(Note: I have been writing this for months!)
England, and London in particular, inspire a certain type of American Anglophile (and I include myself in this) who have learned about the UK through films and old tv shows shown on PBS and BBC America. Whilst I think that things are improving, I have come across many a person- student and non-student- who are horrified that life across the pond does not resemble Downton Abbey, Notting Hill or some other schmaltzy Richard Curtis feature. This then creates issues when they have to live in an area that is completely different economically, culturally and geographically from their home area, which due to misrepresentation through film, exacerbates impending culture shock. I also think it prevents some from actually exploring their neighbourhoods/cities and interacting with locals in a way that will make them feel more engaged with the spaces that they are temporarily inhabiting. Providing a large range of images of the UK goes a long way in helping people find the familiar in other cultures, or at the very least, prevents them from over-romanticising/stereotyping by showing the complex histories that make up British society.
This doesn’t mean indulging only in serious fare, I think comedies and sci-fi do a fantastic job in helping cultural understanding (as evidenced by Doctor Who and others). So here is a small selection of modern films and shows that show a truer variety of Britishness:
1. Attack the Block– a sci-fi comedy about youths on a council estate that team up with other estate residents to fight marauding aliens. It has a strong cast, with lovely performances by established actors and newcomers alike. Alongside the main plot of protecting their ‘block’, is a realistic portrayal of the class and racial tensions that occur in marginalised areas, as well as the roles and identities that inner-city youth perform in the absence of supportive infrastructures and programmes.
2. Peep Show– Like the other hit show of the early 21st century, The Office, Peep Show unfolds in a spectacularly awkward fashion. Peep Show follows the lives of flatmates Mark and Jez, two late 20-something misfits in Croydon. The characters’ thoughts guide us through their lives, and the point-of-view camera work allows an extra level of realistic embarrassment that allows you to empathise with the two leads, even as you’re laughing at their pettiness and misfortunes. A masterclass in the awkwardness and general weirdness that can be found in English humour.
3. Phoneshop– a sitcom about the misadventures of phone shop workers on a busy London high street. Phoneshop is not only exceptionally funny, it portrays a range of multicultural, urban voices that normally only feature in youth-based dramas, if at all. It is a surprisingly authentic (for a sitcom), matter of fact and sometimes poetic snapshot of modern London life that isn’t shown nearly as much as it should be.
4. This is England/ A Room for Romeo Brass– Shane Meadows is a master of constructing sympathetic, affecting and sometimes brutal portraits of male coming-of-age stories that allows the audience to witness the geographical and class-based constructions of working class English masculinities. With his use of unknown actors and the constant backdrop of the Midlands, which offers a bleak beauty that grounds all of his films, he has created worlds that offer an anthropological insight into the troubled lives of isolated young men in post-industrial communities.
5. The Inbetweeners– said to be an uncomfortably true and hilarious view of male teenage life by most of the twenty-something men I know. A sitcom of four boys as they progress throughout a suburban high school, it is the complete opposite of similarly themed American and English programming that tend to pop up every year. These boys are awkward, average-looking, tend not to get the girl and end up in situations that manage to be both vile and cackle-inducing in equal measure. This show makes it obvious how hilarious teenage life in a boring town actually is.