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The Shadow of a Nation: The Changing Face of Britain
Nick Clarke
London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003.
£20.00, 277 pages, ISBN: 0297607707.

Bernard Cros
Université d'Avignon

The Shadow of a Nation: The Changing Face of Britain claims to make a symbolical assessment of what the “Second Elizabethan Age”—Britain’s last 50 years—has been: something very different from what it promised to be at the onset. Nick Clarke chose to celebrate the jubilee through the study of the treatment of six celebrities by “the villain of this piece…the box in the corner of the living room” [p. 16], television. Anything personal? An anchor on BBC Radio 4, where he presents The World at One, Nick Clarke says he preferred radio to television because “you can do radio in the dark” [p. 30]. He offers short biographies of figures who throve on TV for good or bad: Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, who “had celebrity thrust upon her, and enjoyed it to the full;” Charles Saatchi, founder with his brother of the famous advertising company Saatchi & Saatchi, who “pretended to eschew celebrity, and still found imaginative and lucrative ways to enjoy its benefits;” Delia Smith, one of Britain’s most famous television cooks, who “had wielded celebrity like a sword in pursuit of her vocation;” Arthur Scargill, the leader of the National Union of Miners, famous for his resistance to the Thatcher government during the 1984-85 strikes, who “should presumably have spurned the notion of a celebrity fanned by the capitalist media, but managed to exploit it ruthlessly;” and finally “Television Man” David Frost“ who is celebrity made flesh” [pp. 255-256]. An additional character is Elizabeth David, who in the 1950s made cooking a subject per se, in magazines and books, but refused to bow to television, and thus serves as a foil to Delia Smith. Saatchi and Frost are “agents of the changes that have taken place,” Princess Margaret and Scargill are “two victims of those changes,” while Smith and David provide “an unexpected insight into the cultural shifts of the past half-century” [p. 4]. All of them knew how to use the media to their advantage, sometimes out of nothing but a little luck, audacity, and occasionally a lot of nerve.

Put together though, the Six hardly allow the author to draw any challenging conclusion. Recounting the public lives of his motley crew, Clarke merely delivers a commonplace, disenchanted message about the destruction of the old real, solid world of his father (unremarkably the book is dedicated to his family) and the passing into a modern world of uncertainty and appearances. Britain’s cultural decline, and a fairly unsurprising denunciation of the cult of celebrity, are at the heart of Clarke’s pages. Whereas his father, the backdrop figure to the entire book, and the subject of a long introduction, climbed the social ladder through hard work and merit, any lucky youngster selected to join Big Brother III will be turned into a star making millions overnight. Because he will seem real. Quoting from Michel Houellebecq, he explains that “the insidious role of television has been to hasten the process of atomisation (by locking us into our own homes), while offering a spurious sense of shared experience (because so many of us watch the same programmes)” [p. 253]. The country has lost its “substance” to become the mere “shadow” of what it once was. The only reality left today is what television creates, “an alternative universe, vivid, easy to understand and presented in a beautifully designed box—a Legoland society” [p. 25]. Today we are left with the artificiality of “‘Reality TV’ […] one of the great misnomers of our age” [p. 26], and David Frost, the epitome of shallowness.

Clarke is concerned with the demythification of some major institutions induced by television. For him, monarchy is definitely the key victim. Its vitality was “sapped” because TV made it lose its aura (“We transformed princesses into frogs with our kisses” [p. 25]). He recalls that many at the Court had been opposed to the intrusion of television into the Abbey for the coronation. As a result, “TV Millions saw more than Abbey peers” the Daily Express reported. Clarke’s regrets are symbolized on the cover, which displays the traditional 1950s portrait of the dignified crowned young queen at the top, while her sister Margaret, to whom the author devotes the first chapter, appears at the bottom, with a broad smile on her face (a picture probably taken outside some fancy dance club). She holds the middle position of the five characters, as if the monarchy remained the only solid—central—pillar to which a drowning Britain would be well advised to cling. Margaret’s freedom in the Swinging Sixties was an essential symptom of the fall from grace as the princess contributed actively to the game of celebrity, mixing with the secular world instead of remaining in the unsullied upper spheres of royalty. Politics was the next to go. By accepting a TV interview with David Frost in 1967, George Brown, the then Labour Foreign Secretary, opened a breach which led to the ultimate demise of politicians: their loss of credibility and, ultimately, of authority, embodied in the ever lowering turnout at the General Elections [pp. 230-233].

