Time to put a lid on all those not so great British shows

Television is turning into one long Little Britain sketch, says Fiona Sturges

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The Independent Culture

If you've turned on the television lately, it won't have escaped your notice that there has been a glut of programmes extolling a conspicuously sepia-tinted view of our isles.

Claiming to celebrate all that is innately wonderful about Britain, these shows hark back to a post-war era of WI get-togethers, village fêtes and the thwack of leather on willow. Like a tourist brochure aimed at the hard of thinking, they present our nation as a land of thatched cottages, abundant pastures, bobbies on bicycles and interiors lined with Cath Kidston fabrics. Think a live-action Trumpton.

These shows are easily identified by their titles, all of which come with the "Great British" pre-fix. We've already had The Great British Bake Off, in which amateur bakers churn out scones in a leaky tent in the grounds of a stately home; Great British Food Revival where Gregg Wallace exhorts us to eat home-grown rhubarb; and Great British Outdoors, during which it is suggested that we all go outside and subsist on bulrush. There are many more of these shows, each barely distinguishable from the next: Great British Menu, The Great British Summer, The Great British Weather, Great British Journeys, Great British Railway Journeys. We've also had Great British Hairdresser and The Great British Body, two programmes about the universal traits of vanity and self-absorption in which the protagonists' Britishness is clearly incidental.

One current offender is The Great British Countryside, which has Julia Bradbury and Hugh Dennis wading through rivers, scaling mountains and disappearing down potholes in a variety of woolly hats and cagoules and reminding us of the delights on our doorstep. It's beautifully filmed and actually earns its title, though the concept has been so diluted by what has come before that I almost didn't watch it.

Over the past couple of years television seems to have turned into one long Little Britain sketch, without the Tom Baker voiceover. I have nothing against celebrating our heritage, whether it's trumpeting our lesser-known foodstuffs or casting a spotlight on the towns and villages that lie off the tourist trail. And when times are tough and everyone's skint, there's nothing wrong with a bit of escapism. Isn't that, after all, what Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife are for? But whole programmes devoted to rhubarb, or our ability to cut hair, or informing us that the countryside looks prettier in the summer, does not a great nation make.

I'm not averse to stepping outdoors when the occasion demands it, and I can, even if I say so myself, knock up a mean Victoria sponge. But I also grew up in the depths of the countryside, a lifestyle to which so many of these shows aspire, and I can tell you that my formative years weren't spent travelling via steam train, spinning my own yarn and whipping up macaroons on country estates. With the Jubilee around the corner, you just know there's more of this nonsense to come. It's only a matter of time before someone makes The Great British Commemorative Spoon, in which Middle Englanders proudly unveil their spotless Charles and Di tableware.

This epidemic of all things British is, of course, symptomatic of a broader problem in television, the inability of commissioners to comprehend that less is more. Think how the "Celebrity" prefix has cloned its way across the schedules, from Celebrity Masterchef to Celebrity Juice, or how, for a while, we were inundated with edgy sports programmes with the words "ultimate" or "extreme" in the title.

Having noted the success of The Great British Bake Off, and the vogue for all things vintage (aka old), commissioners have decided that shoehorning the words "great" and "British" into every subsequent programme will make it just that. Trust me, it doesn't and it won't.