I asked my non-British readers which of the following (important or perhaps less so) aspects of British culture they were at least vaguely familiar with. Sixteen people took part in the survey, which I think is enough to draw some conclusions. Here are the results of the poll:
Cadbury's Creme Eggs 15
'Carry On' films 9
The Raleigh Chopper 3
Coronation Street 12
Lord Sugar 6
Marks & Spencer 12
Last of the Summer Wine 8
The Boat Race 9
Clotted cream 12
Ant & Dec 7
White Van Man 5
The chip butty 9
Sir Cliff Richard 8
- Cadbury's Creme Eggs are clearly more international than I had thought. It's learning this sort of thing that was my reason for asking these questions. For the one person unfamiliar with them, they are a confectionery product. Imagine a chocolate egg (about the size of a chicken egg) filled with a very sweet white and yellow fondant styled to look like an egg white and yolk. Oddly they are usually only sold between New Year and Easter.
- 'Carry On' films. A series of 30 films starting with 1958's 'Carry on Sergeant' and continuing at the rate of one or two a year until 1978's 'Carry on Emmannuelle', before a one-off revival with 1992's 'Carry on Columbus'. The films featured low budgets, an ongoing ensemble cast, politically incorrect humour (not really smutty by modern standards, but frequently camp) and plenty of innuendo. They are often cited as quintessential examples of 'British humour', but since the same is said of Monty Python, and they're nothing like that, I don't really know what that means. I'm a huge fan. The 1964 film 'Carry on Cleo' avoided looking quite so cheap as others in the series by using costumes and sets originally intended for the Richard Burton / Elizabeth Taylor 'Antony & Cleopatra' and features the single best line in the history of cinema:
- Slade. Enormously successful British rock band of the 1970s and early 80s. Started out as a skinhead band before finding success with glam rock and looking ridiculous. No British band sold more singles in the 70s. They had hit after hit, but their ongoing cultural importance in this country derives from their 1973 Christmas number one 'Merry Xmas Everybody', which is probably the most played Christmas song in the UK. Go into any shopping centre in December, and you will hear it. Possibly because they never broke it big in the US, and because contemporary critics derided the sort of band that sold singles rather than albums, they aren't spoken about as much as contemporaries like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple or Black Sabbath, but more recent artists as diverse as Oasis, The Ramones, Nirvana, The Clash, KISS, Motley Crue, Quiet Riot and the Smashing Pumpkins have all cited them as a significant influence.
- The Raleigh Chopper. This was a children's bicycle from the 1970s. Named the Chopper after 'chopper' motorbikes because it had a smaller front wheel and long handlebars. Because they were cool and not that safe, it tended to be the naughtier kids who rode them. I remember a policeman coming to our school to do a road safety lecture and telling people not to get a Chopper, but a Raleigh Grifter instead, because that was much more sensible. I'm not sure he understood children. Here's a photo of one being ridden by Sid James, star of many of the Carry On films:
- You sometimes see this photo as a social media meme with the caption "You may be cool, but you're not Sid James riding a Raleigh Chopper smoking a pipe cool."
- Coronation Street. Soap opera set in the fictional borough of Weatherfield (broadly-speaking Salford, in northwest England). It's been going since 1960, making it the world's longest-running soap. Currently has five episodes a week. Ken Barlow won a place at university in the very first episode. The same actor, William Roache, is still playing that character today. Has consistently been one of the highest-rated programmes on British television for most of its 56 years.
- Lord Sugar, formerly (Sir) Alan Sugar is an electronics and property tycoon. He made his fortune with computer manufacturer Amstrad in the 1980s, but is most famous now as the host of the British edition of The Apprentice. So in a way he's a sort of British Donald Trump. Only in that way though.
- Barbour is a luxury fashion brand from South Shields in northeast England. They make a variety of country clothing but are most famous for their waxed cotton jackets. You'll see farm workers wearing them on windswept moors, but you'll also see aristocrats and Royals wearing them.
- Marks & Spencer is a very popular food and clothing store. While the food tends to be expensive and upmarket, the clothing tends to be rather more mid-range, with something of a frumpy, middle-aged reputation. Nevertheless because middle-aged, middle-class women tend to spend a lot on clothes, and perhaps because they tend to complain more than most groups if they can't get something, you will frequently see articles complaining about the current range, in the way that you just wouldn't for other retailers. This is the sort of thing.
- Last of the Summer Wine is a sitcom that ran from 1973 to 2010,making it the world's longest running sitcom. To be honest, it was never actually that good, but it did appeal to old people (my Grandad was a fan). This might have been because of the premise: three retired blokes mucking about in picturesque town and surrounding countryside. Over the years the identity of the three retired blokes changed, but the basic idea stayed the same. Peter Sallis was 'Clegg', one of the three for most of the series. He is better known internationally as the voice of Wallace in the Wallace and Gromit films.
