But if you ask me what my heritage is, it’s the pop songs, movies, radio and television comedies, the West End musicals and farces we chewed over and quoted from ad nauseam at school each day.
They were brash and bawdy, ranging from the mildly saucy to the downright filthy, and deeply rooted in a long tradition of British vaudeville. Far from celebrating the aristocracy up or downstairs, English pop culture was irreverent, rebellious and often rude — and long before Monty Python. The Beatles said it politely: Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say. Later, when pop turned punk, the Sex Pistols didn’t mince words: “God save the Queen/Her fascist regime.”
In fact, the line between high and low culture in England has always been hazy. Take theater, a direct descendant of vaudeville raunch. No Sex Please, We’re British was panned by critics and flopped on Broadway, but it played to packed houses from 1971 to 1987 in London’s West End.
Brian Rix, a beloved stalwart of British bedroom farce, dropped his trousers and slammed doors with gusto at the Garrick Theatre in golden titles like Stand By Your Bedouin and Let Sleeping Wives Lie.
And my childhood was especially brightened by Widow Twankey, the queen of British pantomime — in every sense, since she was invariably played by men, among them Ian McKellen at the Old Vic. Not a Christmas season went by without us kids screaming “IT’S BEHIND YOU” at the Widow, so busy preening in magenta hair and outlandish rainbow costumes that she remained blissfully unaware she was being menaced from the rear. I wouldn’t swear that Elton John got his dress sense from the Widow Twankey, but you never know.
You’d be amazed at how heavily Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn draw on the bedroom farces (which Shakespeare pretty much invented) that ran nightly for years on the London stage. As for radio, side by side with the tony dramas that ran daily, you could listen to an array of comedies, quiz shows and variety programs whose common denominator was a bizarre mix of smart wordplay and pure smut.
The bottom line: British popular taste could be broad as a six-lane highway and packed with leering sexual innuendo derived from the dirty postcards of downmarket seaside resorts like Blackpool. It could also, not surprisingly, be astoundingly racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic.
I won’t defend its worst excesses. Personally, I could never stand the leering persona of Benny Hill, or the downright creepy Jimmy Savile, who granted wishes to sick children while — it was posthumously revealed — exploiting them sexually. As it turned out, Savile was just one drop in an ocean of sexual license behind the scenes of the entertainment industry.
But that same culture — exemplified in the brilliant comedy of Kenneth Williams, The Two Ronnies and Morecambe and Wise — also carried sharply subversive critiques of British institutions. The beloved Carry On films, all 31 of them, spoofed the National Health Service, education, the army and the insularity of the Englishman abroad.
My all-time favorite, Carry On Up the Khyber, is a farce about colonialism, featuring the ineffably adenoidal, campy Williams as an Indian radical who seeks to emasculate a British regiment by proving they wear underpants under their kilts. Rumors flew of a made-for-TV spoof to be titled Carry On Up the Rectum.
It was the vital populism of those shows and movies, and its profound influence down the years on Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Absolutely Fabulous, Shaun of the Dead and even the vicious reality show The Weakest Link, that took a razor — often hostile, mostly affectionate — to the elite lit that was sold to the rest of us as ours. Far more than dreams of muslin and bonnets, that vulgarity remains our common — our terribly, wonderfully common — denominator.