British Political Drama Tropes

I’m watching the new BBC drama series Shearwood and I’m recognizing some patterns in the genre:

* In most British dramatic series about politics, there’s an old character who’s done terrible things who kills himself rather than reveals himself. Characters in British dramas seem more repressed than Americans. Self-fulfillment seems to drive Americans while obligation seems to drive Brits.

* Underneath the heavy layers of repression and obligation in British dramas, there are volcanoes of love that inevitably erupt or threaten to erupt and thus endanger the sturdy moral order created by careful repression and obligation. In American dramas, repression is something you’re supposed to transcend to self-actualize. The Brits don’t seem to talk much about self-actualization.

* Those who seem like the good guys are usually the bad guys and vice versa.

* Language and behavior are much more subtle than in America. The Brits use more irony and sarcasm.

* Americans expend much more effort into finding out who they are while for Brits, this is something they are born with.

* Opportunities for happiness are usually sacrificed to meet higher obligations.

* Fewer happy endings and more ambivalent endings. To the extent there is happiness at the end of a British drama, it has been paid for by tremendous personal sacrifice and the death of innocents who weren’t wise to the game.

* Britain seems more traditional. As Rony Guldmann observes in his book, The Critical Theory of Academia: A Companion to The Star Chamber of Stanford:

If moderns are by contrast occupied with “fulfillment,” this is because they view themselves as liberated from the teleological illusions that informed pre-moderns’ commitment to some all-encompassing normative cosmology. Modern fulfillment can be analogized to the satisfaction of hunger or thirst because it is premised on attunement to the needs within rather than loyalty to the order without, in which we no longer believe.

To use Rony’s language, Americans seem more attuned “to the needs within”, and the Brits to “loyalty to the order without.”

* In a 1920s period piece, the Brit might call a Jew “our son of Abraham” while the American would say “kike.”

* British political dramas evince much more of a sense of peril while American political dramas take national independence for granted and use themes such as “we have to go save the world again.” Because the Brits feel keener threats to their own survival, they’re more willing to countenance doing terrible things, while Americans use more idealistic language and shy away from describing the world as it is. The Brits have a more tragic sense of life while Americans exude optimism. The Brits have a sharper sense of their own limits, while Americans believe they can do anything.

And let’s not forget about the vicar:

British vicars are generally portrayed as docile and gentle elderly chaps, with white hair and little glasses and ever so prim and prissy ways that epitomize British Stuffiness. They take afternoon tea (“more tea, vicar?”), have a tendency to be a bit liberal with the altar wine and don’t believe that anything remotely sexual happens ever, despite the fact that Church of England vicars are allowed to marry. So, to be caught in flagrante delicto—or even mistaken for being so—by the vicar is, of course, the second funniest thing ever. Catching the vicar in the act is the only thing funnier.

The opposite of this, now largely a Forgotten Trope due to the decline of the social prestige of the Church, is the Sexy Vicar who appears mainly in nineteenth and early-twentieth-century works. He is young, handsome and idealistic, and often the romantic target of the heroine. He will usually be entirely aware of the lust he arouses in his female congregation, but attempt to deal with things by ignoring it and scrupulously avoiding even the appearance of having favourites. He will eventually fall in love with the heroine, but will still be self-denyingly concerned that she is attracted to him for himself rather than for the glamour of his office, and ready for the tougher aspects of being a clergy wife.

A more recent trope is the “trendy” vicar, who is younger, and probably plays the guitar, but is really just as clueless, especially when it comes to attracting young people to the church. Expect them to make air quotes while using thirty-year-old slang.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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