The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

What is the true essence of Britishness? Tea? Harry Potter? This TCK has her own ideas.

Today we welcome Laura Stephens to The Displaced Nation to comment on our themes from her third culture kid perspective. Although Laura’s parents are both British, she has spent most of her life in the USA. She is currently studying film production in Boston – most conveniently for us and this month’s Oscars theme.

At the beginning of a semester, it’s only a matter of time before a professor draws upon some of that “Teacher Training Camp” gold, and suggests we spend half a class playing name games. That way, the reasoning goes, we’ll be vaguely aware of the proper nomenclature of our lecture hall peers, with whom we will probably not speak for the rest of the course anyway.

Or worse, the self-proclaimed “hip” professor will pretend to be struck by a brilliant idea, and suggest, “How about we go around in a circle – say your name, and your major, and where you’re from?”

And I’m all, “How about we… don’t.”

Why? Because apart from it evoking irrational anxiety that sends my inner monologue into a manic babbling fit (“What’s my name, again? What was his name? I wasn’t paying attention because I was too busy preparing my answers to make sure I don’t screw up my own name.”) — I never know how to answer that last question:

“Where are you from?”

Where am I from?

I know my options here.

1. I can take the easy way out, and say I’m from Connecticut – lovely New England, just like most of the kids in the class. It’s not untrue, either. I’ve lived there most of my life.

2. I can inflict upon myself the task of revealing unnecessary further explanations about my background. To a bunch of people I only just met, courtesy of the name game? I don’t think so.

Which is why I never come right out and say I’m from England.

My brother and I differ on this. He kept his English accent, although he wasn’t even born there; he just copied it from our parents. He kept it to pick up chicks, and I mock him regularly for this. He seems to do all right with the ladies, though, so he puts up with it.

Me, I always found my English accent more of a hindrance than help; asking for a glass of “water” at a friend’s house was more trouble than it was worth. As a result, I tried to get rid of my accent as soon as I could – somewhere around fifth grade. This helped me get away with not mentioning where I was from, if I didn’t want the attention. I could always mention it later if I felt like it.

At some point after that I decided I wasn’t going to introduce myself as, “Laura, from England.”

I don’t have an English accent, so why should I?

If I introduced myself that way in the College Name Game, people would either pass over it (as they do everyone else’s responses) or perk up and ask some irrelevant question about London (the only place in England, according to Americans) or Harry Potter, or tea and crumpets.

How English is English?

When I mention I moved to the U.S. when I was three, people appear dejected or slightly peeved, as though they’d been ripped off.

“Oh,” they echo knowingly, as if to say, “So that doesn’t really count.”

This irritates me. I was born in England, lived there until I was three, and have visited relatives overseas every other summer since.

I get defensive:

“I drink tea, for crying out loud! I drink tea daily, and I drank tea before it was the cool thing to do. I like crumpets with butter and honey. I’ll take the Pepsi challenge between true Cadbury’s and the Made-by-Hershey’s imitation.”

I stop. “Do you watch The Office?” I ask them.


“No, no. The British one.”

And that’s when I realize: one of the major brag points I rely on, when proving to someone just how English I can be, is British film and television.

British television – a treasure lost in the Atlantic?

I’m a film major. Today in my History of Media Arts course, we learned about the introduction of cable television.

My professor lectured, “…and originally there were only three channels…”

(At which point my inner monologue interjected, “Cheese or snow?” – National Lampoon’s European Vacation reference, in case you missed that.)

I’m assuming we stayed within the realm of American television throughout class today, because by the end of the lecture, people had 52 TV channels, and CBeebies had not been mentioned once.

I think it is a shame that British television hasn’t become as popular in the United States as it is in its native country. I’ve introduced a lot of my friends to shows like Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, The Office, The Royle Family, One Foot in the Grave and Outnumbered. Top Gear seems to have gained a foothold with American audiences, but I’d like to see things like Extras and Episodes become more widely known and appreciated.

It’s not just because they’re British that I like them; I like them because they’re funny. I might enjoy them more than my American-born friends do, because of the references within the shows that probably contribute to my understanding, but generally my friends are appreciative of any British video clips I show them.

ABC meets BBC

My American boyfriend and I have a list of films that we intend to watch at some point, and we add to it regularly. We have a list of television series too – ditto. These lists are written on virtual Sticky Notes for Mac.

