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Fight for the right: subtle moments of resistance in and from British television

ByEmily Bolger

Mar 15, 2018

The extent to which we, as viewers of the small screen, engage with influential protest on a daily basis is staggering. The powerfully active display coming from the corner of our living rooms has established itself amongst some of British society’s most controversial and groundbreaking moments. By reminiscing and reliving some of the TV episodes that have stuck in the nation’s collective consciousness, it seems that sometimes the more subtle portrayals of defiance, often through unexpected events and comedy, can in fact have the most pioneering effects. Whether in protest or in solidarity, here are some examples of British TV moments that have broken expectations and hackneyed ‘norms’ to permanently imprint themselves onto our own experiences.

One of the most obvious places to start is with politics. The dry British sense of humour has walked hand in hand with political satire for centuries; from the popular nationwide puppet show of Punch and Judy, to the cartoon illustrations featured in the Victorian magazine Punch (taking its title from the hunchbacked and hook-nosed puppet). So it is not surprising to find some of the most defiant moments of television in the serials that ‘take-the-mickey’ out of politics and its most prominent figures. We cannot really begin without mentioning the long-running sitcom Dad’s Army (1968-1977). With nine series and 80 episodes in total, this programme and its catchphrases have undoubtedly influenced British popular culture. The comedy controversially provokes the defenseless audience to fall about laughing at the disorganised incompetence of the elderly fictional characters. Although Dad’s Army greatly distorted the true history and function of the home defense soldiers, it effectively highlighted a significant aspect of the second world war that was previously left out in television representations: the Home Guard. This opened the doors for sitcoms that continued to push the boundaries and to successfully perch on the right edge of the politically correct, as well as drawing attention to those who may have otherwise been forgotten.

Following in the wake of Dad’s Army’s success were political satires such as Spitting Image (1984-1996) and The Thick of It (2005-2012). The puppet show of Spitting Image featured grotesque caricatures of celebrities and politicians, including British Prime Ministers, US Presidents and the Royal Family. In defiance of certain figures being seemingly untouchable in comedy, this show challenged those seen as the leading figures of British culture. Watched at its peak by 15 million people, the nation enjoyed the opportunity that this ITV show gave them: bringing these influential figures into our homes and then allowing us to laugh in their faces. This same effect is produced by The Thick of It, which hilariously satirises the inner workings of the British government. Described as the 21st century’s answer to Yes Minister, the series follows a government minister and his advisors, often controversially mirroring or predicting real-life political events and scandals. Hugh Abbot (Chris Langham)acts as the unorganised, blundering head of the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship. The portrayal of Abbot’s struggles challenged the state of British politics and perhaps stood in solidarity with social preoccupations surrounding the capability and competence of certain politicians.

Resistance in television is not restricted to mocking the political elite, however. It can also be a poignant form of social protest. Since the beginning of television history, the box with a screen has been a staple medium of entertainment for most British households. It is undeniably true though that television has not always represented or spoken to all members of its audience. Yet, when it does reach across the carpeted void and touch those sofas full of the people that allow this media to thrive, there is nothing more magical.

The coverage of the lead up to Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997 exposes the raw power behind this connection. The thousands of members of the public who initially heard the announcement of the car accident on a BBC News bulletin that interrupted regular broadcasting then took to the streets of London to collectively grieve and lay flowers outside Kensington Palace. The national television coverage of these days, featuring emotional interviews with members of the public outside the palace, instilled a sense of ‘coming together’ for a society in mourning. Yet, this also had a significant impact on a simmering protest focused towards the Royal Family itself. In the face of this potential threat, the Queen and her monarchy exceptionally broke many traditional royal protocols; from flying the Union Jack at half-mast above Buckingham Palace, as had never been done before, to the Queen symbolically bowing to public pressure and appearing on national television to deliver her first live address in half a century. The building tensions that spread through people’s televisions provoked and influenced the actions of an entire country and those at the top of its social hierarchy.

Yet, the relationship between royalty and television was explored again in a completely different setting, milieu and genre of broadcasting. The Royle Family (1998-2000, 2006-2012) graced our screens in another example of television resistance. The three series surround the eponymous Northern working-class family, with the very title immediately challenging and asking certain questions of British social structures right up to their highest echelons.

The show had few significant incidents per episode and focused on the everyday conversations of a family sat in front of a TV (ringing bells of potential influence for Channel 4’s Gogglebox), but this alone was part of the magic upon which its adoring audience became hooked. The beautiful, yet imperfect, relationships that these characters built on our screens left us laughing out loud and crying into our cushions. Unashamedly revealing human flaws from within the mundanity of life made the audience fall in love with this family, not to mention commenting on our own preconceptions about what a ‘Royle’ or ‘royal’ family should look and act like. There won’t be a more emotional TV moment than when Denise names Baby Norma after her Nana, perhaps closely followed by the raw sentiments of the episode featuring Nana’s funeral – a beautiful piece of TV peppered with hilarious moments: “What were her last words Barbara?”, “Trevor Mcdonald”, “Ohh Barbara, What a fitting tribute to the man”. Genius.

A similar series that defied Britain’s elitist social strata and connected with a universal audience includes the anarchic, alternative and hilarious The Young Ones (1982-1984). This violently slapstick social protest was portrayed through the characters of four students who share a squalid house whilst they attend ‘Scumbag College’. Featuring surrealist elements, the actors inventively broke down the fourth wall to engage directly with their audience. A fantastically subversive sitcom, it attracted guest appearances including Dawn French, Stephen Fry and Jools Holland.

And, finally, it is impossible to ignore the phenomenal, hilarious and revolutionary sitcom Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2012). Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French broke through social inequalities to produce a highly successful show that screamed ‘Women are just as funny … in fact they can be funnier!’ By revealing the rich talent of female comedy amongst a genre and industry saturated by men, they paved the way for fantastic female comics and comedy writers for years to come, including the recent Channel 4 shows Derry Girls and Chewing Gum.

There are so many examples of defiant British television that it will never seem like those mentioned above are sufficient. Yet, it is clear that through a personal and immediate access to its audience, television can be at the forefront of resistance. This inevitably produces a privileged position of influence and power that, hopefully, can be used to bring societies together, break down divisions and challenge social norms.

Image: Kaidor via Wikimedia Commons


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