Why Let Us Entertain You made for uncomfortable viewing

Dominic Sandbrook

WARNING: This article contains strong language.

Having seen Dominic Sandbrook’s previous BBC Two documentary series, Tomorrow’s Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction, I was at first looking forward to seeing his new series, about how Britain’s main export is now culture rather than the manufacturing industry.

However, a few weeks ago I came across a review of the book which accompanies the series. The review was in Private Eye, so it’s not that surprising that the review was rather scathing. After all if it is not scathing, then it doesn’t deserve a place in the Eye. It was mainly attacking Sandbrook’s right-wing viewers, washing over certain aspects of culture like punk for example. Perhaps this attack was not surprising giving Sandbrook’s own attack on satire he make during the second episode in the series, and how he argues that it single-handedly fails to bring down the establishment – and indeed it relies on the establishment to survive.

When I came across this, which occurs in the second episode of the series in which Sandbrook claims that the British public’s favourite subjects are the posh, the wealthy and the privileged, I was heavily conflicted. When Sandbrook claimed the humour in That Was The Week That Was was not that good, the phrase that came out of my mouth was: “Cunt!” However, there is that part of me that agreed with him on satire. Most satirists, and indeed most comedians, are left-wingers attacking right-wing governments. I myself I should point, tend to lean to the left too. However, in the fourth episode where Sandbrook champions self-made icons and liberal individualism, he claims that celebrities rather than politicians have given more opportunities to women and gay people. In the early 20th century no-one dared come out as gay. In the early 21st century no-one dares come out as Tory.

American satirist Tom Lehrer said that satire died when they gave Henry Kissinger a Nobel Peace Prize. I say it was only wounded. Satire will certainly die however if the next General Election is between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. Johnson became popular of the back of the satirical Have I Got News for You, and most satirists will never mock Corbyn because they would support him. The whole thing is FUBAR.

Another aspect across the whole series is Sandbrook’s claim that our modern cultural dominance all comes from Victorian values. As stated in the second episode, there is our love of the privileged, which manifests itself in stately home TV shows like Brideshead Revisited, Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs and the sitcom To The Manor Born. The third episode however deals explicitly with Victorian values such as charity (Live Aid), exploration (Doctor Who), and the changing role of the working class (the novels of Catherine Cookson), and our fears of power (The Lord of the Rings).

Watching the series, I became increasingly both annoyed by the idea of how supposedly culture is something you make by yourself and how we look back to Victorian values, and treasure things like the monarchy (I for one am no monarchist). Sandbrook also talks about the popularity of novels set in Victorian boarding schools, with the central boy removed from his parents either by living way or the fact they are dead altogether, like Harry Potter whose parents are murdered.

However, there is also that part of me that cannot deny that aspects of this are true. This something I know due to my knowledge of Japanese animation and comics, which I regularly write about for this website. Japan’s manga comics, arguably that country’s biggest cultural export, started when the Victorian British first came to the country with magazine’s like Punch. Sandbrook talks about the impact of London’s Swinging Sixties in establishing British coolness around the world. Also in the 1960s, Japan’s most famous toy was created by someone living in London at the time, and to this day Hello Kitty is a Londoner. There are various Japanese street fashions modelled on the Victorian look, and many of Japan’s most popular manga are set in Victorian Britain. If I were to adapt any manga for British television, it would be the hugely popular Black Butler, which features a 13-year-old Victorian earl whose parents are murdered.

Part of my anger comes from the fact that Sandbrook talks about how we don’t really have industry anymore. Where I’m from in Teesside, our steelmaking industry has recently collapsed in Redcar, and I don’t think any form major cultural change is going to happen any time soon. If it does it will probably be no better than when Channel 4 coming to my hometown of Stockton-on-Tees to film Benefits Street, because that is seemingly all we deserve by the look of things.

The problem here is that I feel the hypocrisy creeping into me. I want everyone collectively to help each other, but deep down what I want is respect for other people for myself, to prove that I have the knowledge to make myself respected as either a critic, a writer, an expert or some other influential figure, and I know that it won’t come about unless I do something about it like those self-made Victorians and celebs, by standing out of the collective and somehow trying to prove I’m better than everyone I should supposedly see as below me.

I want your fucking respect, and I fucking hate myself for wanting it. I think I might be one who deserves the label of: “Cunt!”

Dominic Sandbrook: Let Us Entertain You is broadcast at 21.00 on Wednesday nights. His book that accompanies the series, “The Great British Dream Factory”, is out now.