(p.247) Part IV Postmodern, Antimodern
(p.247) Part IV Postmodern, Antimodern
If the United States shaped ways in which modernity was read in Britain, it also helped generate its seventies antithesis, the several forms of both empire and village-England nostalgia. With the fragmenting of the radical counterculture and the rapid marginalization of at least political liberationism, and in the context of Britain's apparent slide into urban decay, economic decline, and social chaos, America provided both an available “fall guy” for the failure of British modernity but also a market for the restorative myths of Heritage Britain.
The export to the United States of heritage Britain and Britishness was hardly new—reaching back at least to empire epics of the thirties and to wartime cinema, which, however much it may have denigrated blimpish mentality, also continued to celebrate clichés of British character for both the British and American popular markets: the nobility of “the few,” the stoicism of the many, and the enduring decency and representativeness of an idealized England of the shires. If in Britain these myths were challenged by the New Wave filmmakers of the late fifties and early sixties, such films did not, with perhaps the exception of the arguably late–New Wave but also “swinging London” film Alfie, export well to the States, where provincial accents could not be understood and the themes contradicted the stereotypes that were being marketed by the tourism industry. Tony Richardson made his American name, not with Look Back in Anger, but with the period romp Tom Jones.
In the sixties the Bond films marketed, not history but clichés of Britishness in modern dress. As an entertainment industry, they were a transatlantic enterprise presided over by Harry Saltzman, a Canadian-born Jewish American “wheeler dealer showman on the grand scale” who went West to Hollywood and then to London, where he formed Woodfall Productions with Osborne and Richardson and produced many of the “new wave” films. If these didn't sell well in the United States, his next venture, with the U.S. millionaire Albert R. Broccoli, did when he gambled and got the option to produce the first of the Bond films. Their transatlantic success encouraged commercial television producers like Lew Grade (p.248) successfully to export to the United States spin-offs like The Saint or The Avengers that marketed, as did many of the British invasion bands, British style and accent. If Emma Peel was a leather-booted feminist, her unflappable insouciance was as “British” as Steed's brolly, jag, and bowler hat.
The great export success of the seventies, however, was that of nostalgia television, first by the BBC, as it came to specialize in historically costumed literary dramatizations, and quickly followed by the commercial companies. There is perhaps a more complex interaction between British self-presentation and American market than meets the eye. In Britain the turn away from kitchen-sink realism or swinging London farce toward the Edwardians of The Forsyte Saga and Upstairs, Downstairs is conventionally located domestically (both were very popular at home before being exported to the States) as responses to the failure of the promise of modernism and the collapse of national self-confidence in an era that sought comfort in the imagined social cohesiveness of a past deferential society. And yet, also at play was a kind of circularity of transatlantic cultural relations. In the seventies it becomes especially difficult to distinguish the domestic from the transatlantic in the nostalgia business, especially in a “heritage television” that was increasingly intended for the American market, cofinanced and coproduced transatlantically, but also consumed at home, or in the expanded antiques markets in seventies London that throve on rising domestic but also tourist and export demand.
Analysis of the nostalgia phenomenon in both countries has often remarked its essentially middle-class ideology and social geography. In the United States those who responded most enthusiastically to PBS and its offering of cherry-picked high culture and literary costume drama programming from Britain (by and large British low comedy did not cross the ocean until the nineties) often seem to affirm what some have seen as a characteristically upwardly mobile, status-conscious desire to embrace British programming as “real quality.” Speculation about social class and viewers' motives draws attention to the way a fixation with the idealized past may entrench class prejudice and justify antidemocratic, perhaps even antimeritocratic social values. Others,1 however, have argued that the culture of nostalgia, including a hunger for heritage and historical preservation, escapes a simple identification with the defensive strategies of status and status quo. There had long been a deep nostalgic vein in much of the socialist left's lament for lost communities, or in the counterculture's longing for innocence in a simpler prelapsarian world, just as black communities searched for their own “roots” in a past unsullied by slavery. Nostalgia was never entirely a monopoly of the right.
(1.) See Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory, Vol. 1: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture (London: Verso, 1994).