He, however, has a separate Sticky: “Weird British Shows.” It contains many of the shows I listed above.

From his reactions to the shows to which I’ve already introduced him, though, I know that Boyfriend is not really serious about the “Weird” in the title.

He’s a fan.

What is being English all about, anyway?

Being English is not about crumpet consumption – not entirely, anyway. There is a strong popular culture built around witticisms, subtlety, and sarcasm. I may have only lived in England for the three least memorable years of my life, but I have an intrinsic love for all those lovely British shows of which most Americans have never heard. I don’t care that this is all I have to defend my culture – I push like nobody’s business to get my American friends to watch these shows.

It’s good television, that’s all – even if it is a little weird or different.

Much of British programming is simply an acquired taste.

Which makes sense, right? It’s kind of like…tea.


STAY TUNED for Monday’s post – our own thoughts on the Academy Awards!

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33 responses to “What is the true essence of Britishness? Tea? Harry Potter? This TCK has her own ideas.

  1. expatlogue February 24, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    I’m with you on British TV! It’s head and shoulders above anything that comes from the States. I don’t understand why everything is so dumbed down in the US. Don’t they want TV to make people think, investigate, find out? They seem terrified that the meaning will be lost so they have to make it as simplistic as possible.
    I don’t think it’s a difference in humour, so much getting used to accents and delivery. When I came to Canada I was prepared for people not understanding sarcasm, but Canadians have a very dry sense of humour and are certainly familiar with “the lowest form of wit” and I love it when they deploy it!

    • Kate Allison February 25, 2012 at 10:18 am

      Hi Aisha!

      Having only been to Canada a couple of times for the Grand Prix (and what fun Montreal is on GP weekend!) I can’t comment on the Canadian sense of humour – heck, you can’t hear a thing above the screaming of those F1 cars 🙂

      I agree with you, there’s a lot of dross on US TV, and a lot of dumbing down too – Jersey Shore and Kardashians, anyone? (I hear there’s a UK equivalent now with TOWIE – *shudders*) But there’s an awful lot of good stuff too, especially on the premium channels such as HBO and Showtime – it just takes a while to pick through it all to find the gems. On the regular networks, How I Met Your Mother is excellent, and I know Laura herself is addicted to Castle, which I haven’t got into yet, but will. And of course, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert are the voices of reason.

      If you haven’t seen Episodes – it’s a US-UK production, written by Americans – do so, immediately! Takes the mickey out of what happens when a Brit show crosses the Atlantic. I have a feeling you’d appreciate it…


  2. awindram February 24, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    Both Extras and Episodes are American co-productions. In fact, Episodes was shown in the US before being shown in the UK and it played to a fairly niche audience in both countries.

    Of course, both countries tend to romantize the TV output of the other. Just as Americans tend to think the BBC is the bee’s knees (even a libertarian friend of mine who is ideologically opposed to it can’t stop himself from downloading Radio 4 podcasts) there’s a segment in the UK, particularly within the media, who view American TV as so much more dynamic and interesting. The last few years has seen UK TV ape the American showrunner model and the Guaridian is always complaining about why Britain is incapable of producing anything like The Wire.

    While I think the dross far outweighs the gems on each side of the Atlantic, I think there’s far more interesting stuff being produced in the States at the moment – Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Community, Louis C.K., Parks and Recreation. We’ve nothing of that calibre or intelligence in either drama or comedy at present. We do, however, lead the world in terrible reality TV formats.

    • Kate Allison February 24, 2012 at 3:25 pm

      I don’t think Laura was saying one country’s TV is better than the other, just that Brit TV deserves more exposure on this side of the Pond — not just stuff that panders to the obsession with British aristocrats, or the slapstick humour of Mr Bean and Benny Hill.

  3. awindram February 24, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    Also, I forgot to say thanks for writing this Laura. It was an interesting read.

  4. Awindram February 24, 2012 at 3:45 pm

    @Kate But it is getting far more attention than it ever has before. It is no longer dependent upon being ghettoized on PBS giving a very skewed view of British TV to appeal to its own demographics. In the Internet world PBS no longer acts as gatekeeper.

    There’s BBC America and the main streaming sites such as Netflix and Hulu love British shows are they’re fairly cheap to purchase and perform well. The BBC’s main earners are Top Gear and Dr Who and they’re now global brands.

