Review: Let Us Entertain You

(TX: 9pm, BBC-2, Wednesday 04/11/2015 – 25/11/2015)

Dominic Sandbrook3

‘A band, or a brand, that was quintessentially British’.

We can start with discounting this utter nonsense about The Beatles; for Dominic, a ‘quintessentially British band’ actually formed through Scouse, German and American influences, and whose art apparently can be reduced to export figures and business jargon: ‘brand’.

Several reviews of this unaccountably BBC-promoted historian’s book and TV show spin-off have been ill-informed. No, Daisy Goodwin, Sandbrook doesn’t ‘ingeniously’ find a link between the region’s metal-work industry and the growth of heavy metal. Jeremy Dellar has previously made exactly the same link but did not use it to make a simplistic and convoluted neo-liberal argument.[1] He also, as Matthew Cooper states, uses ‘the foundries of the West Midlands to stand for all industry in the area, much of which was far lighter work’, and that of the band only Tony Iommi worked in engineering.[2]

For Julia Raeside in The Guardian, it was an ‘enjoyable gallop through Britain’s pop-cultural output’.[3] For ’Andrew Billen in The Times, it was ‘the brainiest clip show ever’.[4] For Matt Baylis, ‘Dominic does us proud’.[5] Sally Newall in The Independent said that she ‘enjoyed the focus on the business side of things’.[6] Well, that’s just as well as that is all that Sandbrook is ultimately concerned with – his materialistic analysis gives Adorno’s ‘culture industry’ thesis a positive spin.

The TV show only has a very brief segment on Catherine Cookson, which Sweet regards as the most perceptive section of the book. This inspires Sweet to say that her work ‘may one day be rediscovered, as a portrait of a world as grindingly cruel as anything experienced by Winston Smith.’[7] This should have figured much more deeply in what was a scattershot TV series. Sweet implicitly critiques Sandbrook’s focus on money being the primary driving force behind culture by using the example of electric shock-baton technology, worth £59m a year to the British economy, just £18m less than the cultural industries (£76.9m.) as was reported by the government in January.[8] Far be it from Sandbrook to face our significant export, not of Harry Potter, but of cluster bombs and arms. Cooper explains that even on Sandbrook’s stat-based terms, he is wrong to state the economic case so strongly. While creative industries have been an increased percentage of our economy and exports since 2008, they are significantly exceeded by manufacturing areas such as aircraft, machinery and pharmaceuticals, while computers, gaming and advertising are the ‘creative industries’ sector’s strength.[9]

Boyd Tonkin ruefully sees Sandbrook’s work as neglecting the Port Talbots of this world, siting it in the context of current steelworks closures.[10] Sandbrook is even criticised by Charlotte Heathcote in the UKIP-supporting Express for his parochialism: ‘Early on he suggests that France has offered nothing to “the global imagination” aside from Asterix and Le Petit Prince.’[11] He is defended by Simon Copeland of The Sun, who laps up the smug nationalism of Sandbrook’s argument: ‘there is no French equivalent of The Beatles. No Jean-Paul, George and Ringo, if you like’.[12] Heathcote, however, acidly critiques Sandbrook’s tendency to ‘measure artists’ worth by how they would stand up to the values espoused by Victorian writer Samuel Smiles’.

Sandbrook’s series does not dissect the ‘conservative anarchism’ that Alwyn W. Turner identifies as a focus of the book.[13] Indeed, the series tends to venerate a buccaneering capitalism with minimal if any focus on the more chaotic consequences of business values, and co-opts all manner of texts in the service of a docile ‘traditional’ Britishness rooted in Victorianism. Turner rightly focuses on how Sandbrook’s hatred for John Lennon leads him into a simplistic biographical reading of ‘Imagine’, not allowing for how audiences may interpret it, as with a recent pro-democracy usage of it in Hong Kong protests.

Ekow Eshun notes Sandbrook’s avoidance of more ‘serious, popular and contentious’ currents in British culture – from Nick Drake to Peter Greenaway to Pop Art to Brutalism to rave to Madchester – along with an ignoring of black and Asian creative figures.[14] Eshun identifies Sandbrook’s privileging of a bland, exclusive culture: ‘It’s a picture of Britain the Victorians would surely approve of’. He also tellingly chides Sandbrook’s price of everything, value of nothing attitude: ‘The impact of the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ is dismissed because it was outsold by Rod Stewart’s ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’ in the summer of 1977, as if chart position is the inviolate marker of cultural influence’.

Erstwhile Euston Manifesto signatory Nick Cohen mounts a persuasive critique of Sandbrook’s neglect to mention the dearth of quality theatre today: ‘The post-war generation produced three great playwrights in John Osborne, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. Now, Britain has no great playwrights.’[15] He also criticises Sandbrook as ‘he does not explain why the hunger has disappeared from so much of television or worry that we are becoming mediocre and predictable.’ Sandbrook is indeed Panglossian in his populist optimism, with Cohen pointing out that of Sandbrook’s ‘success stories’, only J.K. Rowling is contemporary and producing original work.

