If as it is said comedy is tragedy plus the benefit of time, sometimes time allows things to come full circle. When in 1999 Edward and Tubbs, characters from the BBC’s The League of Gentlemen, declared their Royston Vasey village store “a local shop for local people” I laughed because their narrow-minded localist zeal seemed so grotesquely out of step with the UK’s global and multicultural attitudes. But in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, where not being “local” became a figurative, legal or literal stick with which to beat others, Edward and Tubbs have lost some comic lustre and gained an eerie relevance.
In much film and television comedy of the New Labour years – such as the Simon Pegg film Hot Fuzz (2007), where civic pride concealed satanic rituals of local “cleansing”, or Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), where the threat to local produce instils villagers with a mob mentality – it is an inclusive, plural, playful sense of “Britishness” that is the implied alternative to these excesses. When I recognised the Britishness of these films and how I identified with it, I realised that, to a large extent, this Britishness did not really exist – or at least, it only existed as an ironic gesture or parody. The alternative, of course, was to assert the sort of cultural and racial essentialism that has long been among the unpalatable myths used by nationalists the world over.
In laughing along, I feel that Britishness is here defined by not taking the concept of Britishness at all seriously. This isn’t itself an innately British quality, but it could be thought of as a certain post-imperial tendency in the comedy that has shaped a prevalent part of British culture since the 1960s. The sort of comedy that is as much obsessed by historical myths of Britishness as it is derisive of them: Beyond the Fringe, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Ripping Yarns, Blackadder, and The League of Gentlemen.
This comic playfulness regarding Britishness has become a key vehicle for promoting British culture abroad through hugely successful rom-coms such as Notting Hill or Love Actually. That the UK tops recent indexes of global soft power owes much to the self-effacing and metropolitan charms of films such as these. It is also apt that Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean persona, Britain’s most exportable comedy brand, should have found a central role in the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.
The inspired choice to have Atkinson’s weary keyboardist daydream his way through a travesty of Chariots of Fire’s opening scene – a film more often associated with flag-waving jingoism – helped rework the ceremony’s traditional cultural remit towards less aggressively nationalistic or historically essentialist terrain. Recall also that the show began with Her Majesty jumping from a helicopter strapped to a Union Jack parachute. Yet this same send-up of British iconography also served in the context of the ceremony as a form of soft patriotism: one that while drawing a line under Britain’s imperial past, was no less assertive even through parody of its new cultural standing in the world.
But that was 2012. The events of 2016 point towards political isolationism and more tightly prescribed notions of national identity, with significant repercussions for British comedy. How do we reconcile, for example, the divergent comedic impulses to leave or remain? The League’s village of Royston Vasey is taken from the birth name of Roy “Chubby” Brown, a foul-mouthed and anarchic British comedian who has mined cultural and ethnic prejudices to perennially popular effect. The uncomfortable potency of the League’s dark comedy comes from their willingness to flirt with sentiments that have clearly not been banished to the past, but which still churn away just under the surface.
The lessons of “Chubby” Brown and a whole other tradition of British comedy dating from the 1970s (oddly enough, the decade that Britain entered the European Economic Community), such as the Carry On films, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, and Mind Your Language, are that comedy can as easily reinforce exclusive and culturally fixed notions of national identity as it can dispel them. Nor can we simply laugh away such comedy’s potent appeal, however much it might make us squirm.
The role of comedy in negotiating not only a hard or soft Brexit, but hard and soft conceptions of Britishness, will be a pressing concern both for comedy producers and those who write about it. It was perhaps fitting that this of all summers should see the BBC attempting, in an evidently nostalgic gesture, to revive popular sitcoms from the 1970s, and just as apt that the week after the EU referendum saw the release of Absolutely Fabulous – a very knowing comedy portrayal of national self-denial. The wider impact of the events of 2016 on the cultural and comedic tendencies to come remains to be seen.