    Even bad American TV is often British-by-stealth: American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, The X Factor. I don’t mean by this that the Americans have copied it, but that the British production companies are still calling shots behind the scenes.

    Arguably, we’re in the middle of a third British cultural invasion. It’s just the first two were pop-orientated (mid-60s and early-80s) and this one is TV-based.

    • Kate Allison February 24, 2012 at 3:58 pm

      That’s so true about PBS, and therein lies one problem. I remember having a discussion about Fawlty Towers with an acquaintance, who said she had never seen it or even heard of it. “But it’s on PBS,” I said. “Oh, well, no one watches PBS.” Nuff said.

    • Kate Allison February 24, 2012 at 4:00 pm

      Also I’d quibble with your use of the word “Stealth” as applied to Simon Cowell productions.

  5. ML Awanohara February 24, 2012 at 4:34 pm

    Thank you for this post. I was your mirror opposite at one stage of my life — I refer to all the times when I used to visit the USA after I’d made my home in England. I remember one occasion in particular when I was shopping in my hometown (Wilmington, Delaware), and the salesgirl asked me: “Where are you from?”

    I said, “From here!”

    While she laughed in disbelief, I said: “No, really, I am. I got this accent from living in England. But it’s not real.”

    And then she said: “I don’t care if it’s real or not, I want one, too! Can you say something again?”

    When I first went abroad, I NEVER thought I’d one day be in the situation where people at home would prefer me to be someone other than who I was. Talk about a confused identity! I didn’t want to lie, but I didn’t want to deal with the incredulity that people would show if I told the truth. It was like being a freak of nature.

    Still, at least I was confronting the situation as an adult. (I now live in NYC, where people don’t ask me nearly as often — in part because so many people here are mixes and in part because my accent has morphed again, to something closer to mid-Atlantic.)

    To have to deal with it as a TCK — that’s rough!

    • Kate Allison February 26, 2012 at 2:17 pm

      Yes, I’ve sometimes felt the kids have had the rough end of the deal here. There I am, full of pride for the home country, and there they are, just wanting to fit in. You don’t have to move from one country to another, of course – I remember my northern English accent standing out like the proverbial sore thumb when I moved to the west country as a child. I can do a pretty good approximation of both, now.

  6. awindram February 24, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    @Kate interesting on the Fawlty Towers point. I found similar with Seinfeld. Back when I was a sixth-former (97-99) BBC2 would air it around midnight on weeknights. I used to surreptiously go downstairs and watch it when my Mum had gone to bed. There was one other friend at school who watched it. The best sitcom of the last 20 years and it was hidden away on a low viewing channel at a ridiculous hour. I’d pass VHS recordings of the Simpsons to friends because we had Sky. Even today it’s extremely unusual to get an American show breaking the weekly top 20 rated shows in the UK. To get an American drama or sitcom on prime time BBC1 or ITV is almost unheard of , they mostly end up bought by Channel 4 or Sky which results in a smaller audience.

    • Kate Allison February 24, 2012 at 4:54 pm

      Ah yes…you weren’t even on the planet at the time of “Who Shot JR?” were you?!

      Dallas…big prime time stuff 🙂

      • awindram February 24, 2012 at 5:35 pm

        I was a nipper. Interesting that you mention Dallas. That’s probably still the most successful American import in terms of getting a prime time slot. I can’t think of another example. Friends probably approached it in terms of popularity, but not viewing figures (though it did do great for C4). Seems like it would be terrible PR for the BBC to spend the licence fee on imports and until Downton ITV seemed to be doing away with drama.

        • Kate Allison February 24, 2012 at 5:45 pm

          I’m not sure you were a nipper…I distinctly remember it being big news in summer 1980, when Hissing Sid was accused of the crime. Guess you might have been on Farleys Rusks when the perp was eventually revealed though.

          No, I can’t thInk of another series to rival it either. Must watch Downton sometime….

          • awindram February 24, 2012 at 6:52 pm

            Oh, if it was summer of 80 then I was in utero. Definitely remember my parents watching Dallas in the 80s. It ran for a bit didn’t it? I remeber thinking JR wore nice hats.

