Britain is a nation of fantasists. We are drawn to fantasies like a moth to a flame, like a writer to a jaded simile. There are fantasies of our once-dominant empire. Fantasies of power, of relevance. A fantastical mis-remembering of our own sordid history. On Sunday, ITV broadcast 45 minutes of pure, noxious fantasy, in the form of feather-light comedy-drama The Larkins. The series, an adaptation of HE Bates’s 1958 novel The Darling Buds of May, focuses on the eccentric Larkin family, as they enjoy low-stakes misadventures in 1950s Kent. The show is a throwback, a broad and psychotically sentimental look at rural British life in the mid-20th century. And it’s pure and utter trash.
It’s not that there’s no talent involved – The Larkins’ cast includes Thick of It alumni Joanna Scanlan and Tony Gardner, and Toast of London’s Robert Bathurst (though The Chase presenter Bradley Walsh is staggeringly bad in the lead role). But the humour is painfully obvious, and often downright painful; the whole thing has the look and feel of an advertisement for margarine. Perhaps it’s especially apt to liken The Larkins to an advert: the series is selling Britain an image of itself – one so deadeningly twee that you wonder who it’s possibly fooling. And the worst thing is, there’s probably a lot more where that came from.
Last month, the government was widely mocked for its comments about the future of national TV, when former media minister John Whittingdale impressed upon our national broadcasters the need – and, perhaps, a formal requirement – for more “clearly British TV”. In a normal society, you might assume that these words could come back to haunt a government, though time has long shown the Conservatives are beyond such reproach. (If this government were truly capable of being haunted, then the streets of Westminster would be swarming with spectres, the Commons crowded like some kind of paranormal mosh pit.) For all its myriad failings – indeed, partly because of them – The Larkins can be confidently said to epitomise this “distinctively British” ethos. If this is what the future of British TV looks like, the situation could hardly be bleaker.
In his damning but wholly accurate review in The Independent, Sean O’Grady described the series as an “abomination”, and as “a sort of Brexit Television, set in a post-war green and pleasant England that never was and never will be, but for which so many feel an overwhelming nostalgia”. It definitely is this, a programme catering to the nation’s most regressive and rose-goggled notions of its own identity – notions that fuelled the Brexit movement and drove us out of the European Union. The Larkins is hardly unique in this regard (just look at the enduring popularity of James Bond, a franchise that is obsessed with some lost, illusory ideal of “Englishness” and England’s inflated global significance), but it is a particularly egregious example of it. However, The Larkins is also post-Brexit television in another sense. It is part of the larger product of “British culture” that we must try and flog at home and abroad in the much-vaunted free market. But who on earth would buy what we’re selling?
Britain has produced a litany of great TV shows in recent years, across many genres. David Attenborough’s nature documentaries – especially the award-winning Planet Earth series – are renowned around the world as the very apex of their genre. Whether or not you subscribe to the apocryphal stereotype of the “dry British wit”, there’s a lot to be said for our comedy – series like Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, Toast of London and The Detectorists. Truly great dramas have been fewer and further between – though series such as Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, Shane Meadows’s The Virtues and Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You have stood out as examples of what British drama is still able to achieve. They manage to get to the core of the problems with contemporary UK society. But these are sadly not what the Department of Culture meant by “distinctly British” series.
The irony is: there actually is a need to preserve the integrity of Britishness on screen, and it is increasingly under threat. Ostensibly, British-set series such as Ted Lasso and Sex Education repackage our country into something pseudo-American, using Britishness as simply an aesthetic, an excuse to wheel out some novelty accents while sanding off any specifics that might alienate viewers in the US. We embrace the shows anyway, ignoring when someone uses the phrase “high school”, or says a building is “three blocks away” - but it’s clear that no attempt has been made to represent Britain authentically. This is, however, no less true of The Larkins.
The notion of a mandated requirement to produce “clearly British” TV series is both ludicrous and unenforceable. But the UK’s national broadcasters are under ever-mounting pressure to abide by the government’s whims, with the threat of privatisation dangled perennially over the heads of the BBC and Channel 4. All our traditional channels must now also compete for viewers against an influx of multinational streaming services – the Amazons, Disney Pluses, Netflixes of the world. If a concession to more Britishness means more series like The Larkins, then that’s a fight our TV industry may have already lost.
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