British sangfroid: An outdated stereotype

By Michael Goldfarb
Writer and broadcaster

Image caption, The old guard: David Niven, Margaret Thatcher and Colin Firth as George VI

In unstable times, one near certainty is that Colin Firth will win the Best Actor Oscar this Sunday for his performance in The King's Speech.

British bookmakers William Hill are virtually paying out already - the final odds were 1/50.

The main reason Firth will win is that his portrayal of stuttering King George VI is excellent.

But another important one is that it conforms to the stereotype that many of the Academy Award's Hollywood voters have of the British: emotionally cool and reticent, unruffled by the ordinary floods of emotions that roil lesser mortals - particularly those making deals in the insane asylum that is the film business.

Firth, Oscar-nominated last year for a different understated performance in Tom Ford's A Single Man, is the latest in a line of stars going back to David Niven and Ronald Colman projecting this kind of dispassionate sangfroid.

The problem is the cliche no longer matches reality. In Britain's Age of Austerity, stiff upper lips are becoming flaccid, suddenly everyone on this island is passionate. People are dripping and weeping with "passion".

They trip over themselves to declare just how full of emotion they are about their favourite things.

Thatcher's tear

Prime Minister David Cameron has had a little trouble getting his flagship social policy, the Big Society, off the ground. The Big Society is meant to re-invigorate voluntarism and community action - especially useful as Cameron's government is busy cutting spending on many of the activities he wants volunteers to get involved with. So Cameron had a re-launch of the Big Society recently.

The Prime Minister told an assembly of charity executives: "This is my absolute passion! It is about a different way of governing, and it is going to get every bit of my passion!"

Celebrity chef and genuine all-around good guy Jamie Oliver, keeps reminding us in his various television shows he is "passionate" about food. Celebrity chef and all-round ego-maniac, Gordon Ramsay, has made his TV career going to failing restaurants and demanding that their chefs re-discover their "passion" for cooking.

Baron Sugar of Clapton, ne Alan Sugar, is a billionaire entrepreneur and the man who tells hopeful contestants "You're Fired!" in Britain's version of The Apprentice. The Vegas bookies - or some on-line spread betting site - could write an interesting over/under on how many times in a given episode the wannabe apprentices tell Sugar about their "passion" for business.

It was not ever thus and I'm not sure I like the change.

Twenty-five years ago, Cameron's predecessor Margaret Thatcher was called a "conviction" politician, not a passionate one.

She was as implacable and unstoppable as the Terminator. A tear glistening in her eye, as she left Downing Street after being forced to resign, was the one and only time her feelings ever really showed. Even then it wasn't a flood, just a solitary drop that could not be controlled.

But after Thatcher's departure, the flood-gates opened. Where did all this passion come from?

Lord Uxbridge's leg

Actually, I think passion - intensity of feeling, action and expression - has always been an essential part of the national character on this island. You don't build a globe-girdling empire without it. But some time in the late 18th and early 19th Century it began to be suppressed.

Image caption, Diana Princess of Wales: Nakedly emotional

It was the Romantic era. Romance in political form meant revolution. Revolution was an act of political passion. Revolution was for foreigners like the French. "We British are so much more reasonable," went a certain strand of thinking.

Two public figures symbolised the argument: Lord Byron and the Duke of Wellington. Byron was a man who could not say no to his passions - especially when they involved other men's wives. Wellington and his generals practically invented the sangfroid long associated with Britishness.

Take this story, possibly apocryphal, from the Battle of Waterloo.

Lord Uxbridge, Wellington's cavalry commander, had his leg sheared off by a cannonball. Did he scream, curse and get blitheringly emotional? He did not. He said to Wellington, "By God, sir, I've lost my leg!" The Duke replied with cool concern, "By God, sir, so you have!"

Wellington's public career outlasted that of Byron. He was still a member of the cabinet into the reign of Queen Victoria.

The Victorian era locked native British passion into a strong box and threw away the key. Everyone was at it - suppressing passions. At English public schools young men had their emotions beaten out of them. The new urban bourgeoisie went out of their way to imitate upper class coolness, in many ways exceeding it.

Opening the box

Not that passion disappeared from British life. It was just that a passionate nature was seen as a breeding flaw. Read the ultimate Victorian novel, Wuthering Heights - or rent the movie with Laurence Olivier. The hero, Heathcliff, is passionate all right, but he is a foundling, a street-urchin not from proper society.

The great British leaders of World War II were all born in the reign of Victoria. They acted like it.

Margaret Thatcher came of age during that conflict. Keeping emotion in check and just getting on with the job is how she was brought up. I think the passing of the war generation created cracks in the strong box, slowly passion began seeping out.

The person who finally forced the box open was Diana, Princess of Wales.

Nakedly emotional and passionately devoted to her causes, she was clearly in conflict with the dispassionate ethos of Queen Elizabeth - just a few months younger than Mrs. Thatcher. As she was always in the camera's eye, Diana's behaviour was tremendously influential.

Her death in 1997 was the first real crisis faced by Tony Blair shortly after his election as prime minister. Blair is a man of actorly emotional expression, sometimes honest, sometimes contrived. He gave legitimacy to the passionate national grieving in the days following Diana's death.

Not so cool

Image caption, Prince Charles acknowledges that he acts on his deepest emotions

Many of my British colleagues mocked the event as a bit of media-driven hysteria. It was not. It was simply the moment when the status quo, circa several centuries ago, returned. One could sigh and die and cry for your feelings - out front - like a true Romantic and not be judged weak because of your display.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. I am a native New Yorker. Expressing myself with passion and very grand hand gestures is my birthright.

One of the things I liked about England, where I moved a quarter of a century ago, was its buttoned-down nature - except at football matches. I liked the reticence. I put starch in my morning coffee and tried to permanently stiffen my upper lip.

Now, I miss the coolness. But I think I'm going to have to get used to the change.

Our next scheduled monarch, Prince Charles, has got with the programme embodied by his late first wife. He acknowledges that he acts on his deepest emotions.

As he told the BBC last year: "I have a passion for topiary and I prune an awful lot."

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