British Comedy and Cultural Identity
Laughing in Ugly Periods of Collective Soul-Searching
When I first moved to England in 2006, my understanding of contemporary British culture was shaped almost exclusively by a handful of BBC comedies: Absolutely Fabulous, Little Britain, French and Saunders, and Keeping Up Appearances. The irony and overstatement quickly won me over, and, although not a particularly polished or accurate narrative of the world that I would find, these comedies spoke to me personally.
My image of Britain was shaped heavily by television, but browse the shelves of any bookshop and you will find many different accounts. Dickens told the story of one of the most diverse and crowded cities in the world during the Victorian era. Virginia Woolf saw, as I see, a country in uncertain and unwilling transition. A few years later, George Orwell painted a picture of a terrifying regime that looked disturbingly familiar, while the works of Zadie Smith and Alan Hollinghurst — like the D:Ream anthem ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, taken up by New Labour in 1997 — reflect the optimism and hopes of post-Thatcher era Britain.
The idea of Britain that we find in our stories and films has been shaped over time to fit our ideals and aspirations, becoming purportedly consensual in its breadth and moral conviction. The British are a people known the world over for their sense of the absurd, their irony, and their ability to laugh at themselves. It’s not so much that the British take themselves too seriously, but that they often choose not to. British humour is second to none. But there is also, rightly, a particular form of exasperation with and suspicion about the history of a British identity imposed rather than chosen.
As we currently live in the midst of one of the uglier periods of collective soul-searching, it seems particularly important to reflect on how British identity is rooted in the past, and to question which past or pasts we hold up as a benchmark for collective unity.
Iris Murdoch’s brilliant 1954 debut novel Under the Net is an astute and darkly comic portrait of a young man’s struggle with his identity and expectations for the past and the way it shapes the future. One of the most disarming things about Under the Net is that, through its comic…