The British Stiff Upper Lip (Part 1) – a good or bad characteristic?

I watched Ian Hislop’s new programme about the famous British Stiff Upper Lip last night and found it very interesting and surprisingly enjoyable.   It will be interesting to see how this review of the nation’s emotions continues next week but the first instalment was very insightful.  This interesting review in today’s Guardian will give you a great insight, so you can decide for yourself whether you want to catch up with the BBC2 programme here.

Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip – An Emotional History of Britain

From bawdy Boswell to Princess Diana, Hislop gets in touch with our emotions

 of The Guardian, writes on 

Ian Hislop's Stiff Upper Lip - An Emotional History of Britain

Ferreting around … Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper lip was complex and lovely.

Ian Hislop is out and about in London talking to people, normal people, about emotional matters. He’s not a natural with the public, I’d say – it’s as if he knows he can’t be too clever, or witty, or sarky. But what, frankly, does that leave, for someone who’s all about being those things? Nodding along, a little uncomfortably, that’s what.

Luckily he doesn’t do it for too long in this first episode of Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip – An Emotional History of Britain (BBC2). Soon he’s burrowing into the past, ferreting around (there is something ferret-like about Hislop, isn’t there?) among books and pictures. Not too many normal people to deal with here, just experts. Like AN Wilson (now there’s a man to test your stiff upper lip, don’t you just want to throw your arms around him and give him a big hug, soak up the warmth). And this fellow at the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions …

What? No! That’s a made-up centre, isn’t it? What the hell were they doing until this programme happened and (sort of) justified their existence? Sitting around among their dusty books, waiting for the phone to ring. Eventually, after several years, it did, the first time ever in fact. “Hello? Yes … Ian Hislop? You’re making a programme … about the history of emotions … yes I believe we can help you … that’s exactly what we do, pretty much all we do … an interview? … let me just check the diary … actually, no need, that’ll be fine …”

Anyway, it turns out we Brits weren’t always so buttoned up, our upper lips weren’t always so stiff. Back in the day we were a touchy-feely-huggy-kissy lot (lucky for AN Wilson he wasn’t around then). Even Nelson was basically a metrosexual hippy. So what happened? The French revolted, that’s what, our lip-stiffening was a direct result of that.

It’s a bit more complicated, and interesting. And Hislop snuffles out a fascinating route from Tudor va-va-voom to icy Victorian reserve. Sometimes I get a bit lost and can’t see how something fits in, but that’s just me not keeping up, and it really doesn’t matter because the stories are such a hoot. Like the cunning British scheme to sort out the French, put a stop to their silly revolution, by making them all play cricket. And James Boswell’s big night out on the town to celebrate the king’s birthday, which involved drinking a lot, getting into a few fights, and dipping his machine into the canals of prostitutes. Eurgh … his words, not mine, filthy man. Three prostitutes, as it happens, “thrice nightly” Jimmy B they used to call him. How does this fit in with the history of the stiff upper lip though? There’s very little reserve going on there; plus he must have needed all his stiffness for his machine, in order for successful canal-dipping to take place, so to speak. Oh I see, that was the beginning of politeness, though Boswell wasn’t very good at it (you’re telling me!), on account of being Scottish.

There’s not an awful lot to go on visually for this documentary. Hislop looks at a book, and another book, and at a portrait by Johann Zoffany. The camera scans the page, the picture, a statue, a flag; Hislop ferrets around, in his black suit. But thank God we don’t go down the dreaded dramatic reconstruction route (take note, Andrew Marr), although it might have been quite fun for Boswell’s Big Night Out.

And it will be easier next time, as we’ll presumably be getting into times where there’s some footage – of events when lips either remained stiff (world wars), or didn’t (the death of Diana). Gazza’s tears, will they feature? Andy Murray’s Scottish ones even?

What about Hislop himself, is he Wellington or Nelson, stoical or sentimental? Or is there something between the two, an upper-lip semi? That curls up slightly, in the corner, wittily, satirically … Yeah, that. Anyway, his programme is a lovely one

Article written by Sam Wollaston in the Guardian on 2nd October 2012

One thought on “The British Stiff Upper Lip (Part 1) – a good or bad characteristic?

  1. I have found the program, so far, highly intriguing, and curiously relevant. I’m 59 now, and recently recalled that my grandmother once voiced the opinion that I was born in the wrong era. Being only fifteen at the time, I didn’t get what she meant, and I’m still not completely sure. But, I find that I generally don’t complain about life and do not let my emotions show with regards to myself. Though I wept at the time of the Aberfan disaster still do when I review those terrible events. I was also one of the weepers at Diana’s funeral, and would like to thank the lady on the program who mentioned that our reasons for the emotional show came out of a mixture of sentiments for each of us. Stiff upper lip? Certainly, but, at times, the lower one has a mind of its own.

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