Clarke quotes extensively, too much perhaps, from several authors (Christopher Booker, who wrote The Neophiliacs, a fairly reactionary account of the 1960s, is among his favourites). One of his good references though is Chris Rojek’s Celebrity, in which the author distinguishes between three types of celebrity [p. 28]: 1. celebrity achieved (through merit and effort: athletes, actors…); 2. celebrity ascribed (e.g. to royalty); 3. celebrity attributed (by the media). Clarke passes an implicit moral judgement by making it clear that only 1. and 2. are worthwhile because they are unquestionably deserved, while 3. is a fraud because it is artificial. Hierarchy is not just turned upside down, it disappears almost entirely in a country where class remains the standard of social relationships: “To be that guy Anne Robinson humiliated on the Weakest Link bestows a sense of identity and meaning. To be a successful teacher, or a bank manager, or a skilled engineer does not” [p. 34]. The professions have been disparaged as much as the Church of England and the monarchy by the power of “generalisations” [p. 40] wielded by television.

The world of appearances even extends to cooking, which has become a daily staple for millions of British viewers—although ironically they have less and less time to cook. A cooking programme, especially one presented by Delia Smith, has become like a documentary on some exotic country, not meant to provoke anything concrete (actually following the recipe) but to spur the imagination. There are also strange pages on a strange character, Charles Saatchi, the mind behind the decisive 1979 advertising campaign for the Conservatives. A person of whom very little is known, but who contributed to the change in the conception of politics and… modern art in Britain. There are incredible anecdotes about his love for artefacts by young artists, his thirst for anything new—however dubious the true artistic quality—and the distorting effect of his speculative mind on the art market. Arthur Scargill, who “like Charles Saatchi is a myth maker” [p. 159], is stigmatized as a man who believed he could use the power of television to carve “his own destiny as the revolutionary class warrior” [p. 164]. Like Saatchi, he was ready to announce anything as long as it made front page news. But by claiming that “mobilisation and solidarity represented victory” [p. 170], he overlooked the fact that the battle was actually being lost. Eventually, he could only squander the prestige of a respected profession in the eyes of his compatriots, without even avoiding the final humiliation, before being destroyed by the very instrument that had made him big. He forgot that all along television sided with the forces of coercion, not with the workers.

Clarke keeps his most poisonous arrows, though, for David Frost, who according to the title of the book’s last chapter, is “Television Man:” a man who embodies contemporary evil, whose only talent was to be a television star and whose energy has been entirely devoted to being nothing but that. His dubious legacy is his “significant contribution to the blurring of boundaries between good and bad, important and insignificant, real and unreal” [p. 250]. Frost is also guilty of political hypocrisy. In That Was The Week that Was in 1962, he attacked the Establishment and now he leads it, on both sides of the Atlantic, since one of his trademarks has been his capacity to obtain appointments with US presidents more easily than any regular citizen can with an NHS neurologist (since the book came out, Frost, now Sir David, hosted a TV interview of US President George W. Bush in the White House Map Room, ahead of his state visit to Britain last November).

Some of the most interesting pieces deal with the change in the language used on television, especially by journalists who are always in search of more superlatives so as to sell their stories to the editor in chief and keep the viewer happy. A personal anecdote—why he had always refrained from using the word “massive” after one of his first news-editors threatened him of dismissal if he kept using it [p. 40]—is used to illustrate the loss of power of words due to the increasing competition between reporters to have their stories published. Any criticism must be “ferocious” or “damning,” every defeat of England is either “horrific,” “calamitous” or “catastrophic,” while a reaction is invariably “hostile” and behaviour “unacceptable.” The 9/11 attacks exploited “the world’s loss of grip on reality” [p. 41] because the events exceeded the diluted meaning of adjectives, as reporters found themselves at a loss for words potent enough to describe the reality. Coming from a veteran BBC man famous for his balanced and serious work, such lines do reach their target.

One of the main interests of the book rests in the anecdotes, which offer a wistful walk through the England of the last fifty years. Unnecessary details sometimes hamper the reading, which is also made uncomfortable by the excessive number of notes (139 in 258 pages!), some as long as 15 lines. But The Shadow of A Nation makes commendable light reading for a quiet evening, a distant echo of the late BBC’s Light Entertainment Programme perhaps.


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