This tourist trap, set in a silver sea: We sell a mythical image that brings in the customers, but Frank Barrett wonders if it will help our future

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WHEN it was announced that the Queen would be throwing open Buckingham Palace to the paying public this summer, about the only people unsurprised by the news were the foreign tourists with their noses pressed to the palace railings. What seemed to baffle them was that it had taken so long for the Queen to open up her doors to them.

In their eyes, it was like visiting Disney World and discovering 'no entry' signs on Sleeping Beauty's Castle. With the opening up of Buckingham Palace, their England-land Theme Park is complete - they are now free to roam the whole of Tourist Britain.

If overseas tourists see Britain as a large-scale Disney park, it is not their fault; their image of Britain has been formed by the way we package and present ourselves. Flick through the brochures that promote Britain abroad and the same images tend to predominate: Beefeaters, castles, pipers in kilts, girls in Welsh costume, stately homes and thatched cottages.

The copy employed to entice travellers invites them to come and sample British history and culture in bite- sized heritage chunks: the London of Sherlock Holmes, the England of Shakespeare, Walter Scott's Border country, Thomas Hardy's Wessex.

You can see it, for example, in 'The Spirit of London', Madame Tussaud's new pounds 10m ride where, in 90 seconds, you can go on an Edited Highlights of History trip from Elizabeth I through the Plague and the Great Fire to what passes for the present day. (The present day is represented by Twiggy and a punk - the only vaguely modern thing on the whole ride is the model taxi in which you sit on your 'journey'; but since the black cab is hardly more contemporary than a hansom, it cannot really count as modern.)

We have become so used to this tarted-up version of Britain that now we scarcely notice what a curious piece of fiction it is. We take for granted that there are two parallel worlds. There is Tourist Britain, populated by cheerful Beefeaters, where we all live in thatched cottages and ride around on steam trains. And then there is Real Britain, our Britain, the familiar workaday world where the Grand National fails to start and hotels tumble into the sea.

Most curious is not only that coach parties come from Osaka, Japan, and Peoria, Illinois, looking for this mythical Tourist Britain, but that they can return home satisfied that they have seen it in all its glory.

Britain seems unique in its strange double life. When France sells itself to holidaymakers, apart from the odd picture of a Loire chateau, the subjects presented in its advertising are often contemporary and real. Old men in berets on bikes ferrying a couple of crusty loaves are not just on view in some Gallic Rural Life Heritage Centre, they can be spotted on any French highway. Promotions for Italy will certainly include a snap of Roman monuments, Florentine works of art or Venetian palazzi - but you will equally be treated to examples of Armani couture or other signs of Italian Nineties style.

Yet Tourist Britain - a land sandwiched between the literary high ground of Shakespeare and the comic low country of Bertie Wooster - is almost wholly the creature of canny marketing executives.

When promotional film-makers embarked on the creation of this image 50 years ago, they were attempting to paint a picture of a world that had not just vanished but had never really existed in the first place. A series of short films beginning with Beside the Seaside in 1938, followed by Land of Three Rivers and A Portrait of Old Sussex, marked early efforts to sell Britain as a holiday destination. At a time when millions of British people were ill-fed and unemployed and living in city slums, the films summoned up an Olde Worlde England of nooky pubs, thatched cottages and eccentric aristocrats.

The man credited with establishing the full Tourist Britain myth is David Ogilvy, of the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, whose job it was to sell Britain overseas in the late Fifties. The series of magazine advertisements he produced, seen in publications such as Time and Newsweek, are still remembered as classics 40 years later.

They all followed a similar pattern: one large image, a long headline and a lot of copy. Perhaps the most famous is: 'Tread softly past the long, long sleep of kings', which shows Henry VII's chapel in Westminster Abbey, with some Shakespearean prose: 'Three monarchs rest here now. Henry, Elizabeth and Mary. Such are their names in sleep. No titles. No trumpets. The banners hang battle-heavy and becalmed . . .'

Judging by the numbers crossing the Atlantic eastwards, all this hokum was lapped up by Americans. Fortunately, Mr Ogilvy had a big supply of it - other advertisements included: 'How to sit on the grass and watch cricket' which read: 'The time is almost any Saturday in summer. The place . . . almost any English village. And the game is cricket, with the blacksmith hitting boundaries off the Duke's bowling.'

The advertisements may now be glossier and more colourful, but the hokum remains the same. The images in last year's British Tourist Authority brochure for the Japanese could all have been plucked straight from the Ogilvy series.

Foreign visitors, and even residents, see little wrong with this. Bob Payton, an American who started the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory restaurant in London in the Seventies and who now runs 23 restaurants here, says: 'Isn't that what Britain is all about? Everywhere I go in the countryside at the weekend it seems to be cricket on the village green and drinking in the pubs. People come here because they want to see the idyllic side.'

He sees tourism as Britain's greatest industry and natural resource. 'It's about time the Government and people of this country started waking up and saying, 'What can we sell to the rest of the world?'. If you've got it, folks, flaunt it. You've got all the palaces and you've got all the bits that people fantasise over. Euro Disney doesn't do it as well as Britain. Britain's got it. This is England-land here]'

Robert Hewison, author of The Heritage Industry, a powerful attack on the concepts behind Tourist Britain, appreciates the economic importance of tourism: it is worth pounds 25bn a year, amounts to 4 per cent of gross domestic product and employs 1.5 million people. He, too, says there is nothing wrong in tourists looking at the past, but objects to heritage theme parks that 'pacify' turbulent, historical events such as the Industrial Revolution, turning it all into a type of Hovis commercial. He believes that if we keep focusing on a fake history, all our energies will be drained. 'The heritage industry tends towards the imaginative death of this country.'

But do the images of Britain we offer to the rest of the world have significance beyond tourism? As Mr Hewison asks, are thatched cottages and Batsford book covers a good image for us to carry to the United Nations? More importantly, the images we portray to the rest of the world influence the way we look at ourselves. At the moment they imply that our modern achievements are not worth recording: the brochures carry no pictures of the Lloyd's building, no Paul Smith suits, no Hockney paintings: you would be forgiven for thinking that all intellectual life in Britain ceased in about 1890.

If Britain is to establish a viable life in the future, can we really go on seeking to conceal ourselves in a confused version of the past?

On Sunday at 10.15pm on Radio 4, Frank Barrett presents 'Thatched Cottage, Nooky Pub' which looks at the history of Britain's image as a tourist destination.

(Photographs omitted)