Dominic Sandbrook1

In LUEY, a vast range of examples is shoe-horned into a banal, wrong-headed argument: from J. Arthur Rank to Twiggy to Chris Blackwell to T.H.White to McGoohan’s The Prisoner to Monica Ali to that purveyor of an ‘outstandingly pessimistic view of human nature’, Agatha Christie. All are pressed into the service of The Argument. Fictional characters from Billy Bunter to Billy Fisher are cajoled into daft concert, into discordant tune. Indeed, schoolboys Brown, Bunter, Jennings and Potter are all conflated, as if there is basically little difference between them. Episode 2 doesn’t even have an argument, just a fawning admiration for the public school and country house in British culture. There is much to be said on the entrenched conservatism of British intellectual culture, 1945 onwards, with Waugh, Smedley, Hayek and others keeping alive the old Conservatism or forging new Liberal Right tendencies. But Sandbrook doesn’t say it. You may just want to consult Robert Hewison or Dick Hebidge on such issues, as DS simply shows a fan’s adulation for the Granada Brideshead Revisited.

He entirely glosses over the serious tensions there have been between Burkean, nationalistic conservatism and the sort of free market, anarchistic capitalism unleashed by Thatcher. There is no focus on conservative anarchism, beyond a weak reprise near the end of episode 2 of Jonathan Coe’s arguments in the LRB about satire.[16] Thatcher-favoured historian Martin J. Wiener’s arguments around the loss of the technological and industrial spirit from 1850-1980 are neglected, other than a reference to Tolkein’s negative portrayal of factories corrupting the Shire at the end of Lord of the Rings: “their [the Hobbits’] pastoral Eden has gone”.[17] David Edgerton’s counter-argument that we were technologically advancing, but only in the direction of a bloated, militaristic ‘Warfare State’, are ignored to an even greater extent.[18]

He misses the vast debates this country has seen over Americanisation. His examples of British success stories, the games Grand Theft Auto and Elite, are, as Cooper has noted, far from being culturally British, unless that it is to say that British has been Americanised. Another major shadow cast is the influence of Europe, which may as well have had no impact in terms of food and fashion; for example, no reference to the Beatles as wearing German or, indeed, American fashions.

Dominic Sandbrook2 - THE BEATLES

No, for Sandbrook, it’s all ‘quintessentially British’. He does not face the impact of Suez, or of Britain’s becoming a country uneasily adapting to its status as a de facto satellite of the USA, with war debts not to be paid off until 2006.

Sometimes, he does focus on significant moments; he rightly hones in on the Rolling Stones’ landed gentry aspirations and business acumen. And he highlights the 2002 Jubilee event at Buckingham Palace, where the likes of Paul McCartney, Robbie Williams and Madness in effect genuflected before monarchy. He rightly identifies that this was not monarchy debasing itself but pop neutering itself. However, typically, Sandbrook celebrates this ‘triumph of privilege over pop’. It is a fitting he does, such is his fetishizing of data and blandness; such is his utter neglect not just of global contexts but also of the less comfortable, edgier nature of British culture. He simplifies what he likes; he ignores what he doesn’t.

Regional, class or gender identities are all neglected in favour of Sandbrook’s adherence to the myth of the mighty, autonomous individual. You could have a drinking game based on how many references there are to Richard Arkwright and Samuel Smiles. You could also do serious damage to your health by taking a drink every time he brings up a tenuous connection or misses the point entirely about a cultural item: to say the Beatles saw things entirely in business or monetary terms is idiocy, to discuss Bob Marley’s music without reference to ideology is grotesque.

There is no sense of the idiosyncrasies of different eras – there’s a somewhat Marxist sense of historical inevitability about his narrative of us as a nation perennially defined by popular culture and hard graft, with any uncomfortable contrasts kept out of the story. He misses the richness of British culture. For Sandbrook, subcultures may well never have existed. You will wait in vain for the following: pre-1910 music hall, post-punk, the music print culture around Melody Maker and the NME, early Channel 4, Play for Today, social realism on TV and film, besides tokenistic reference to Billy Elliot and Trainspotting (both used in service of The Argument). Art schools are tellingly downplayed by their only mention in a critical broadside against his bête noire, John Lennon. There is no sense that we might have produced artifacts as interesting as The Ipcress File, 7-Up or Rock Follies.

Dominic Sandbrook - KATE BUSH AND THE BRIT SCHOOL

Sandbrook absurdly associates Kate Bush with the BRIT school; the soundtrack crassly uses Nick Drake over footage of the country house and public school ‘ideal’. He claims that 1970s audiences preferred Upstairs, Downstairs to the 3 Day Week, without analysing why this latter political event occurred, or acknowledging that LWT’s period drama is a lot more nuanced and complex than the traditionalist Toryism he takes it as embodying. This was a series which took in the bleakness of WW1, as well as issues like the General Strike in its final 1920s-set series. Its heart is closer to Hampstead liberalism than Grantham conservatism, yet Sandbrook seems to assume that it is more Hudson’s story than Rose Buck’s story, which is simply not the case. The preferred reading is increasingly critical of Hudson as the series develops and is not uncritically supportive of social hierarchies.

