Scones on the council estate: Debunking the British stereotype

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Notable British movies from the last decade argue against the aristocratic stereotype, so why are Brits still viewed as buck-toothed tea drinkers?

What do they say about us across the Atlantic and around the world? The hundreds of hours I’ve spent watching American TV has given me a pretty good idea of the qualities which Americans believe to be stereotypically English. The example which always springs to my mind of how American pop culture represents the stereotypical Englishman is the buck-toothed, tea-swigging, scone-chomping snob shown in a bunch of Family Guy episodes. The most exaggerated instance of this aristocratic stereotype can be seen in that peculiar blonde creature above.

Island-dwellers know that living in the UK in the current social climate is far from hunky-dory

I’ve been pondering this ridiculous stereotype – no, not while drinking a cup of tea (I don’t even like tea). Where does this image of pomp and circumstance we’re so regularly mocked with come from? With the exception of the very small percentage of the English populace who actually are aristocrats, we island-dwellers know all too well that living in England in the current social climate is far from hunky-dory. How the rest of the world is ignorant of the austere reality many of us living in 21st century Britain face is beyond me.

Almost every major British cinematic release from the last few years has given a realistic account of the so-called broken Britain. So why does the rest of the world still think we are living 100 years in the past, when we had an empire, a king and a healthy economy? Why do they seem to ignore the recent output of British film? The fact that British films often go down favourably with the American box office means someone has to be watching them abroad. How then does this stereotype still prevail, given that British film across all genres makes no secret of the fact that life in the UK is actually quite hard?

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I suppose it is excusable that the wide array of British hooligan films haven’t really shattered the world’s unanimous opinion that we wake up wondering whether to have Earl or Lady Grey. While films like The Football Factory, Green Street and Rise of the Footsoldier all do feature images of a desolate, washed-out grey England punctuated only by the all-too-frequent spilling of red gore, they present viewers with the lives of a very specific demographic. To an international viewer, these thugs are but a few weeds in a field of British roses.

Given Harry Brown’s weighty international cast, it’s surprising that it didn’t make the world question what it is to be British

However, this isn’t to say that there aren’t films which present more ordinary British blokes and the hardships they face living on the sceptred isle. Harry Brown, which featured turns from an internationally renowned roster including Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer and Liam Cunningham, gave a chilling account of the trials encountered by an OAP living in council housing. Far from being able to retire and enjoy the luxuries associated with the British stereotype, Harry Brown is forced to live in the squalor of the estate rubbing shoulders with drug dealers, thugs and murderers. The former marine is eventually corrupted by the depravity of his surroundings, sourcing a gun and taking the law into his own hands a la Taxi Driver.

If a good guy can be contaminated by the austerity of his surroundings, then what hope do the rest of us have? Though exaggerated a tad in the film, any urban-based Briton is familiar with the debauched activities emanating from the worst council estates. Clearly the gang culture epidemic which is so problematic in Britain is completely incompatible with the silly aristocratic stereotype which still persists. Given the weighty international cast in Harry Brown, it is surprising that it didn’t make the world question their thoughts about what it is to be British.

fish tank fassbender

This kind of violence isn’t limited to men living in England. Though it received less attention than Harry Brown, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank starred then-emerging super-talent Michael Fassbender, and is a brilliantly shot leap into the reality faced by many working class British women. The film documents the difficult life of a family of three different generations of women – the mother, the teen and the child – living on an unpleasant estate without a man in the house. There is a feeling of inevitability that the women cannot escape the reality of life on the estate, lacking the opportunity to break free and actually grasp at a pleasurable existence.

Even Edgar Wright’s hugely successful comedy trilogy is suggestive of the lack of free thought in modern Britain

Even British comedy isn’t free of displaying aspects of broken Britain: Edgar Wright’s hugely successful comedy trilogy with Simon Pegg, Martin Freeman and Nick Frost is – in all three films – suggestive of the lack of free thought in modern Britain. The sort-of-trilogy depicts seemingly mindless Britons acting like brainless goons – this is most evident in Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End, where people actually transform into zombies and programmed robots, though we are left questioning whether the transformation is as huge as what we originally thought…

It seems crazy after examining these British films (and others) from various genres that the British stereotype still exists around the globe. I ask anyone from outside the UK to join the discussion. Have you seen the films discussed? If yes, why do you continue to laugh at us for being so posh? As for the widely held belief that British people all suffer from bad breath, that’s a discussion for another day.

 

Featured image: Fox

Inset images: Lionsgate UK; IFC Films

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