Disney: A vision of olde England

We laugh at the silliness of Hollywood's image of Britain, with its singing chimney- sweeps and raccoon-infested countryside. But, argues Peter Popham, we are also uncomfortable to find ourselves cast in roles we once gave to the peoples of the Empire
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The Independent Online
With the live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians now on release, and the original 1961 cartoon on sale as a video, we are free to observe at leisure the persistence of a strange American, and specifically Walt Disney, obsession with England, or with a sort of England. And to chuckle, preen or retch, according to taste.

To walk into a cinema off the London streets and watch any of Disney's depictions of our capital city is a peculiar experience. St Paul's may find itself on the opposite side of the river from the West End, whose neon goes on and on; Big Ben becomes the last stop before Never-Never Land and (in the new Dalmatians) Knightsbridge borders directly on to the Thames.

London does not always suffer in being re-imagined this way. Anthony Lane in The New Yorker says that the London of the new Dalmatians film is "horribly damp and dull", but that this "could be excused as hyperrealism". In the original, 1961 animated version, however, set, like Dodie Smith's book, in the environs of Regent's Park, the artists responsible had no time for Sir John Nash's creamy neoclassicism - too much like Washington DC, perhaps - but instead took the rather grave, ornate style found in Wimpole Street and New Cavendish Street and gave it an enlivening, Parisian twist, arguably an improvement. Only when Roger and Anita get married and settle down do the artists stumble into cliche, squashing them into a tumbledown cottage that would be more at home in a Grimm's fairytale. A first-time-buyer's flat must be hard to Disney-fy.

Out in the countryside it's harder to go wrong: as long as the landscape has a bit of a roll to it, and is dotted at intervals with hedges, stiles, rivers and rustic stone bridges, it says England to most people, including most of us. Director Stephen Herek has contrived to commit spectacular and gratuitous solecisms by the inclusion of such non-native species as skunk and raccoon, for the sake of a few off-colour jokes. Though in the age of the Beast of Bodmin, most things are possible.

But of course the Disney vision of England doesn't stop at the scenery. Most of the people in this sort-of England are sort-of English. And like the architecture and the animal life, they go through some weird changes in their journey through the Disney brain.

One has grown accustomed to the fact that when Hollywood wants to tell audiences that so-and-so is a truly bad person, a monster of egotism, a little shit, a grasping pseud with paedophile tendencies, the quickest way to do it, besides giving him a moustache and a 50-a-day cigarette habit, is by using a fairly fruity British accent: clock Marlon Brando, for example, as the mad, eponymous geneticist in the new, abysmal remake of The Island of Dr Moreau, with his preposterous Etonian twang.

There is a simple explanation for this: Wasps (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), because of their historic privileges and snobberies, are the only ethnic group in America who are always fair game for a good kicking; and the Waspiest of the lot, with the added advantage of being the old oppressor, are the Brits. Nothing can provoke the average American to like British toffspeak. "I don't believe the British accent is really an accent at all," as one American put it. "It's just a conspiracy to make the rest of the world feel bad." One of the many refreshing things about Toy Story is that Mr Potato Head (the bad guy) talks neither like Neville Chamberlain nor Reggie Kray. He's just another American.

But watch Disney closely, ideally over and over again on video in the company of an addicted small child, and you realize it's not that simple. Take a film like Jungle Book, for instance. The original story is by Kipling and India was once part of the British Empire, but there is no overpowering reason why the creatures of the jungle should speak like Brits. Yet most of them do: not only the arch-villain, Shere Khan the tiger, with the most splendidly resonant growl in film, but most of the other animals as well. There is the leader of the wolves, who demands that Mowgli be sent back to the man village, the militaristic elephants, the black panther, the vultures who befriend Mowgli and who look a bit like The Beatles and mangle Liverpudlian horribly.

This leaves only two main characters to talk like honest-to-goodness Americans: Baloo the bear ("that shiftless, good-for-nothing jungle bum", as the panther describes him) and Mowgli himself, the two characters who epitomise spontaneity, irresponsibility and naturalness.

It's a similar story in Peter Pan: all the figures both of evil and of maturity and authority use Britspeak: not only Hook but also Mr and Mrs Darling, Wendy, and her pompous brother, John. Only the wild and the free are exempt: the baby, Michael, and Peter himself. In the cartoon of Dalmatians, only the baby puppies talk American.

