Culture is the last great British export

I hated myself for loving The Crown -- the Netflix series -- so ardently that I devoured the first 10 hours as soon as they went online. I've always been revolted in a morally smug way by anything in popular culture that suggests some lives count more than others. That goes particularly for celebrity coverage. It leads people to undervalue their own lives and overestimate the merits of being famous. There are people who sound more intimate with media figures than with their own family -- as if they know them better.

Besides, what Dickens said about the endless law suit in Bleak House should've applied to The Crown: "It is a slow, expensive, British, constitutional kind of thing."

It shouldn't have worked. We already know what's going to happen. (I'd have been pacified if it were counterfactual, like Inglourious Basterds: the royals get voted off the island, as it were, and wind up working -- or on welfare.)

Instead it was like Neil Diamond. You recognize the cheap manipulation but -- such high-quality cheap manipulation! It's a pleasure. Who can stop from bellowing "BA, BA, BA," to "Sweet Caroline," in the car or at the Leafs game?

It's disgusting to be as good at culture as the English are. It's mildly less depressing that, by now, it's all they're good at. Brexit showed they have no knack for anything political or economic, much less defining and pursuing their self-interest. But The Crown proves they haven't lost it culturally. When did that pattern start? End of the Second World War probably. By Thatcher's time, in the 1980s, the late Brian Shein wrote that her only accomplishment was turning England into a theme park called Englandland.

Everything else declines there except culture. Their resources in actors are jaw-dropping. A fairly typical actor, like Charles Dance, has been acing supporting roles in series from The Jewel in the Crown in 1984 to Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones. It didn't have to be him. Hundreds of others would've done. I thought Matt Smith had shot his bolt competently as the 11th Doctor Who. Then he turns up riveting in The Crown as Prince Philip! Philip, for godssake, who you're utterly certain must be a real-life nonentity.

There's a mesmerizing minor character in The Crown called Professor Hogg, probably invented, who(m) the queen engages to jack up her education. She confides to him that she lacks confidence for arguing against powerful men, such as Churchill and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Hogg, who's rumply and adorable, says she has a decisive advantage. Why? "They are upper class, English, and men. All they want is a good dressing down from nanny."

Great writing, even better delivery. I wondered what other roles I'd seen so I looked him up. Alan Williams! He migrated to Canada for 15 years in the 1980s and '90s, bringing along his own show called The Cockroach Trilogy. He haunted our little theatres and lived down the street from me. The trove is bottomless.

England used to be the heart of the world's ruling empire. It imposed its self-serving version of "peace" everywhere. Nothing's left now but culture. Its 2012 Olympics opening and closing ceremonies will forever go unmatched.

Is the U.S. on the same trajectory? Maybe they'll end up as USworld, an alternate destination to Englandland. Trump can't even be bothered to take briefings on how to keep control of the planet -- something that tends to require ongoing attention. It's his saving (let's hope) grace: disinterest in actual power, fascination with images, mainly his own. He's basically a cultural artifact.

It's especially this time of year that we're reminded of English cultural dominance. They own Christmas. Love Actually is the greatest Hollywood Christmas movie ever -- except it could only be English. Christmas Day brings the latest Doctor Who and New Year's, the next Sherlock.

The English think they invented Christmas and no one else has a clue. I once spent a Christmas in the countryside there in . . . Wessex? Essex? We trekked across a field for dinner. We enjoyed the queen's Christmas speech. A doughty woman who came in and took off her wellies sat beside me. I really admire how you do Christmas, I said. She sighed and said with false English modesty, "We try to keep it going." Spoken like the travelling theatre troupe they've always been, and will be.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Rosemary Gilliat Eaton/Library and Archives Canada/flickr

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