The Great British Dream Factory, Dominic Sandbrook’s new book out in October from Allen Lane, explores how Britain maintained its presence as a modern world superpower through its popular culture. It’s a compelling case when you look at characters like Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who, writers from Charles Dickens to HG Wells to J.K. Rowling, the music of Elton John and Black Sabbath, and video games such as Grand Theft Auto. They’re cultural objects that not only assert British uniqueness, Sandbrook argues, but have become so ubiquitous that they have made Britain an entertainment–rather than political or economic–empire. In chronicling what he calls the “modern British imagination,” Sandbrook has a keen eye for vignette, for plucking the right anecdote from the rough. The collection he amasses to understand this “imagination” is impeccably curated and eloquently related. The Great British Dream Factory is deft, witty and thorough without feeling pedantic.
Recently, Sandbrook and I took to Skype to discuss Britain’s brand, those stuffy Victorians and why the Beatles would be the best restaurant you’d ever go to.
You’ve worked quite a bit in television and radio. Is that where the inspiration to write this book came from?
Yeah, partly. I actually wrote the book while making a TV series about the same subject. I’ve written four books about Britain since the ’50s, and pop culture always played a big part in those books. So they were always sort of very broad, panoramic political and cultural histories. And I always thought it was a really interesting topic: how Britain went from being a country that really prided itself on its economic and imperial dominance to one that had reinvented itself as a kind of cultural power. So, the fact that I do television informed the book to some extent, as well as the work I’ve done for the newspapers. I’d say it’s made me very conscious of how historians like me write a lot about politics but the reality is that for most people, politics doesn’t play a very important role in their lives, whereas pop culture does. TV is part of our common currency in a way that politics just isn’t. I thought this would be a good way to explore Britain’s national experience in the last century or so, as well is how Britain has been perceived.
The very first part of the book is about Britain’s “brand,” which I think we think a lot about since we staged the Olympics in 2012 and I believe is colored more by pop culture now than politics or the military or anything like that.
It’s interesting that you bring up this “brand,” because I feel like this is an idea that’s come up in this book a lot, especially tied to the idea of evangelism. We see literal evangelism here with the work of filmmaker J. Arthur Rank, but there seems to be this sort of figurative evangelism also at play, with The Avengers, Beatlemania acting as a sort of cultural conversion ritual. Can you talk a little bit about that?
To some extent, there’s a kind of evangelical tradition to British culture. The idea of exporting British values has been central to our national experience for the last two hundred years or so because of the empire, the missionary spirit of it.
I found Rank to be a really interesting figure for the extent to which the British film industry’s renaissance was driven by–I don’t want to call it anti-Americanism, but America did emerge as this huge economic and cultural competitor–his idea of reasserting British uniqueness and exceptionalism. To that extent, it’s a funny thing. A lot of people who talk about modern Britain will address the idea of Americanization and they will see that as something that has in some way diluted British culture.
But I don’t actually think that’s right at all. I think what’s happened here is that we have this very big competitor that speaks English has acted as a spur. If it hadn’t been for that spur of Hollywood, someone like Rank wouldn’t have tried to assert British culture. Which has made it easier for British media to leave a global footprint because now we have access to a big, lucrative market–the American market–because of the shared language. So you now have British actors, writers, filmmakers directing Gladiator or Top Gun, so the proximity of American culture has actually worked pretty well for Britain. It’s allowed for us to make a deeper imprint than we might have done.
Another theme that comes up is Victorianism and the fact that the modern British imagination is deeply tied to Victorian-era sensibilities. I’m completely sold on this idea, but can you tell me how you arrived at it?
That’s a great question. That idea really emerged when were talking about the TV series and how we could make it different, not just a panorama of British culture. We had one meeting with the controller of BBC2, the channel that commissioned the series, and one of the ideas we really liked was that I or one of my collaborators may have said idly that we used to be the greatest manufacturer of things, and now we manufacture culture.
I started thinking of the imprints that Victorianism has left. Britain has a complicated relationship with its Victorian past. We walk down streets, live and work in buildings, travel on railways that the Victorians made and we’re conscious of our debt to them. That was the high point of Britain’s international power and prestige.
But people, particularly in the cultural sphere, especially for the last hundred years, have viewed the Victorians as the epitome of everything that was stuffy and conventional. So, it’s been very easy for us to sneer at the Victorians at the same time. But Tolkien and Christie were Victorians and the most popular British characters –you know, James Bond, Doctor Who, or whoever–are rooted in a Victorian tradition.
I think there will be a time when we look at our world and the Victorians and we will be almost indistinguishable. I’m not saying they’re the same as ours, that would be ridiculous, but I think that imaginatively we are still living in a very Victorian world. Much as we may say we live in the age of unparalleled change and modernity, I think it’s striking how much the stuff in our heads dates from the nineteenth-century.
