The history of Britain’s talent factory

For all the talk of its diminished status over the past decades, there is one field in which Britain has remained an undisputed world leader: popular entertainment. Dominic Sandbrook selects 10 of his favourite cultural success stories...

This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

1) Harry Potter: Proof that it pays to be posh

Having sold more than 400 million copies worldwide, the Harry Potter books are, without question, the outstanding British literary phenomenon of the last 20 years. And at the heart of the Potter phenomenon is what Sigmund Freud once called the family romance – the small child’s characteristic daydream that his parents are glamorous and aristocratic, and that one day he will come into his true estate, rather like the young King Arthur when he pulls the sword from the stone.

But the Potter stories would never have been so successful had they not been rooted in the most distinctive British popular genre of all – the boarding school story. “It is quite clear,” wrote George Orwell in 1940, “that there are tens and scores of thousands of people to whom every detail of life at a ‘posh’ public school is wildly thrilling and romantic.” He was talking about the adventures of Billy Bunter, the ‘Fat Owl of the Remove’, but he might easily have been talking about JK Rowling’s Potter books. The only difference is that the Billy Bunter stories are much better.

 

2) Coronation Street: Where change comes slowly, if at all

“I’ve got this wonderful idea for a television series,” a young man called Tony Warren told a friend towards the end of the 1950s. “I can see a little back street in Salford, with a pub at one end and a shop at the other, and all the lives of the people there, just ordinary things.” Half a century on, Coronation Street is not just Britain’s most beloved drama serial, it is the longest-running TV soap opera in the world.

The poet John Betjeman once described Coronation Street as the Pickwick Papers of the modern age. But unlike Dickens, who keenly embraced the shock of the new, ITV’s soap opera has always looked backwards.

Two of Britain’s best-loved soap characters, Betty Turpin (Betty Driver), left, and Bet Lynch (Julie Goodyear), prepare to serve the punters in the Rovers Return Inn. © Rex Features

Even when it began in 1960, Coronation Street portrayed a vanished world, a tight-knit working-class community in which change came only slowly and gently, if at all. One of the show’s chief scriptwriters, Adele Rose, admitted that it portrayed “a Britain that doesn’t exist any more”. But, she added: “That is why people want to watch – because it gives them a kind of reassurance to know there is a community where people pop in and out of each other’s houses and help each other out.”

 

3) Agatha Christie: Britain’s wartime queen of crime

Having sold some 2 billion books, Agatha Christie has a good claim to be the most popular British novelist of all time. Nicknamed the Queen of Crime, she invented two of fiction’s most enduring detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Yet Christie’s world is much darker than we often think. Her books reflect a century of unsettling social change, in which, as Miss Marple remarks: “Nobody knows any more who anyone is.”

Christie pictured in 1949, and (inset) a poster promoting the film Murder Most Foul, based on one of her novels. © Getty

Christie’s books are steeped in the experience of the world wars. In the first she worked as a nurse, tending shattered soldiers; in the second, she lived in London during the Blitz. “There were waves in the air of feeling,” she writes in Taken at the Flood (1948), “a strong electrical current of – what was it? Hate? Could it really be hate? Something at any rate – destructive.” 

“I’m afraid that I have a tendency always to believe the worst,” says Miss Marple. “Not a nice trait. But so often justified by subsequent events.” There are, agrees another of her characters, “such strange things buried down in the unconscious. A lust for power – a lust for cruelty – a savage desire to tear and rend.”

 

4) John Wyndham: Master of the cosy catastrophe

As the heir to HG Wells, John Wyndham is one of the most influential British writers of the last century. In books such as The Day of the Triffids (1951), which sees Britain overrun by man-eating plants, he captured the anxieties of the Cold War, when the human race itself seemed in danger of imminent nuclear annihilation. And almost single-handedly, Wyndham – the master of the ‘cosy catastrophe’ – introduced postwar, mainstream British readers to the thrills of science fiction.

“Spine chilling terror”: A poster for a 1962 film adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, in which Britain is overrun by an army of man-eating plants. © Getty

Yet Wyndham’s books – which inspired a host of later films, comic books and video games – had an older pedigree. His vision of a deserted, post-apocalyptic London drew on Richard Jefferies’s novel Dead London, first published as far back as 1885, which depicts a future Britain as a neo-medieval wasteland.

In Dead London, the narrator visits the shattered ruins of Britain’s capital, the ground itself made up of “the mouldered bodies of millions of men who had passed away in the centuries during which the city existed”. This was a very different vision of the future from the usual Victorian optimism: a vision of the British empire cast down and our great cities reduced to dust, and of modernity itself vanquished by nature.

 

5) Elton John: The voice of a nation in mourning

To his friends at Pinner County Grammar School, Reggie Dwight seemed entirely unremarkable: a typical child of the 1940s and 1950s, polite and good-humoured, a keen pianist who looked a bit like Billy Bunter and dreamed of a life in music. Few could have imagined that many years later, having changed his name to Elton John, he would be invited to play before a global audience of millions at the state funeral of the most glamorous royal superstar of the age.

Elton John sings Candle in the Wind at Princess Diana’s funeral, September 1997. © Getty

In fact, the alliance between Elton John and the royal family, ostensibly so bizarre, represents nothing new. Monarchs have always relied heavily on art and music. Holbein worked for Henry VIII, and Handel for George II. Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote music for the coronations of George VI and Elizabeth II. And by embracing the culture of pop and rock at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997, the golden jubilee of 2002 and the diamond jubilee of 2012, the Queen was merely doing what sensible monarchs always do – tapping the cultural talents of her people, in order to present herself and her family in the best possible light.

