Opinion: Why ‘British-ness’ is a difficult to define and hard to find sometimes.

by | Sep 16, 2021 | All, Opinions

I started to write this as a response to John Whittingdale’s White paper but whilst I was writing it, Whittingdale was removed from his post. It’s still a worthy discussion about what constitutes ‘British-ness’ on television and which channels are performing the best.

In some infuriating news,  Media Minister John Whittingdale announced the new rules for public service broadcasters (PSBs) to make “iconic, not generic” British shows in a bid to help them compete with US streaming giants.  Under his plans, Public Service Broadcasters are required to produce and air “distinctively British” content, as well as specific rules for content aired on digital platforms.  

If it’s set in Britain and made in Britain by our public service broadcasters,” Whittingdale said, “then it should be distinctively British.”

The rules on PSB content will “showcase British culture,” in the face of growing competition from abroad, according to a statement by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Global investment is extremely welcome – but I want to make sure it doesn’t water down British creativity or the British brand,” explained the Media Minister.

So, what shows qualify under the new rules? Well, Whittingdale has listed happily listed them for us. Dr Who, Downton Abbey, Great British Bake Off, Top Gear, The Bodyguard (I’m assuming he’s referring to Jed Mercurio’s 2018 drama rather than the film starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston there but who knows?) and Planet Earth were given as examples of popular British TV shows which “reflect Britain and British values”.

Looking closely at that list I’d argue only a few showcase the ‘values’ he’s aiming for. Great British Bake-off does showcase something uniquely British. It’s a warm-hearted reality show that puts Britons from all backgrounds at the forefront. It’s a show that celebrates the little victories. I shan’t speak to Doctor Who as it’s not a show I’ve ever been into, but I can talk of (The) Bodyguard. I have a sneaky suspicion that the Jed Mercurio drama only made the list because it proved a massive hit. I’d argue that none of Jed’s shows feels particularly British. It’s not what he’s going for. Line Of Duty isn’t set in London or Manchester. They exist in a world with no landmarks or regional references. They’re on the list because Whittingdale believes they rival the BIG streaming dramas. They’re the ones people are talking about social media etc but that’s a different thing from ‘British-ness’!

The reason I find this particularly infuriating and close-minded is because this is coming from someone who doesn’t watch a lot of television drama. Just this week we have a single drama entitled Help starring British talent Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham. Two Liverpudlian actors in a drama about the Pandemic’s effect on a care home in Liverpool. It’s a uniquely British story told by British talent in Jack Thorne. Another recent example is Adult Material – Channel 4’s four-parter about a British adult film star trying to hold on to her career, raise her family and deal with the traumas of her past. That to me felt like something only the British could make. The same with Paul Abbott’s No Offence, Jack Thorne’s Kiri and ITV’s Unforgotten. All of these stories feel rooted in a British-ness that  Whittingdale is striving for.

It wasn’t until I started to write this I realised it’s actually the BBC that is failing on this front. Michaela Coel’s deeply personal I May Destroy You was taken to the BBC because Coel wanted to have complete control over her story. The only other BBC drama that fits this model of late is Jimmy McGovern’s Time which took an unflinching look at the British penal system. 

Outside of that, all of the BBC’s drama output feels like the UK’s big broadcaster is trying desperately to make dramas that will appeal to those Netflix bingers with shows like Baptiste, The Serpent, Bloodlands, Silent Witness, Death in Paradise all feel very soulless and devoid of a British sense of place.

Comedy fares slightly better on every channel. Stath Let’s Flats, the BBC’s Alma’s Not Normal and Back to Life all have a great British voice at the centre and a distinctive sense of place. I think there’s one show airing on British television that exemplifies the ‘British Values’ Whittingdale is after and I’m willing to bet he’s never seen it. I’m willing to bet he’s not even heard of it. I’m speaking of course of, Mortimer & Whitehouse Gone Fishing. The premise of two comedians fishing in picturesque spots around Britain, whilst discussing mortality, their school memories and their favourite cheese couldn’t be more British if the pair’s fishing rods were draped in the Union flag. That fits the mould entirely and it’s on its fourth series and hasn’t lost an ounce of its charm. What makes me angry is that Whittingdale (in the time it’s taken me to write this has been sacked) is confusing ‘Britishness’ with ‘widescale popularity’ The two rarely go hand-in-hand. 

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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