- True story: Years ago, when I worked for JOLF, I was running a course in our Huddersfield office, near where Last of the Summer Wine is set. We were being helped out on the course by a manager from the American firm, sent over to see how we ran this particular course in the UK. Everyone on the course (presenters and participants) went out for dinner one night to a local hotel, and also dining that evening were many of the cast from Last of the Summer Wine. (There aren't too many big hotels in this part of the world.) Now at the time, one of the characters in the show ('Truly') was played by the late Frank Thornton. We explained to our American friend just how starstruck we were and tried to explain Last of the Summer Wine to him. He was, I think, a little bemused. He said "We don't get many British shows over in the States. The only sitcom I know is that one set in the department store." "You mean 'Are You Being Served?'?" "Yes, that's the one." (Pointing to Frank Thornton) "That's Captain Peacock." "OOHHHHHMMMMMYYYYYYYGGGGGGAAAAAAADDDDDD!
- The Boat Race. This is an annual rowing race (I think the technical term is 'coxed eights', meaning eight rowers in a boat, each with one oar, plus one cox who steers and shouts) between teams from Oxford University and Cambridge University over a part of the River Thames in London. It's hugely important for a fairly small set of people (mostly those who attended one of those universities and who cared about rowing while there were there, which is a surprising number for such an unpleasant activity) and largely ignored by the rest of the country. However, because the former group is disproportionately represented among the people who run television companies and newspapers, it gets rather more media attention than it probably deserves. Many of the rowers seem to only loosely connected to the university. (An awful lot seem to be in their late 20s, already internationally successful as rowers and doing suspiciously obscure postgraduate degrees...)
- Clotted cream. It's a type of cream. Unlike most cream though, it is thick enough to be solid. (Hold the container upside down and it won't fall out.) Mostly manufactured in Cornwall and Devon. Delicious with ice cream and mince pies. Most famous as a vital component of a 'cream tea' (scone plus jam plus clotted cream). In Devon, the jam goes on top of the cream; in Cornwall, the cream goes on top of the jam. It is also apparently a thing in Lebanon, which has led to the suggestion that it was introduced to Cornwall by Phoenician tin traders in the bronze age.
- Ant & Dec. Pair of television presenters from northeast England. First came to public attention when they starred as PJ and Duncan in a terrible children's TV series called Byker Grove. They then had a musical career and somehow emerged as the goto duo for presenting downmarket celebrity and talent shows on ITV, one of the main networks on British TV. Their appeal is completely lost on me. You never see them apart. Even odder, whenever you see them on TV or in posed photos, Ant is always on the left and Dec is always on the right as you face them. Back in 1994, this was good enough to be nominated for a Brit Award (British equivalent of a Grammy, sort of):
- White van man. In the UK, tradespeople (so builders, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, plasterers that sort of person) tend to travel in vans. And most vans are white. (I guess white is cheaper.) And most tradespeople are male. Hence the description of this sort of person as 'white van man'. At a superficial level, there are various tropes and stereotypes associated with white van man - very patriotic, drinks lager, likes football, reads tabloid newspapers, drives badly, that sort of thing. More subtly, they represent an identifiable demographic, and an important one politically because they tend to be swing voters between the two main political parties. On the one hand, they're working class, which would suggest Labour voters. On the other hand, they're quite likely to be business owners, which would suggest Conservative voters. They supported Mrs Thatcher, and then Tony Blair. At the last two general elections, the Conservatives have done well in getting their support. And UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party) gets a lot of their support from them. Labour on the other hand...
- The chip butty. A food likely to be popular with many white van men. Simply take two slices of white bread (none of your soggy, wholemeal, brown, artisanal hipster rubbish), apply butter (or an alternative spread) and fill with chips (i.e. deep fried potatoes cut into finger-shaped segments). Tomato ketchup is optional. Very nice. (Although personally I prefer to keep the chips and the bread-and-butter separate.)
- Sir Cliff Richard. Veteran British pop star. Only Elvis and the Beatles have sold more singles in the UK. First had a hit single in 1958 and managed a UK number on in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and a number 2 in the 2000s. The sort of singer who attracted screaming teenage girls in the 1950s, and marketed as a kind of British Elvis. Later became known for his squeeky clean and overtly christian image. This was temporarily put on hold when he was investigated over decades-old allegations of sexual assault. Charges were later dropped, the BBC apologised to him for their coverage, and he is suing the Police.