This is what America gets wrong about Britons from watching TV


It’s more than just the wonderful quality of writing and acting in British dramas that makes us Americans wobble at the knees. With neither an aristocracy nor a Queen of our own – instead, an uncouth raft of pop stars and politicians – it offers us a window into a world so far from ours. Ever since Princess Di arrived on the international scene, our mirror neurons have been permanently switched on: when she was sad, so were we. We embraced outcast Fergie with open arms. The Duchess of Sussex even gets a fair defence by my friends (though I usually win the argument).

Of Downton Abbey and later The Crown, with all their gowns and castles and tea with the Prime Minister, Sarah Bahr, a New Times culture writer, says: “I think it’s a lot easier for Americans to love the monarchy because they don’t have the edge of having to pay for them through taxes. The Royal family has all the drama of reality TV, but it’s played out behind closed doors. You can live vicariously through them.” Other television colleagues of mine adored Ted Lasso, with its impossible charm offensive (“I love listening to Roy Kent talk. He can string so many swear words together and it’s not offensive.”) and The Great British Bake-off (“Besides all the great baking, everyone is so polite and nice to one another”). 

But it is television we’re talking about. I, for one, discovered that the wonderful estates featured in Brideshead are a nightmare to live in. They’re freezing, un-renovated and the bathrooms are three miles down the corridor. The only truly modernised stately I’ve visited – Neston Easton – was owned by the Russian Leon Max who gave me a personal tour of all the radiators he had put in. My friends who have inherited statelys can neither afford them nor can they sell them. Instead of doing what they trained to do, they’re essentially full-time maintenance men. 

The banter, street talk and wit in fun shows like Fleabag would backfire completely in real life. Americans are shocked by swearing. They’re doubly shocked by sarcasm and even more shocked if someone actually speaks their mind in a drunken Phoebe Waller-Bridge kind of way, because they think drinking should come with a jail sentence. (They also think we should all be in rehab.)

England to Americans is a bit like View of the World, that famous New Yorker cartoon by Saul Steinberg. There’s London (which doesn’t go beyond Mayfair), the Cotswolds (the countryside childhood home of Bridget Jones) and Scotland (which they love). The rest is best experienced on TV. 

My life in New York (assuming I married the same man but we stayed there, as was the original plan) would probably have had parallels, but I would never have been offered the freedom of expression I am here. I would not have picked up banter or my ever growing irreverence. Americans, at the end of the day, are earnest. When I’m back visiting, I find myself occasionally looking out for men in uniform, given my propensity for swearing.

My country people still think England is full of Sir-this and Lady-that – I suppose they haven’t really clocked the mood. The England I have discovered and taken as my own is a funfair; a cute place (such an American term) with lots of awesome (ditto) places to visit, but if it’s all best done from the vantage point of a luxurious hotel. Unsurprisingly Americans love hotels, such as the Connaught, that adopt a faux country house style, lavished with chintz and four poster beds – but maintaining a comfortable 76 degrees at all times. And room service.

What are your thoughts on the TV depiction of Britons? Share your view in the comments section


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