He takes Doctor Who and the Doctor to represent ‘liberal interventionism’, as if the mercurial Patrick Troughton or the often countercultural Sylvester McCoy can be so easily pigeonholed… Even Jon Pertwee’s Doctor is rather more a haughty, clubbable conservative than a Tony Blair-style crusader-come-shyster… The Third Doctor’s preaching is more varied than DS allows; he knows Mao Zedong as well as Francis Drake and an overarching tendency to moan about bureaucracy in that very 1970s way. Philip Sandifer has identified the 1977 Tom Baker serial ‘The Sunmakers’ as ’punk’; heaven forbid that Sandbrook considers fringe or subcultural influences![19]

And, oh, is Sandbrook proud of his ‘facts’; he would have done better to focus his study of British culture on the very obsession with empiricism and mistrust of ideas he shows. Yes, one third of the population visit a country house; however, unlike a Perry Anderson or Raphael Samuel, he doesn’t go on to interrogate the myths or quite why there is such a cult of the old in the UK. LUEY isn’t so much the ‘history of great men’ or ‘history from below’, as history from the wallet. Or, from the noggin of Thomas Gradgrind.

He relishes phrases like ‘like all good populists’ and ‘missionary spirit’ and contestable assertions such as ‘we make stories better than anyone else’. While only offering that we have one basic story that is grindingly banal: social aspiration and hard work pays off for the individual. Mantra-like, this Daily Mail narrative pervades not just Conservative party neuro-linguistic propaganda but four full hours of BBC TV ‘history’ here. This programme may as well, as David Lichfield has said, been commissioned by David Cameron. For an organisation that has Adam Curtis, Jonathan Meades and Matthew Sweet at its disposal to allow this is genuinely saddening. It is a long way from Ways of Seeing (1972) and The Shock of the New (1980) to here.

At one stage in episode 4, he raises a salient point – ‘the growing power of individualism has come at a cost’ – but then doesn’t go on to say any more on the matter, like the Torian he is. For this historian equivalent of Cameron in politics and Cowell in entertainment, it always returns to the theme of a ‘land of opportunity’, British culture represented as a Smilesian Opportunity Knocks.

 

[1] Goodwin, D. (2015) ‘Britain’s got talent – How the ‘workshop of the world’ turned into its most successful purveyor of popular culture’, The Sunday Times, 4th October

[2] Cooper, M. (2015) ‘Telling Stories? Popular culture as the new British Empire’, We Need to Talk About Dominic, 10th November [online] https://weneedtotalkaboutdominic.wordpress.com/2015/11/10/telling-stories-popular-culture-as-the-new-british-empire/ [accessed: 20/12/15]

[3] Raeside, J. (2015) ‘Dominic Sandbrook: Let Us Entertain You review’, The Guardian, 5th November, p.21

[4] Billen, A. (2015) ‘For popular culture, Britain’s the cat’s whiskers’, The Times, 5th November, p.10

[5] Baylis, M. (2015) ‘Dominic does us proud – Matt Baylis on last night’s TV’, The Express, 12th November, p.43

[6] Newall, S. (2015) ‘Sandbrook’s social history went beyond the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll clichés’, The Independent, 5th November, p.41

[7] Sweet, M. (2015) ‘The Great British Dream Factory by Dominic Sandbrook review – intellectual snobs beware’, The Guardian, 14th October

[8] Department for Culture, Media & Sport and The Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP (2015) ‘Creative Industries worth £8.8 million an hour to UK economy’, Gov.UK, 13th January [online] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/creative-industries-worth-88-million-an-hour-to-uk-economy [accessed: 20/12/15]

[9] Cooper, M. (2015) ibid.

[10] Tonkin, B. (2015) ‘As old jobs die, the march of the makers of dreams goes on’, The Independent, 24th October

[11] Heathcote, C. (2015) ‘Downing of the culture vulture’, The Express, 25th September

[12] Goodwin, S. (2015) ‘The Great British Dream Factory: Review’, The Sun, 5th December

[13] Turner, A.W. (2015) ‘God save the anarchists’, The Daily Telegraph, 14th October

[14] Eshun, E. (2015) ‘A Case of Mistaken Identity’, The Independent, 3rd October

[15] Cohen, N. (2015) ‘The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination by Dominic Sandbrook – review’, The Guardian, 23rd September

[16] Coe, J. (2013) ‘Sinking Giggling into the Sea’, London Review of Books, (35)14, 18th July http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n14/jonathan-coe/sinking-giggling-into-the-sea [accessed: 20/12/15]

[17] Wiener, M.J. (1981) English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850-1980. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[18] Edgerton, D. (2005) Warfare State: Britain 1920-1970. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[19] Sandifer, P. (2014) Tardis Eruditorium: An Unofficial Critical History of Doctor Who, Volume V: Tom Baker and the Williams Years. Eruditorium Press, pp.34-44

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