            • Kate Allison February 24, 2012 at 8:28 pm

              I only really got into it a few years after, when my boyfriend (now husband) made me watch it. Terribly addictive…and very funny. JR is still one of my heroes.

  7. awindram February 24, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    @MLA I only watch PBS for Lawrence Welk.

    • ML Awanohara February 24, 2012 at 7:17 pm

      Okay, in that case you’re writing a post: “Five reasons why I watch PBS only for Lawrence Welk.” I’m serious — clearly, this is a topic about which some people care passionately, your good self included. It deserves a further airing…!

      • awindram February 24, 2012 at 7:31 pm

        It’s on my list of topics to be featured in an America #101 series for Culturally Discombobulated (did a little tester of that idea for Groundhog Day), but it can make an appearance here too.

  8. awindram February 24, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    @Kate *puts on his geeky Dr Who scarf he had his auntie knit him* PBS were quick off the mark with Dr Who. They had Pertwee and Baker in heavy rotation back in the 70s and 80s. Who hits its height in the US around Davison’s run. Both PBS and BBC America were by all accounts very interested in screening Who when it came back in ’05, but I think BBC Worldwide were asking too much and hoping the Sci-Fi channel would take it, though they rejected it as too English on the basis of seeing the first episode of the revival. Eventually a deal was made with Sci-Fi to show it, but quite a bit later, I think both the first two series had been broadcast in the UK before Sci-Fi started showing it. Of course, most American fans had been torrenting the series in the meantime. That’s partly one of the reasons BBC America (who finally got first dibs around 2008) will try and broadcast new episodes as close to the original UK transmission as possible (ideally same day)’. *takes off his Dr Who scarf. Sighs at himself.*

    • Kate Allison February 24, 2012 at 5:10 pm


    • Kate Allison February 24, 2012 at 5:13 pm

      But seriously, that’s really interesting. No one has ever said to me, “Hey what’s that weird show with the guy in the scarf that we used to watch in the 70s?” It’s all Benny Hill nostalgia.

      • awindram February 24, 2012 at 7:00 pm

        Probably an age thing. I think they showed it either Saturday mornings for the kiddies and late at night for the older nerd community, they probably never came across it if they were watching at reasonable hours for repeats of Are You Being Served. They were years behind. I have a friend who grew up watching it on PBS and she was on Peter Davison when we all had Sylvestor McCoy.

        • Kate Allison February 24, 2012 at 8:26 pm

          Oh lord…I don’t even remember Sylvestor McCoy! I got as far as Peter Davison…

          • awindram February 24, 2012 at 8:50 pm

            Nobody really does, not many people were watching by then. They put the show up against Coronation Street. The last two seasons were actually pretty decent, though I’m biased as its the era I have most childhood nostalgia for.

  9. Laura February 24, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    I agree with everything you expressed in your comments, but I would like the chance to clear up a few things. I am aware that Extras and Episodes are American co-productions. As I am at film school, many of my friends have heard of these shows and enjoy them – but I don’t think the student body of a film school can serve as an accurate representation of the general American public. All of the American television shows that you listed are phenomenal, but I think a large part of my desire to expose Americans to British television is out of cultural pride; I’m not saying it’s a case of having to choose between the two types of programming. I’m most certainly not saying that British television can hold a candle to American television at present, but perhaps it is interesting to recognize that I have grown up with these slightly older British television shows because my parents have them on DVD. Proud as I am about British television, I’m not as well-versed on how British television is at the moment; keeping up with Coronation Street isn’t exactly a priority of mine.

    What I do like about shows like Blackadder (1982) and Fawlty Towers (1975) is that they’re still hilarious, 30 odd years later. Fawlty Towers possesses a certain timelessness because it does not contain any intentional social commentary about the time period during which it was produced. In contrast, Blackadder is chockfull of social commentary regarding integral components of the British culture, but none of this commentary hinders future generations’ understanding of the show. I wish only to share these shows with others because they possess a special brand of humor that I haven’t yet seen exactly paralleled in American television – but then, maybe I’m biased.

  10. awindram February 24, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    @kate here’s an example of a truly terrifying PBS Dr Who pledge drive from the 80s. In the age of freely available (if illegal) torrents they must have lost an awful lot of revenue they could have onced relied on.

