Graffiti in Margate of Only Fools and Horses, which John Whittingdale described as a classic example of 'Britishness' (Flickr / Loz Pycock)

A longstanding measure of the success of British comedy has been its reception in the US. Acceptance there, we’re told, indicates a universal admiration, if not envy, of “our” brand of humour. Chief among recent successes in the US is Fleabag, which in 2019 became the first British production to win best comedy series at the Emmy Awards.

But in September, the show became cause for some mild cognitive dissonance in Westminster. Outgoing minister for media John Whittingdale cited the strain of “sarcasm” running through Fleabag as evidence that it “could only have been made in the UK”; other comedy-dramas, like Blackadder, had a “dash of restraint” that was “classically British”. With broadcasters now receiving more money for dramas from overseas investors, a trend that risked diluting the concentration of “Britishness” on our screens, it was vital, the minister argued, that such shows continued to be made. In fact, broadcasters would henceforth be required to produce “distinctively British” content.

Cue much criticism in response. But it spoke to a larger question: can humour ever be particular to one society or culture? If so, how can it be so rapturously received by another, especially when that “other” is a nation often stereotyped as lacking in the fine arts of sarcasm? In a country boasting a kaleidoscope of different cultural traditions – regional, ethnic, class-based and more – should we even humour such a notion as “distinctively British”?

The current UK government has done much to frame “Britishness” as both imperilled by outsiders and something the rest of the world would do well to learn from. For Whittingdale, radio, film and television can amplify the “unique identity” of British output, and in the process, show the glut of foreign shows that “have no real identity, no genuine sense of place” for what they are.

Most admirers of Fleabag will have marvelled at the economy of the writing or at its masterly marriage of pathos and wit. That Whittingdale’s thoughts moved straight to empire building 2.0 reveals something about how the current government sees cultural output as a tool for securing global envy of Britain. Our scriptwriters can package up the constellation of traditions, attitudes, behaviours and otherwise that make up “Britishness” into half-hour episodes and project them in such a way that the world understands we have something no one else does.

But in arguing for a “distinctively British” sense of humour, Whittingdale undermines the creative ingenuity of the scriptwriters he claims to celebrate. In his view, their material is somehow a product of the nation, while the individual influences they channel play second fiddle.

Of course, for a government afraid of its nation’s diminishing global status, that kind of story can be useful to tell. But it won’t find much of an audience among the creators it claims to celebrate.

This piece is a preview from the Witness section of New Humanist winter 2021. Subscribe today.