Listened to the first programme in Andrew Marr’s new BBC Radio Four series Unmasking the English yesterday (as I write, still available as a podcast). Moderately interesting, with one or two insightful comments. I liked the one where he said that the English were the only nation on earth where ‘understated’ and ‘patriotic fervour’ went hand in hand. But on the whole, despite the title, I found it pretty unrevealing fare, in fact.
The series is attempting to get to grips with hidden, less immediately obvious aspects of Englishness from the avowed perspective of an ‘outsider’ – Andrew Marr being completely up front about his Scottish origins and standpoint. The series aims to achieve this by looking at fictional characters that appear to typify English characteristics. Yesterday’s programme focused on Agatha Christie’s Miss Marples. She was presented as an exemplar of English upper-class understatement, self-deprecation and muddling that tactically conceals a steely intellect and purpose determined to see through to the end whatever it has undertaken. Interestingly, and topically, Boris Johnson was offered as an illustration of a modern version of these traits.
However, the danger of basing a programme like this on fictional characters is that you end up with clichés and outdated caricatures of Englishness rather than something of contemporary relevance. Of course, we do all recognise that there is something ‘quintessentially English’ about Miss Marples, a character for whom there is a great deal of popular affection. But our understanding of what constitutes quintessential Englishness has itself to a large extent been formed by fictional characters such as Miss Marples.
A more interesting approach would have been to take ‘typically English’ detective fiction itself as the mask that in turn conceals and reveals something about the English – not to view Miss Marples as if she was a ‘real’ type of Englishness, of which Boris Johnson was a modern manifestation. Andrew Marr’s programme did touch upon these issues in a round-about way; for instance, when he described the typical scenario of a Miss Marples drama: where the spinster sleuth just happens to be around as a gruesome murder is committed, usually in an ‘idyllic’ English village setting; and pursues her investigations in a self-deprecating, unobtrusive but ruthless fashion until she unmasks the villain.
This sort of scenario is indeed typical of a form of English fiction – a particular manifestation of English culture – and there are many modern English dramas that take up the baton from Agatha Christie’s heroine, e.g. Midsomer Murders, Morse or Parsley & Thyme. But the more potentially revealing question would be to ask why the English have such an enduring fascination for such tales, and why do we like to present such an image of ourselves (rural, traditional idyll with underlying current of homicidal violence) to the rest of the world? And why are murder dramas – whether of this traditional variety or the more modern forensic kind – invariably screened either on Friday or Sunday evening: the times of the week when we’re most likely to let off steam and vent our frustrations about the working week? If our daily lives of drudgery are ‘murder’, then the murder mystery is where the disappointments and disaffections of ‘real’ English life are acted out in a surrogate way on an idealised stage matching how we’d like our experience of England to be, but which it mostly isn’t.
But because Andrew Marr ended up considering Miss Marples as a real type of Englishness (despite her fictional status), and an outdated one at that, the programme ended up in a logical paradox that it failed to acknowledge: Miss Marples was an example of quintessential English character traits but at the same time, these were seen as increasingly on the wane in modern Britain with its supposedly more thrusting, self-assertive culture, particularly in the world of work (which is opposed, as I have argued, to the idealised world of the murder mystery). As if to imply that Englishness itself – as defined by the programme – is on the decline and is no longer relevant to the real world of contemporary Britain?
On top of this, I felt uneasy about the series’ title: Unmasking the English. Is the implication that the amiable, bumbling image of a Miss Marples or Boris Johnson is, precisely, a fiction concealing real ‘new English’ characteristics that are in fact more adjusted to the modern world that the English have done so much to shape: tactical shrewdness, ruthless determination, ambition, cold calculation and aggression – precisely the kind of negative traits of which the English are so often accused by foreigners and outsiders, such as Mr Marr? Just as Miss Marples eventually unmasks the murderous villain beneath his or her villagey respectability, are these characteristics the reality of modern English society concealed beneath the mask of a Miss Marples?
Or should that be Miss Marr-ples? For it seems to me that it’s Andrew Marr who is playing the detective here, attempting to strip the English of one layer of our deceptive self-image of harmless amiability and revealing the brute beneath. But is not the whole polarity – murderous class-less reality of the mercenary modern world versus upper-class effortless, toil-less, sophistication – not itself the fiction? The reality of the English is not going to be revealed – at least, not directly – through such myths, which Andrew Marr seems to buy into. Perhaps in so doing, he has succumbed to the real deception that such fictions represent: appearing to reveal the English while concealing the realities of modern English life – and, at the same time, making excellent business from it!