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Rupert Cornwell

Rupert Cornwell: Small-town USA lives on – if only in our imagination

Out of America: 'The Andy Griffith Show' idealised simple rural values in a country that is resolutely urban

Andy Griffith died last week. You've probably never heard of him, but to people here of a certain age he was like a member of the family. His sitcom, The Andy Griffith Show, was not merely one of the most popular US television series in history. It was one of the most powerful evocations of the utopian myth called small-town America.

The show, set in the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina, and featuring Griffith as the wise and good-hearted local sheriff Andy Taylor, made its debut in 1960 and ran through most of the tumultuous decade that followed. What with its entrenched racism and the brutalities of the civil rights struggle, those were not the finest years of the small-town South. But The Andy Griffith Show avoided all such unpleasantnesses – which is one reason why Americans loved it.

Not only was Mayberry all white. It was a place of peace, evocative not of the 1960s but the imagined golden age of the 1950s, where Sheriff Andy never carried a gun; the nearest thing to crime was jaywalking and the local drunk turned himself in when he had had too much. With a soft drawl and all-conquering common sense, the sheriff benevolently settled every problem.

The pilot episode set the tone, in a scene where Andy stopped a show-business celebrity passing through Mayberry who ran a stop sign. Take a look at my name, says the celebrity as he shows his driving licence. "You'll discover that I'm somebody." Andy takes his look and then replies with a slow smile: "Well, you know, I knew that the minute I laid eyes on you. Yessir, I've never seen a car yet that wasn't being driven by somebody." Take me to the justice of the peace, the celebrity demands. Andy, it turns out, is Mayberry's JP as well. End of incident. The moral: old-fashioned local ways are more than a match for the conceits of some snooty out-of-towner.

Things, of course, aren't like that in real life. Main Street has been steamrollered by Wall Street. Bankers and Bain Capital rule. Who cares any longer about simple verities from those whom Thomas Gray called "flowers born to blush unseen". Small-town America is an ageing and, in relative terms, a shrinking place. Today, only 16 per cent of Americans live in "non-metro areas" – as they are called in census-speak – compared with a quarter or more when The Andy Griffith Show was on the air.

In a real-world Mayberry, youngsters would have headed for the big city the moment he had the money for a rail ticket. Small towns, no different from big ones, contain all the vices as well as the virtues of our species. For the old, the slower rhythms of country life are reassuring; for an ambitious youngster, all too often, they are asphyxiating. In a place where everyone knows everyone, crime rates may be lower but gossip is more vicious.

The small-town myth, however, is as old as the republic. Thomas Jefferson, among the most worldly and cultivated men of his age, believed that simple rural values were the essence of America. The myth's modern version is the little town with a post office and gas station, its streets lined with tidy houses with white picket fences. Every morning, when the family dog runs on to the lawn to pick up the local paper and present it to Dad as he sits down to breakfast, is clear and sunny. Down-home wisdom prevails, underpinned by modesty and a deep sense of community. As made clear by that pilot show, there's no room for slickers and the self-important.

Few chords are more powerful than nostalgia. We have village England, epitomised by the country churchyard of Gray's Elegy and Brooke's Granchester where the clock stands for ever at ten to three. The US has its imagined small-town utopia, far from the interstate highways and civilisation's other loud intrusions and where, as in Granchester, nothing changes and nothing is real.

Nonetheless, this is what politicians insist is the "real America" – and if they can claim first-hand experience, better still. Bill Clinton attended the great universities of Georgetown, Oxford and Yale. But the place that mattered most on his candidate's CV was humble Hope, Arkansas, which styles itself the "home of the world's largest water melons", and where Clinton was born.

Jimmy Carter was the peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, while Ronald Reagan used to claim that small-town Dixon, Illinois, in which he grew up, was "a heaven". There, he once wrote: "I learnt standards and values that would guide me for the rest of my life." Even George W Bush, born to wealth and the political purple, turned the myth to his advantage in his 2004 re-election campaign, contrasting his supposed good ol' boy Texan origins with the urban sophistication of his opponent John Kerry.

Here political hyperbole merges into fiction that is part of American folklore – like Mark Twain's Hannibal, Missouri, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, of Bedford Falls, New York, where Frank Capra set his beloved 1946 movie It's a Wonderful Life, and the small-town North Carolina of The Andy Griffith Show. As Griffith himself said years later, the true star of the show was not Sheriff Andy or his comically inept deputy, Barney Fife, "but Mayberry itself".

And when a myth becomes really powerful, in some ways it ceases to be a myth. You can't live in the US without noticing a community spirit you never encounter in the UK. Move into a new house, and as likely as not a neighbour will be at your doorstep offering to help, and offering some biscuits or cake, "just in case you haven't had time to cook". Here, the word "neighbourhood" means precisely that – in subconscious homage, surely, to an idealised small-town America whose obituary has been prematurely written a thousand times. Andy Griffith may have died last week, but Mayberry lives on.