A version of this article was originally published in the Guardian on 17th November 2019
The return of The Crown marks a long trend of popular British film and television shows promoting elite narratives that distort history.
Nearly two years have past since Gary Oldman won an Academy Award for his performance in Darkest Hour. As one of the few British actors of working-class origin working in Hollywood, Oldman’s portrayal of Winston Churchill – an eccentric aristocrat of the highest order – was especially worthy of the praise it received. However, it should not be forgotten that the film contained a number of historical fabrications and served ultimately to uncritically glorify a man who, if around today, would almost certainly be ridiculed and reviled for his racism. Nonetheless, the film was met with international critical acclaim, with reports of spontaneous standing ovations in cinemas and a string of sycophantic Churchill-worship across legacy media outlets, much of it predictable. As film critic Mark Kermode said at the time, Darkest Hour is the film that Britons are ‘not allowed to dislike’ for fear of seeming unpatriotic.
But let’s acknowledge what was clear from the start: Darkest Hour was pure Oscar bait. It reeked of desperation for critical acclaim. Prettily calculated to appeal to the more sophisticated filmgoer, it was clearly following a tried and tested industry formula: produce a heroic depiction of a ‘great Briton’, played by a dearly beloved (usually posh) British actor, set in a romanticised old tea-drinking England, and watch the awards roll in. In fact, nowadays all it seems an actor must do to receive an Oscar nomination is portray a supposedly ‘great Briton’ – think Judi Dench (Mrs Brown), Helen Mirren (The Queen), Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) and Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything).
Aside from making elites feel good about themselves and the potentially questionable legacies of their antecedents, even we, the British public, lap these films up. It seems to reflect what the academic Paul Gilroy termed ‘postcolonial melancholia’ – a kind of longing for a bygone era of Empire. Or what Dutch writer Ian Buruma, when commenting on the popularity of BBC Raj fictions in the 1980s, saw as an attempt to remind the English ‘of their collective dreams of Englishness’. Only a few years earlier Salman Rushdie wrote of the ‘refurbishment of the Empire’s tarnished image’, and that ‘the continuing decline, the growing poverty and the meanness of spirit of much of Thatcherite Britain encourages many Britons to turn their eyes nostalgically to the lost hour of their precedence’.
How relevant such observations seem today. In the light of decades of neoliberalism, a spate of crippling austerity and a string of calamitous foreign military interventions, a new wave of nostalgic television shows have emerged: Downton Abbey, Victoria, The Crown, and a multitude of similar films: Dunkirk and Darkest Hour being among the most recent. It seems we Brits just love romanticised tales of our imperial past, however devoid of accuracy or nuance they may be. This nostalgia even permeates our political landscape. It is well understood that Brexit was (and still is) a project imbued with imperial nostalgia. The right-wing Leave narrative was always framed using the evocative language of ‘making Britain great again’, ‘taking back control’, and Britain assuming its ‘rightful place in the world’. As Nadine El-Enany, academic at Birkbeck, University of London, observed:
The terms on which the EU referendum debate took place are symptomatic of a Britain struggling to conceive of its place in the world post-Empire. Present in the discourse of some of those arguing for a Leave vote was a tendency to romanticise the days of the British Empire, a time when Britannia ruled the waves and was defined by her racial and cultural superiority.
With this in mind it’s easy to see the appeal of certain pro-Brexit politicians like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, the former having been described as a ‘relic of a bygone era’, while the latter’s ‘colonial mentality’ and ‘wistfulness for empire’ has, as writer Sisonke Msimang put it, always been in keeping with ‘Britain’s historical view of itself’.
There is, of course, little doubt that all this nostalgia has helped foster a sense of nationalistic pride favourable to a Brexit agenda. As Ian Jack wrote in the Guardian, even if they weren’t meant to, films like Dunkirk and Darkest Hour serve to ‘fuel Brexit fantasies’ by conveniently resurrecting a ‘mythical past [to] serve present and future political needs’. Former editor of The Spectator Charles Moore put it more bluntly when he declared: ‘Darkest Hour is superb Brexit propaganda’.
But these nostalgic films do not just help serve as propaganda for Brexit. More broadly, they help serve as propaganda for the British state and elites in general. This is clear from the narratives of history they present, which are nearly always embellished and favourable to establishment interests. They are, as it were, histories from above, rather than histories from below.
Indeed, cultural theorists and film scholars have long written of the ideological role such films play. Often referred to as ‘heritage films’, they help to romanticise and mythologise a particular version of Englishness, notably that of the white, upper-middle classes. It’s through their creation of images and narratives, such as their depictions of what is deemed to be ‘quintessentially English’, that they help to reaffirm a sense of national identity and unity amongst an otherwise diverse, disparate and divided population. They help construct what scholar Benedict Anderson called ‘imagined communities’.
But it’s not just domestic audiences they influence. In the age of globalisation these romanticised images and narratives are also designed, packaged and sold to international audiences to help reinforce a positive image of Britain abroad. In policy and academic circles they are regarded as ‘soft power’ assets (or ‘cultural propaganda’) that help Britain achieve its geostrategic, political and/or economic goals around the world. As film scholar Paul Cooke writes, films like The King’s Speech and television shows like Downton Abbey serve not only as vehicles for the ‘communication of national identity’, but they also help with the ‘generation of a nation’s soft power’. At the heart of this, he writes, lies ‘the imperative to gain international influence and promote domestic economic growth through the attractiveness of one’s culture and values’.
So important are these films and television shows in promoting Britain abroad that many cultural managers have compared their power to that of the military. In 2012 the British Council (itself established in 1934 to disseminate what it called ‘cultural propaganda’ on behalf of the British Government) published a report entitled Influence and Attraction. The report outlined how soft power and various ‘cultural assets’ (including film and television) can help nations achieve their ‘international objectives through attraction and co-option’ rather than traditional military force or threats.
And in 2013, the former director general of the BBC, Lord Tony Hall, suggested that the ‘silent diplomacy’ of shows like Downton Abbey could be just as valuable as the British army. In the same year the House of Lords set up a select committee to examine how soft power could further Britain’s global influence and interests. Interestingly, the committee’s report encouraged the promotion of what it called a ‘strategic narrative’ – that is, ‘a story that a country tells itself and others about its identity’. Such narratives, one professor advised the committee, ‘may be strategically deployed [to] construct a shared meaning of the past, present and future […] in order to shape the behavior of other actors’.
But what is the problem with all of this, you might ask? The problem lies in the fact that Britain’s most successful films and television shows – the ones that are distributed and promoted internationally – are disproportionately depicting the embellished and mythical stories of a privileged minority.
As the trailer for the new series of The Crown is released, I’m reminded of what the late writer, activist and WWII veteran Harry Leslie Smith wrote in this paper only three years ago. Having grown up in poverty in pre-war Britain, he explained that ‘if I were to rely upon how television drama has interpreted the story of my generation, I would not be able to recognise it’.
‘Sadly, dramas about events that occurred in my youth deal almost exclusively with the pageant of nobility’, and seem all too often concerned with ‘idolatry for the aristocracy and the monarchy’. Shows like The Crown, he continued, falsify history as a ‘pageant in which the wealthy, the entitled and the nobility oversee the lives of millions with benevolence, wisdom and grace’.
As he eloquently concluded, we need now more than ever our ‘great film-makers and television producers to tell the stories from our collective past […] from the perspective of those ordinary, brilliant and profound men and women who, a lifetime ago, helped shape the way we live today through their deeds’.
I agree with Harry.