Watching Disney's depictions of England and Englishness as an English person oneself is not totally unlike being an Indian or Arab or Chinese looking at 19th-century orientalist paintings or reading the orientally- based fiction of Conrad or Stevenson: there is the disturbing sense of being objectified, of being depicted in a way that, while apparently flattering and in some ways even observant, robs one of humanity and authenticity and autonomy, and makes one an ornament in a depiction of the world by those who are more powerful than oneself.

It is a version of the orientalist perspective described and attacked nearly 20 years ago by Edward Said in his book Orientalism - the irony being that the British, in their imperial heyday, were the masters of this orientalist fallacy. Now it is being done to us.

But there is a difference. The sentimental vision of England incarnate in films like Dalmatians and Mary Poppins is one which we, too, have invested in. Dick Van Dyke may be intolerable and loathsome as the cockney chimney- sweep, but much else in the Disney vision has the power to melt our hearts: the ranks of London chimney pots silhouetted against the sky, the apple- pie order of an old-fashioned house with big dogs and blazing fires and north-country staff in starched aprons and caps; the immemorial scenery of Big Ben and double-deckers, the rolling hills and thatched cottages, the overwhelming sense of a cosy, comfortable, well-regulated hierarchy temporarily disrupted for the purposes of the plot, but happily resumed once the villains have been defeated.

American audiences are besotted with this sort of nonsense, to the extent of allowing American characters, with their modern, spontaneous, anti- hierarchical temperaments, practically to be written out of the scripts. But it's no good sneering: evidence of our own infatuation with such imagery is no farther away than the nearest newsagent, where the cover of the Christmas number of Country Life, for example, is an engraving of a snow- covered village replete with happy, sledging children but lacking anything such as a car or a television aerial or a shop sign to tell you what century you are in. Or the latest issue of This England, "Britain's Loveliest Magazine", which urges readers to "tune in to yesterday" ("Evergreen Melodies" cassettes, pounds 4.99 each) or to buy books with titles like Tykes, Dumplings & Scrumpy Jacks.

In Country Life the potent cocktail of maudlin sentiment, antiques, and substantial thatched properties in the gated estates of Walton-on-Thames is at least tempered by a little wit, a little awareness of how contemporary realities do, as they must, intrude: uncomfortable facts like miscegenation, for example (this month's portrait photograph is of fashion designer Miss Selina Blow, who is "half-British, half-Sri Lankan", though seemingly all white). And the jokey Xmas snakes-and-ladders-like "Game of Villages" has lines such as "You discover the visiting Catholic bishop is your father - Back 4" and "The owner of the village shop wins the Lottery and closes down - Back 2". But when a solitary black face looms up - advertising "the ultimate running machine" - it's a jolt. What the hell's he doing here?

The unpleasant fact is that the cosy Disney fantasy of England is a projection of American wishful thinking at its most cloying and covertly racist. Why not locate the remake of 101 Dalmatians in Manhattan? Because then you would have to contend with the Rainbow Coalition that is the real New York. Keep it in London, or rather in a fantasy city called London, and you can indulge your whiter-than-white fantasies of order and hierarchy (and doubtless draconian immigration policies) for all they are worth, with no comeback.

Only the quarterly This England has the brutal honesty to make explicit the chauvinism that is at the root of all such sentimental conceptions of Home and Hearth: interspersing chocolate-box scenery with vituperative and fundamentalist anti-Europeanism; captioning a placid scene of chomping cows with the bizarre allegation that BSE was imported from France after the Battle of Waterloo; overlaying images of castles and cottages and the Houses of Parliament with ringing patriotic messages:

"O, sons of the Motherland, obey, obey

The call of the old Home Flag ..."

And this stuff goes down a treat in America, too. "I gaze at each picture with longing in my heart," writes Joan Mattews from California in the Readers' Comments column. "Of all the magazines I have subscribed to, This England is by far the best," writes another American. "It has great style and dignity."

It's flattering that Disney should lavish attention on our little island in preference to so many other places. But when one understands the game he's playing, that emotion is liable to curdle.