 

6) Henry V: Scourge of the Nazis

If one film symbolises the extraordinary success of our popular culture in the 20th century, then it is surely Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944), the film that really kick-started international audiences’ love affair with British history. Adapted from Shakespeare’s play, the film was commissioned during the Second World War by the Ministry of Information, which believed that it would be the ideal morale booster and “popular propaganda” against Nazi Germany. So not only does the film open with a dedication to “the Commandos and airborne troops of Great Britain”, it presents Henry’s invasion of France as a moral crusade, symbolised by his famously stirring patriotic speeches at Harfleur and Agincourt.

Laurence Olivier wages a one-man war against Hitler’s Germany and Hollywood’s godlessness in Henry V. © Getty

Yet there is another, less well-known side to Henry V. The man who bankrolled it was the film magnate J Arthur Rank, famous as the ‘man behind the gong’. Born in 1888, Rank had inherited a milling business from his father and built it into one of the biggest industrial empires in Britain. A man of all-consuming Methodist faith, he believed that films were the only way to fight back against the decadence and godlessness of Hollywood. “Our films,” said one of his underlings, “must show the British way of life, what we represent, where we stand and why, and what we mean by what we say.”

 

7) Damien Hirst: The A-grade lord of many manors

The artist Damien Hirst is one of the most successful British cultural entrepreneurs of the last few decades, a self-made man who ploughed his earnings into property, buying a farmhouse in Devon, a beach estate in Mexico, a holiday home in Thailand, a manor house in Gloucestershire and a £34m Regency townhouse in London. “It’s amazing,” he once remarked, “what you can do with an E grade in A-level art, a twisted imagination and a chainsaw.”

The chainsaw-wielding property tycoon Damien Hirst with his 2006 work I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds. © Rex Features

Yet for all his apparent modernity, Hirst strikes an old-fashioned figure. In his obsession with ever more extravagant houses, he recalls the self-made men of the Victorian era. And his trademark blend of fine art and mass consumerism would have seemed familiar to Victorian artists such as Sir John Everett Millais, whose painting Bubbles (1886) achieved lasting notoriety as an advertisement for Pears’s soap.

Like Hirst, Millais made a fortune from selling his pictures as luxury products. When the artist moved into a palatial new house at 2 Palace Gate, Kensington, the historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle exclaimed: “Millais, did painting do all that? Well, there must be more fools in this world than I had thought!”

 

8) Grand Theft Auto: British aptitude with a US accent

The Grand Theft Auto video games look American. They sound American. They have a distinctly American attitude to firearms. But they are, in fact, British, having been made in Scotland ever since 1997. The first game owed much of its success to the publicist Max Clifford, who organised a moral panic in the tabloid press, and from those humble beginnings they have become one of the biggest-selling video-game franchises of all time.

Grand Theft Auto has trained its sights on the largest English-speaking audience in the world. © Getty

The success of the GTA series is a striking example of British culture’s extraordinary aptitude for selling versions of American culture to American consumers themselves. From bands like the Animals and the Rolling Stones, who specialised in cover versions of American blues classics, to Martin Amis’s novel Money (1984), which sold an exaggerated version of American life to an Anglo-American readership, British cultural entrepreneurs have proved remarkably adept at cracking the American market.

Indeed, GTA is a perfect example of what Britain has done very well in the past half-century, harnessing our native imagination, craftsmanship and love of tinkering, and producing something very clearly aimed at the largest English-speaking audience in the world.

 

9) Flashman: The empire’s toady-in-chief

When Thomas Hughes created Flashman, the school bully in his novel Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), he could hardly have expected that his character would be revived more than a century later, becoming the hero of a series of hilarious novels and a big-budget Hollywood film. But thanks to the writer George MacDonald Fraser, that is precisely what happened, with Flashman plunged into a string of Victorian adventures, from the Indian Mutiny to the battle of the Little Bighorn.

Actor Dominic West dressed as Harry Flashman in London, 2014. The Victorian anti-hero’s story reflects our changing attitudes to empire over the past 50 years. © Rex Features

The success of the Flashman series not only reflects the enduring imprint of Victorian culture on our own, but it suggests how our attitudes to empire have changed. Hailed by his peers as an imperial hero, Flashman is, in his own words, “a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward – and oh yes, a toady”. His adventures offer a gleeful alternative history of Victorian Britain, in which almost every virtue is exposed as rank hypocrisy. And, as the former ambassador Sir Allan Ramsay once remarked: “What they offer is as clear-eyed and unsentimental a portrait of the age as one is likely to find anywhere.”

 

10) The X Factor: A cathedral to the great pop dream

Tune in to British television on a Saturday night and it is hard to escape the rhetoric of self-advancement. Every week, shows such as The X Factor hammer home the mantra that if you work hard and believe in yourself, fame and fortune will inevitably follow. “Every youngster wants to be famous,” wrote Simon Cowell in his autobiography, offering an individual story of “character and conduct” to illustrate the general rule: “JLo, in particular, embodies the pop dream. Her rags-to-riches story proves that anyone can do great things with hard work, talent and a little luck.”

Judges Louis Walsh, Dannii Minogue, Cheryl Cole and Simon Cowell pass judgment on one of the thousands of contestants yearning to live out the rags-to-riches pop dream, in London, 2010. © Rex Features

In the last half-century, the mantra of self-improvement has become the central theme of Britain’s popular culture. It owes something to the Victorians, for it was the evangelical reformer Samuel Smiles who, in the 1840s and 1850s, converted millions of his countrymen to the gospel of self-help. But it’s a creed that has arguably never been more powerful than it is today. We live in an age of extraordinary cultural individualism, turning us into little versions of the central character in Patrick McGoohan’s surreal 1960s series The Prisoner. “I am not a number,” he yells. “I am a free man!”

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and the author of The Great British Dream Factory (Allen Lane, 2015).

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