Wednesday, 18 November 2015

All Your Pop are Belong to Us

The chief interest of Dominic Sandbrook's Let Us Entertain You is in determining who he means by those first and second persons plural. It gradually becomes clear that "us" means the aspirational middle class, while "you" is a patriotic, deferential mass that hankers after a cheerful conservativism. This is a rummage through the cultural second-hand shop that marginalises working class autonomy and the pretensions of intellectuals. It is relentlessly middlebrow, mildly xenophobic, and obsessed with big houses and private education. Give him a Union Jack waistcoat and Sandbrook would make an excellent John Bull, or perhaps a Toby jug. In the spirit of the series, the following sneer is based on only the first two episodes and I have carefully selected the most amusing tropes and misrepresentations for best effect.

The thesis of the Daily Mail's resident social historian is "that our modern cultural success is rooted in the experience of the Victorian period". To illustrate this, we start with Tony Iommi quitting a Birmingham metal-bashing factory, after losing a couple of finger-ends, to help invent Heavy Metal with Black Sabbath. The new music's roots apparently lay in the "forges and foundries of our industrial past", rather than the Mississippi Delta. This autochthonous creation myth neatly sidestepped the debate over the Americanisation of British popular culture and is the first (but not the last) occasion on which Sandbrook passes up the obvious cue to introduce George Orwell. In the circumstances, it is no surprise that the influence of Django Reinhardt on Iommi (working class lad impressed by continental Jazz) is not mentioned.

Sandbrook's theme is the continuity of social values beneath the change in material forms, from Matthew Boulton and James Watt to Elton John and Grand Theft Auto. Equating the two eras in terms of creativity and entrepreneurialism allows the cultural economy to be presented as inventive, rather than parasitical, and the industrial revolution to be eulogised without reference to its social costs. The serial structure of this conventional narrative - we used to make steam engines, now we make music - also downplays the longstanding commoditisation of class, from the Gothic Revival to Queen Victoria's Jubilee mugs. Sandbrook sees this continuity as self-evidently a good thing rather than the persistence of unequal social relations and the resilience of ideology.

J Arthur Rank is presented as a bridge between the old and the new: an industrialist who treated British cinema as an industry, British history as a commodity, and Britishness as a brand (though Sandbrook fails to note his contribution to the demotic as a euphemism for masturbation). The reaction to the conservatism of Rank's films, namely the social realism of British cinema and theatre in the late 50s and early 60s, is blithely ignored, presumably because of its problematic focus on working-class aspiration and its criticism of conservative values after Suez. Despite the supposed emphasis on Victorian roots, the lasting legacy of music hall in British culture isn't mentioned. There is no Joan Littlewood, no Shelagh Delaney.

In fact, there are no women outside royalty. This is a great man history in which Sandbrook praises white, middle-class "entrepreneurs", such as Brian Epstein, Chris Blackwell, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Charles Saatchi. Their commercial nous is elided with creativity, suggesting that culture should be thought of largely in terms of units shifted. Epstein's genius is dressing the Beatles in tailored suits and wangling OBEs for their contribution to exports; the continuity between the exploitation of sugar and reggae in Blackwell's family history is delicately passed over; Saatchi is praised for creating a market for modern art - the creativity of money; while tales of Lloyd-Webber's first night anxiety fail to elicit sympathy when you remember his recent role in voting for tax credit cuts.

In the second episode, Sandbrook uses a 1960s drug-bust at Keith Richards' Sussex manor to ram home his continuity message: rebel buys posh house at earliest opportunity. This vignette of the louche and the conventional, like Chipping Norton avant la lettre, reveals Sandbrook's fascination with property, which he proceeds to indulge in a tour that takes in Castle Howard (the "star" of Brideshead Revisited) and Highclere (the set for Downton Abbey). This is a view of history that reduces the subtlety of class identifiers to mere possessions. For example, Sandbrook's celebration of the" aristocratic" James Bond confuses Ian Fleming's festishisation of commodities with status. He fails to appreciate that Fleming, as the scion of a banking family, was looked down on by landowning aristos who preferred shabby-chic to an obsession with tailoring and cocktails.

The tour of stately homes allows Sandbrook to transport us back to Edwardian times and imply that gracious living reflected right moral values. TH White's The Sword in the Stone is held up as evidence of a persistent popular appetite for these values into the 20th century, including a sympathy with the travails of monarchy (The King's Speech gets an airing). This reading ignores White's pacifism and misrepresents his ecological concerns (Camelot has echoes of the League of Nations, Wart is repeatedly metamorphosed into animals who find man's cruelty baffling). White's romantic conservativism is closer to Jeremy Corbyn than Boris Johnson. Merlin and Arthur's embodiment of the elderly tutor/young student trope is used to establish a link to the present in the form of Dumbledore and Harry Potter. In fact, White's themes of might versus right and family dysfunction find a better echo in Obi Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker. Star Wars is excluded because it isn't British and because it doesn't feature an impressive rural pile.

The visit to Hogwarts allows Sandbrook to delve back even further in time to the Victorian roots of public schools. Rugby, Eton, Harrow et al are held up as inculcators of right values. Their historic role in moulding the administrators of empire is finessed with the comic interlude of Harry Flashman: a variation on the now-traditional "absent-minded" defence of exploitation. The public school system's role in moulding the social attitudes that undermined British industry during the interwar years isn't mentioned, nor its baleful influence on postwar grammar schools and today's free schools. Again, Sandbrook misses the obvious cue: Orwell's experience as an ex-public schoolboy enforcing the systemic cruelty of empire in Burma, and his experience of the social and economic waste inflicted on the industrial towns of the North in the 1930s.

In the book that accompanies and expands on the TV series, The Great British Dream Factory, Sandbrook finally engages Orwell, but only to criticise the Old Etonian's antipathy to the schooldays stories of Frank Richards. Despite his modern appropriation by neoliberals and neocons, Orwell remains problematic for the right, both because of his unpicking of the ideology of class and his distaste for Americanisation. Where he can't wholly ignore a subject, Sandbrook belittles it: postwar satire is written off as ineffective, other than in undermining respect for politicians (he ignores pre-Victorian levels of contempt); Punk is dismissed as merely "aesthetic" (i.e. by insisting on its lack of significance, which elsewhere is held up as a virtue for pop commodities, he admits its unsettling force); and the Jam's Eton Rifles is misread as showing a secret admiration for Etonians (it's actually about working class cynicism at middle class posturing).

According to Sandbrook, the period from the death of Princess Diana to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee shows royalty's ability to absorb and appropriate popular culture, which glosses over the near-terminal impact of the former event on the institution. The popularity of Elton John's Candle in the Wind is held to prove this resilience, rather than anything as banal as the British public's mawkish rubber-necking. This not only ignores the significance of a eulogy to an American icon being repurposed for a British one, but means Sandbrook fails to note the title comes from TH White's fourth book in The Once and Future King series, where it reflects the fragility of peace. In its way, the song is a perfect emblem of Sandbrook's cultural history: sentimental and superficial, in denial about the adoption of American social mores, and unwilling to accept the diversity and contradictions of British society.


  1. Herbie Causes Extinction18 November 2015 at 18:44

    "and the Jam's Eton Rifles is misread as showing a secret admiration for Etonians "

    Bless him! I wouldn't have had the heart to tell him otherwise!

  2. Thanks for doing the dirty work of actually watching Sandbrook's programme.

  3. I confess it's weirdly fascinating to see him determinedly miss the point in his desire to reestablish Victorian values.