So you’ve mentioned the television series–this is the four-part series Let Us Entertain You–how would you describe the relationship between the book and the series?
It’s a very odd thing. I’ve made three or four TV series now, and the format is a bit different. It’s what we call an authored series, in the sense that I am the author of the series and I’ve written it, I appear in it, I narrate it, I’m the person you see walking around these various locations. But the reality is that it’s much more collaborative than a book is. The book I wrote myself but this TV series is a bigger question of teamwork than the public are lead to believe. It’s easy to sell it as the host’s vision, but there’s constant haggling over locations, over subjects, over balancing the content of an episode between everyone involved.
So, the two are not quite the same. TV, in my experience, has its own grammar. In a sixty-minute episode, there would be between seven and nine sections, and each of those would be on a different, but linked, subject. They’ve each got two, maximum three, locations, there’s archive footage, there’s me talking. So it’s all carefully worked out and you never spend more than maybe seven minutes on a given sequence. So, J. Arthur Rank for seven minutes, Tolkien for six minutes, J.K. Rowling for eight minutes. That’s how it works. In the book, I can spend as long as I like.
But the big difference here is that far more people will watch the TV series. I wrote two books on Britain in the seventies that did well, one of them was in the top ten of the bestseller list, but even had it been infinitely more successful than it was, it will never have reached as many people as a BBC history program at nine o’clock on a weekday evening. So, doing the TV series allows you to reach a far greater audience, and it’s a different kind of audience. People who read the book will be people who’ve hopefully paid for it, so they are inherently interested in the subject. So while you try to amuse them in the writing, you don’t have to bend over backwards to drag them in. But when we make the TV series, we’re conscious that viewers have a choice and that the people watching our show could be watching something else. You’re making it for people who might not necessarily be interested in the topic. It’s a difficult tone to strike, to not dumb it down so people feel short-changed or patronized but not make it feel like a lecture.
It’s interesting you bring up tone. I found when I was reading your book that your tone is just engrossing. It tends more toward narrative, it’s often rather funny. Is tone just as important when you write a book on this subject matter as it was for making a television show?
Absolutely. I found writing this book liberating, because previously I wrote big, chunky history books with a lot of detail. This one, I could be a little more opinionated. Every week when I was writing the book, I would also be writing for the newspapers, and the tone there is also much more provocative and mischievous. In the papers I write for, you are expected to be immediately accessible and eye-catching. While I wasn’t writing this book in the same tone, I was conscious of the fact that I didn’t want it to be dry.
I used to be a history lecturer and one reason I’m not anymore was because I wanted to write in a more user-friendly way. I guess one thing I found was that you can’t force it, I don’t actually write draft after draft and agonize over it. It’s got to come smoothly or it won’t come at all. I try to make it automatically readable–that’s the trick to writing a popular appeal–so the reader doesn’t feel like they’re being excluded or not being intellectually entertained.
But what I may consider an amusing aside, other readers might consider annoying. Ultimately, you have to find your own voice, whether it pleases other people or not.
You’ve already announced the fifth volume of your British series, provisionally titled Who Dares Wins, can you talk a little about it?
I embarked on this lunatic scheme about fifteen years ago to write a trilogy about post-war Britain between the fifties and the eighties. Initially, I thought I’d finish by 2005 and basically this series got completely out of hand. It essentially grew to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit. It’s become four books and this next volume, which goes from 1979 to about 1984. It’s probably one of the most controversial periods of Britain’s contemporary history: a huge economic meltdown, the strikes, Thatcher’s confrontation with the miners. It’s a very conflicted, fascinating period.
But it also has, in the way the other books have not, a personal resonance for me. I was born in 1974, so I was five when this book kicks off. It’s the first time I’ve written about something I can remember. What I’ve found the most enjoyable are things like video games and fashionable food of the early eighties that I remember from my childhood.
Well, thank you so much for talking to me today. This has been so interesting. I’d like to end on a fun note: the Beatles or the Stones?
The Beatles, without a question. If they were two different restaurants, the Beatles are serving a huge eclectic variety of dishes, many things you’ve never eaten before. The Stones are really serving one thing they do very, very well, but they’re not the first ones to do it. The Beatles’s cultural imprint is so much deeper.
In addition to The Great British Dream Factory, Dominic Sandbrook is the author of four books on modern Britain, as well as a biography of Eugene McCarthy and a history of post-Watergate America. The Great British Dream Factory may be preordered on AmazonUK. Let Us Entertain You will air in four segments on BBC2.
Image: The Beatles, Denver, Colorado, 1964. Photographed by Curt Gunther.