  11. awindram February 24, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    Hi Laura,

    Thanks for the response to my comment. We both clearly share the same tastes in humor and TV so your post hit a few of my buzz spots. As a result I ended up quickly giving the same rote response I always give when this topic comes up in my real life. It wasn’t really borne out of the actual content of your post and as someone who finds that a pet peeve when someone does that to a post that I’ve spent time writing I can only apologize. I can absolutely understand why you want to speak up about these shows to your peers for reasons of cultural pride and my rote response about how great American TV is, is often because I am talking to an American telling me how great British TV is and I want to give a little cultural pride back to them.

    I am glad to hear you chose Blackadder and Fawlty Towers, I am especially thrilled that you are pushing it onto unsuspecting people. I’ll admit that I ruined Blackadder for myself as a teenager by watching it so many times that every line is burnt into my memory, but both have been very influential in my life. It’s because of this style of humour that I went to the University I did so I could be part of the same comic revue that John Cleese, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie had been part of.

    Your Mom and I did two posts a while back on this site arguing about whether there was that much of a difference between British humour and American humor. I was (as is usual for me on this site) taking the contrarian position that there is little difference between the two, that an appreciation of irony is to do with intelligence and not nationality. That’s a post that I think about a lot, sometimes I find I disagree with myself strongly, other times not so much. At the moment, I’m living in a fairly, nondescript town in California. It’s one of the towns Denny’s uses to test its new menu items as it has a fairly good cross-representation of the States. If there is such a thing as a Nielsen town it is here. And yes, here I often find myself isolated because of my humor, I seem a little random. People still laugh when I make jokes, and I’m still known as the dry humorous one among my social group, but there’s sometimes a little delay in people laughing where it would be immediate back home. Often I wonder if people are laughing at what I said or how I said it. On the east coast this was never a problem. Was I hanging out with smarter people on the east coast? Probably. Was it because a number of my New York friends are Jewish and because of the Jewish-American humor they were more on a wavelength to me? Perhaps.

    We (and I don’t mean you specifically here, I’m actually thinking of something I’ve said in the past) hold up Fawlty Towers as a great example of British humour while ignoring the fact that it was co-written by an American. We also forget that Fawlty Towers wasn’t received with rapturous applause at the time, that racist trash like Love Thy Neighbour was more popular with the general British public, that Blackadder was nearly cancelled after the first (admittedly uneven and very expensive) series – the same was true of Only Fools and Horses. Indeed, it was partly due to American critical appreciation, i.e. winning an international Emmy that allowed a second series of Blackadder to get the go ahead. To me this shows that British television has traditionally been better at supporting this type of show, and partly that’s because there hasn’t been such a need to go after advertising revenue (ITV which had had to go after that revenue is notorious for its failure to come up with a decent sitcom since Rising Damp which is before either of our times) and possibly some Reithian ideals still knocking about the BBC. In an increasingly fractured media I think smaller American channels can give the sort of creative support that the BBC used to.

    Anyway, this doesn’t really answer your comment and is just me rambling so I’ll stop here, other than to add that what I think you see as British humour, I see as just intelligent humor, what you see as cultural pride, I see as you just having damn good taste, and regardless of your confusion over your Britishness, we can conclusively conclude you’re intelligent and that’s, in my view, the most important thing of all. Best of luck with your studies. If your parents haven’t already introduced you to Steptoe & Son and Hancock’s Half Hour you should check them out as I put them up there with Blackadder and Fawlty Towers.


  12. Joanna Masters-Maggs February 25, 2012 at 7:55 am

    Laura, thanks for an interesting read. My own children relate to your experiences. Only one of the four was born in the UK and he left at the age of 6 weeks, the others were born in three different countries. They all consider themselves English including the ones that bear American and Brazilian passports. Their point of reference is England, their family is English. My elder daughter has an American accent after years of international education. People simply cannot get past that accent. However, like the others, she is English. Her point of reference is England and her family is English. How could it be otherwise? I laughed when you mentioned people reacting as if they had been shortchanged when you tell them you left England at the age of three. My own mother is Irish, but because she is from the North that seems to reduce her claim to being really (italics required here) Irish. You are right that it is frustrating that complete strangers feel they have a right to define someone’s nationality and even more annoying that it seems to prompt a need to justify. Who was it who said “never apologise, never explain”? Perhaps that is the route to take!

    Looking forward to your next piece.

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