Magazine article The Spectator

Repeat Performance

Magazine article The Spectator

Repeat Performance

Article excerpt

Oh, no. Not again. Not another critically acclaimed quaint-but-clever 'British' film reeking of, or rather, creaking with, good nature, whimsy and middle-class people in elaborate suitings. I refer, of course, to Hilary and Jackie. No, I don't. I refer, of course, to Shakespeare in Love, which this week was awarded a series of Golden Globes by those film magnificos in Los Angeles.

I have nothing against Shakespeare being in love, but why are these 'British' films so depressingly similar? I mean, why are the characters either intellectual, like Joseph Fiennes, or ineffectual, like Hugh Grant, and so frightfully arch - though not at all triumphal? According to the cinema we are a nation whose only talent seems to be for punning.

It used to be different. `No learning to speak of, without real wit, philistines in their general complexion: rude commerce forms the solar plexus of the national body.' Guess who? The Americans? Nope. The lumpen Germans, perhaps? Wrong. The British. That was Louis Blanc, the 19th-century French philosopher, articulating a view then held by most of Continental Europe.

It is a myth, actually, that the British have spent most of their history musing on metaphysics, or even being engagingly comical. The great bulk of our middle classes was rarely to be found waiting around for the new Austen novel.

The idea that we are traditionally refined is the most deliberate and damaging rewriting of history since the usurping Tudors took the preceding regime to task for child-- abuse. While 18th-century France established the frontiers of taste and elegance, we were throwing mud and despising effeminate European manners. Everyone belched - as Johnson remarked, only a fool suppressed one; conducted themselves like savages; fought with a sort of primal ferocity; and prided themselves on a robust loathing of intellectuals. An idea? What a terrible idea! Even so-called artists like Hogarth would have thrown up at that.

Well, what about the Scarlet Pimpernel, you say? What about all that luminescent chat of culture and cravats. The answer is that, first, Baroness Orczy was writing from the romantic and fantastical viewpoint of the 20th century. Second, the real Georgians would have viewed the Scarlet Pimpernel with his preoccupation with the tying of silk neckwear as the Scarlet Wimpernel. …

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