Does our new national identity have to be quite so life-affirming?

Danny Boyle's opening ceremony was a television event, not a blueprint for national identity. Plus, why culling should be left to the experts


How irritating life must have become for Danny Boyle. A determinedly original film-maker, he has, through no fault of his own, spawned a new and unattractive form of groupthink. When there is a debate about the National Health Service, it is now obligatory to make reference to the dancing nurses and patients who were part of Boyle’s opening ceremony for the London Olympics. No discussion of the royal family is complete without mention of the same event’s visual joke involving the Queen jumping out of a helicopter.

Now Boyle’s Isle of Wonders spectacular is addling BBC brains. At a recent meeting of producers and writers, it was invoked by the corporation’s head of drama, Ben Stephenson. New work, said Stephenson, should be “about applying the Boyle vision to our work – a bold, adventurous, authorial approach that exports because of its Britishness not despite it”.

By now, that vision needs no explaining. It represents the way modern Britain is thought to view itself – respectful yet ironic, serious yet skittish, proud of the past and yet unashamedly of today, multicultural and inclusive. It is, in the words of the writer Jonathan Freedland, “a new kind of patriotism that does not lament a vanished Britain but loves the country that has changed”.

What an odd idea that is. The Boyle spectacular was a stadium event designed to market the host-country to TV viewers around the world. Now, weirdly, that two-hour show is defining a change to the national self-image. It speaks, we are told, of a revived confidence – although some might think that any culture that can be so profoundly influenced by a few dance routines is anything but confident.

The new type of patriotism, for which poor old Boyle is taking the blame, is one with all its tricky elements removed – the aggressive arrogance of America, the cultural superiority of France, the ruthless entrepreneurialism of China. It is patriotism-lite, free of any harmful additives, a type of national pride which provides some bounce and bubble, but not much else. That was fine for a show to open an international sports event, but when it becomes what Freedland calls “a byword for a new approach”, we should start worrying.

The boast that we are a nation which never takes itself too seriously should instead be a matter of concern. The idea that we can both be proud of our our institutions and mock them may work as a dance routine but leads to a dangerous smugness if applied to the real, outside world.

The vast majority of people, trying to survive through harsh and chilly times, know that the idea of a new patriotism is a nonsense, but to those setting the agenda and making speeches, in politics, media or the arts, it is profoundly appealing. Here is a mind-set which offers the feel-good factor without any price tag attached. It speaks, in a suitably fuzzy way, to both the left (caring state, multicultural melting pot) and the right (heritage and dynamic enterprise). It implies that, for all our weaknesses, the British way of doing things – muddling along with a cheery smile on our faces – has more to recommend it than other, more vulgar forms of national pride.

That great fantasy that we have a better sense of humour, even – a truly ridiculous notion – a more finely developed sense of irony than other cultures, is reinforced. We advance into the future with, to quote Ben Stephenson, “a buzz and creativity and anything-goes optimism”.

How one’s heart sinks at those words. In the context of TV drama, it means that the emphasis will be on the positive, the life-affirming, plays and series which display the right attitudes with no danger of annoying viewers or stirring up the tabloids. The word “celebrate” will be much used. More broadly, it is time to move on from Boyle’s dancing show, and escape from the dangerous illusion that a new kind of patriotism is making everything better.

Best leave killing things to the experts

Nature has a new scare for us. It is not psycho foxes, or giant rats, or ash trees dying from an imported disease. Deer are out of control. According to research by the University of East Anglia, the population of native and introduced species in Britain is now around 750,000. A cull of around 50 per cent is being recommended.

There is, in fact, no alternative if we are to care for woodland, a wide variety of plants and birds, notably the nightingale, whose habitat is being nibbled away. Deer have been enjoying themselves for rather too long at the expense of the environment.

All the same, the idea that trigger-happy gun enthusiasts should be let loose across the country, very much in the way that happens in America, is distinctly alarming.  It may sound elitist, but on this occasion gamekeepers and professional marksmen, paid by local landowners and councils, should be left to do the job.

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