National Brands Are Fine; Just Don’t Believe Them
The standout exceptions to the international commercial failure of European TV and film are Britain and Scandinavia.
A key for them both is their national brands. If you see a Danish crime drama such as The Bridge, you know you will get sleek interiors, complex plots and killings conceived by sick, creative minds. Britain often means costume dramas, boarding schools and class tension.
When they step out of these national brand categories, the results are mixed. A Danish series, 1864, came on BBC4 in 2015 and got good reviews. I didn’t watch it (probably a mistake) because I didn’t think I needed to go Denmark for the 19th century in the way that I do for stylish crime. Other Brits agreed, and it attracted a respectable audience but fewer viewers than The Bridge.
Even British dramas set in the present day often use antiquated settings or characters. Romantic comedies feature a greater number of taciturn men than you come across normally. James Bond films feed off an era when the UK played a more significant role in global security.
Midsomer Murders takes place in a chocolate-box village, and strives for an “English” atmosphere that will sell well overseas. Its producer got in trouble in 2011 when he basically admitted that the show’s characters were all white in order to create a “bastion of Englishness…that appeals to a certain audience, which seems to succeed”. He added: “We just don’t have ethnic minorities involved. Because it wouldn’t be the English village with them.”
Does this do much harm? Scandinavians do not appear to have decided that darkly conceived crimes are a good thing. The UK hosts a dynamic enterprise culture, so it’s hard to say that costume dramas have kept it stuck in the past.
Still, Britain produces so much prettified past that some of its people may even believe that it is a lifestyle option. Its national brand might at least reinforce two important mistakes the country has been making.
First, the UK doesn’t build enough homes, and many younger Britons have little hope of attaining the quality of life that they would achieve in other parts of Europe. A major reason is the desire and power of property owners to block developments, which they do through local protests and support for restrictions such as London’s green belt.
Just a bit of green belt land would make a big difference, and there’s plenty of not-very-pretty countryside that no one would miss. But the property owners justify opposition to development with arguments about heritage and the sanctity of the English countryside (whose meadows were in fact created by chopping down forests). Spurious arguments against houses are less implausible if people believe a pretty, rural past is (or was ever) a reality.
The same goes for the irrational dislike of the European Union. I’m not going to blame Downton Abbey for euro scepticism. But seeing an image of a Britain that was powerful and grand might make people bristle at the idea of losing sovereignty through EU membership, even though much of this is in technical areas, such as plastics regulations.
Actually, Europe does appear in Downton – where it is the source of a war that results in male characters getting killed and maimed. Better to keep Europe away, no?