Hey, let’s all have a laugh at the past!

BBC4’s Meet the British showed us how the UK saw itself in the past, but only to snigger at our forebears’ misplaced optimism.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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It’s all very good and acceptable to laugh at people from the past. We do it every day, as our language illustrates. To call someone, something or some idea ‘Medieval’ or ‘Victorian’ is taken as a self-evidential insult. ‘That’s all ancient history.’ ‘Let bygones be bygones.’ ‘You’re living in the past.’ ‘Let’s look forward, not back.’ Such semantics betray our culture’s neophiliac contempt for things that have been.

I have never been a neophiliac, nor (what might be called) a gerontophiliac. This is why I mistrusted the self-styled ‘New’ Labour back in 1997 as much as I thought the moniker ‘Old’ Labour was just as ridiculous. It doesn’t matter whether things are new or old. What matters is if they are good or bad, whether they work or not.

Whenever you’re in polite society and someone uses the term ‘Victorian’ in a pejorative sense, do remind them that Darwin’s theory of evolution is also a ‘Victorian’ idea, as is the concept of extending suffrage to the working classes, universal education for all children, ridding the world of slavery, trade unionism, national self-determination, and so on. Should we jettison these ideas and ideals because they are ‘Victorian’? Should we stop believing that the world is spherical because those silly old ancient Greeks or Babylonians, who didn’t have SatNavs or Google Earth, figured this out thousands of years ago by observing the trajectory of sticks to mountains?

Neophilia is nothing new, of course (pardon the pun). The 1960s were famous for it, in particular Harold Wilson and his exhortations about the ‘white heat of technology’, his and Dr Beeching’s desire to rip up all of Britain’s ‘Victorian’ railway network and instead concrete the entire countryside with ‘modern’ motorways, and also to make us inhabit high-rise ‘futuristic’ Le Corbusier-style hideous concentration camps in the skies.

We now scoff at the optimism of the 1950s and 1960s, something of which both conservatives and liberals are guilty. How stupid they were to think that nuclear power, the Pill, asbestos, central ‘planning’, tower blocks and the motor car would be a panacea for all our ills and set us free. And this is what made this week’s BBC 4’s Meet the British so ironic (1).

Meet the British, as the BBC blurb stated, consisted of ‘a selection of items used by the British government to promote the country’s image abroad. For four decades, the government produced thousands of strange little films in order to sell an ideal Britain overseas, and now, for the first time, they are shown to the country that inspired them.’ But in truth, Meet the British was an excuse to mock people from the past, and more specifically, for today’s neophiliacs to laugh at the neophiliacs of yesteryear.

Subtlety was not the programme’s forte. Meet the British began with a film showing two nice, well-attired black African fellows, cheerfully boarding an old-fashioned Routemaster bus, sitting down to pay their fares with a happy demeanour, thanks to the efforts of the helpful conductor. ‘People never have to wait’, ran the genial voiceover. Does this remind you of Britain today? Well? Does it? The insinuation was obvious: black people in Britain don’t wear suits anymore, while Routemasters, conductors and good manners have all but vanished. And buses don’t run on time anymore.

Irony upon paradox were relentlessly imposed upon us with such a thin veneer of disguise throughout. There was a film about how a factory in Northern Ireland manufactured soft toys to be sold to South-East Asia. (Funny how the opposite is true today.) There was a long feature concerning an American reporter interviewing two police officers in London’s Soho district, the said Yank being aghast and in awe that these Limey law enforcers did not carry firearms.

‘The British policeman is a friend to all except the criminal. He is taught that the police are the servants, not the masters, of the public’, reassured the voiceover man. ‘Hey, but don’t the rozzers routinely carry shooters these days? And go round assaulting and killing anti-capitalists, drunken Millwall fans and Brazilian electricians?’ I pondered… before I got the point. Then there was the film featuring – and lauding – a high-rise block being sprayed with asbestos, a material viewed as a method of preventing fire. They thought asbestos was safe… oh yes, I get it now.

To be fair, Meet the British was illuminating in many ways. These kind of films are never repeated, and they are a sign of their times – or at least, they tell you what Britain wanted the world to think of it from the 1950s to the 1970s. And we must be most gracious for letting the films stand alone as a montage without some idiot continuity presenter or, even worse, talking heads like Noddy Holder or Paul Ross going on about Space Hoppers or Soda Stream. ‘I Love (Insert Year Here)’ has previously been the template upon which nearly all cultural televisual histories of the postwar era have revolved, so it was pleasing to let these decades speak for themselves. (And one must be fair to BBC 4, the only channel which takes social and cultural history remotely seriously, as its recent, superlative Motown season has proved.)

But mocking the neophiliacs of yesteryear is a dangerous game. Because the neophiliacs of tomorrow will invariably mock us. You think the chunky mobile and cellphones of 15 years ago look stupid? Wait till your children pass judgement on yours in 15 years’ time. Personally, I believe in progress, but I don’t worship it. I also recognise the ‘wisdom of the ancients’, as much as I enjoy reading about the folly of the ancients. We should admire people who sought to improve humanity, but not deride them because they got some things wrong. Human brilliance and human failure are both timeless constants, and at the end of the day, or yesterday, or tomorrow, they are that which makes our species so eternally and uniquely beguiling.

Patrick West is spiked‘s TV columnist.

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(1) Meet the British, BBC iPlayer

Topics Culture


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