“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same…”
This week the final episode of Ian Hislop’s excellent Stiff Upper Lip series aired on BBC2. The third episode looks at the history of the stiff upper lip since the First World War and looks at whether this is a national characteristic which is still prevalent in present day Britain. Ian Hislop argues that the British became increasingly self-aware of their national stereotypes in the 1930s and some even began gently to poke fun at this increasingly anachronistic character trait. He visits the British Cartoon Archive in Canterbury to look at a series of cartoons entitled “The British Character” which ran for several years in ‘Punch’ magazine. Graham Laidler a 25 year old cartoonist, who worked under the pen-name Pont, was responsible for creating these cartoons which were hugely successful. You can see some examples of these cartoons in the clip below. The cartoons poked fun at the very British characteristic of people carrying on regardless of what was happening around them, the empire may have been in decline, the ship may be sinking but the important thing was to carry on being British and in control no matter what circumstances presented themselves.
‘The British Character’
Ian Hislop’s programme goes on to look at how, over the last 100 years since its Victorian heyday, Britain has become more and more self-conscious and more and more self-critcial about the value of its famous Stiff Upper Lip. After soldiers returned from the WW1 trenches with over a million people dead it seemed as though the British Imperial swagger had gone for good but since then, argues Hislop, we have been nonchalant, steadfast and in recent times we have let it all out. The stiff upper lip has taken a huge battering in recent times but does its history suggest that we still find some use for it, Ian Hislop asks?
The Great Depression spread across the world in the 1930′s; there was the rise of Nazism in Germany with Britain unsure how to respond and across the empire discontent was growing at British rule. In response to these many challenges and instead of stiffening, the British appeared to loosen up and tried to have a good time. Gershwin wrote his song The Stiff Upper Lip at this time and it became an international symbol of the British who couldn’t express their feelings but who wanted to rule an empire.
At the beginning of the Second World War the government tried to prepare Britain for the worst by putting up a series of posters to avoid civil chaos.
Hislop points out that it is rather unusual to suggest that cheerfulness could be a useful weapon during the Blitz. The most famous poster of them all is the keep calm and carry on poster which was in fact never seen by the public as it was planned only for use in the event of an invasion. The whole government propaganda machine at the time played to the notion of the British stiff upper lip. In the post war times of rebuilding, rationing and austerity the government still expected the British to maintain a stoic front. In this climate grumbles, anxieties and fears were all to be kept firmly inside. However in the 1950s, as a new consumer driven culture began to develop, tensions started to emerge and the buttoned down approach to emotions was increasingly questioned and considered out of step with the emotions of the age.
Old boundaries were being rejected, argues Ian Hislop, as as new generation grew up in the sixties awash with the luxuries of peace and prosperity, greater social mobility and sexual freedom. It is no wonder that the relevance of the stiff upper lip approach to life began to be questioned. Ian Hislop meets writer Alan Bennett, a cast member of the groundbreaking 1960s satirical show Beyond the Fringe which made fun of clergymen, judges and the Prime Minister alike and even poked fun at the most stoic period of the British during the war. The assault on old establishment values had begun in earnest.
The line between the personal and the public was being eroded. Ian also travelled to the Welsh community of Aberfan, where in 1966 local people met terrible tragedy when a local school was covered by a landslide killing 144 people,116 of whom were children. The townspeople coped with the tragedy with old-fashioned resilience and dignity in the face of an increasingly intrusive media whose camera crews captured every moment of the unfolding tragedy. The media was now insisting that we all had a right to share in other people’s grief. Ian Hislop argues that this event was the beginning of an on-going debate which continues today about media intrusion and how appropriate it is for the British public not to stand back but to join in someone else’s grief. In 1968 grieving fathers, encouraged by their wives who had found solace in doing the same thing, formed the Ynysowen male voice choir. The choir is clearly both an extraordinary vehicle for emotional control and emotional release and a testament to the fact that genuine self-help and traditional strength of character have helped this community survive the tragedy argues Hislop. In the word’s of one of the victims of the disaster whose sister died ” It keeps the spirit alive”.
By the end of the 1970′s repression was on the way out and self-expression was on the way in. Was it possible to hug your way to happiness? Ian looks at the influence of American ‘therapy culture’ on British attitudes to emotional expression in the 1970s and looks inside Cosmopolitan magazine to see how this seduced a wider public. In the 1970s even some men started talking from the heart about themselves!
It became the standard medical view that having a stiff upper lip was bad for you and was a sign of emotional repression. Ian Hislop interviews feminist Susie Orbach, author of “Towards Emotional Literacy” who explains that “we turned ourselves from a society which was about civic contribution to a society in which individuality is where it is at. How do you express your individuality? It is not just through clothes and occupation but it is also through genuine forms of emotional expression” The stiff upper lip had originally been based on the premise that suffering in silence was a service to society, this notion gradually became outmoded from the 1970s onwards.
In the eighties Princess Diana became the reincarnation of the new emotional literacy in Britain and the move towards more display of shared communal feeling. Princess Diana’s touchy-feely approach was a refreshing change to the traditional stuffy establishment way of behaving with its formal code of conduct. The general national unbuttoning was epitomised by the nation’s outpouring of grief at Diana’s death. Events around Princess Diana’s death have been credited with producing the final demise of the stiff upper lip argues Hislop.
Today we have become so accustomed to showing our emotions in public that we tend to forget that until recently things were very different. Such is the power of TV and so accepted is the contemporary wisdom about the unhealthiness of any emotional repression, it seems that today’s unfettered displays of feeling have entirely replaced the old expectation to try and control them.
In moments of real crisis or adversity, argues Hislop, some residual impulse of the stiff upper lip does still quietly kick in. Examples he gives are the stoic response of Londoners to the 7/7 bombings and the response to the summer riots of 2011. It is not entirely coincidental that the catch phrase of today is the slogan resurrected from over 70 years ago “Keep calm and carry on”. Despite its faults and its failings, British reserve, stoical sang froid, grinning and bearing it might still have something to recommend it argues Hislop. ” If I am wrong” he concludes by commenting wryly “and the stiff upper lip is finished and is rightly consigned to the history books. If that is the case, there is no point in making a fuss about it, no point in crying, we will have to deal with it, sort ourselves out and get on with it.”
View the last episode of the series here. I will leave you to come to your own conclusions about the current emotional strengths and weaknesses of the British character. Here is the final speech by London Mayor, Boris Johnson at the end of this year’s Olympics – another occasion when British emotion was on national and international display: ’The Final Tear Sodden Juddering Climax Of London 2012′
Boris Johnson ‘The Final Tear Sodden Juddering Climax Of London 2012′
Posted by Shona Lockhart, 20th October 2012