132: last bastions of Englishness?

Last Sunday I had an urge for some proper Sunday night telly – the kind of telly you need when you’re full of roast dinner and want something that won’t tax your brain too much. In the 80s and 90s it would have been Last of the Summer Wine or Heartbeat, something gentle and Northern. Saturday nights had Bergerac or Casualty (aka ‘accidents waiting to happen’) once The Dukes of Hazzard, WonderWoman or The A-Team were out of the way.

In the early noughties I became hooked on Midsomer Murders: an increasingly bonkers range of suspicious deaths committed in picturesque English villages, allegedly based on Slough (of all places) and with varying body-counts-per-episode. My all-time favourite death was the one where a bloke was squished in a printing press, complete with the lettering on his chest. And possibly the one where Tiffany from Eastenders got squashed by a cheese, unless I was imagining that one.

In 2011 one of the producers claimed the show was the ‘last bastion’ of Englishness and that he intended it to stay that way: the murdered and the murderers (and the forces of law and order) were invariably white and usually firmly middle-class. In recent seasons there has been more diversity – in 2021, the production company said that 37% of guest roles in the last three series had been played by people of colour. So, a good thing, right? Definitely more reflective of British society. Right?

Hope no one reads anything into this

But is there such a thing as toxic diversity? The episode I watched on Sunday, The Scarecrow Murders, was an exercise in conscious bias: a trio of murderers, one of whom was Black, one Asian and the other homeless. The trio of victims were… white and middle-class. Another episode was set up to suggest a Black suspect from the start, though it turned out he wasn’t whodunnit in the end. For comfortable Sunday night viewing this did raise a few questions, and I hope someone starts to rectify this as I really do love this series. While I agree that, with its constant round of flower festivals, village fetes, bell-ringers and rose-covered cottages, Midsomer may well be the last bastion of Englishness…. English does not, these days, equal white. And for those of you who care, I prefer Dudgeon to Nettles. So there.

This week, however, the ‘last bastion of Englishness’ – well, Britishness – award must go to the Queen’s funeral with all its pomp and processions. My beloved hurled himself in from the garden at 11.05 as he was ‘missing it’, annexed the remote control and settled in to watch the Queen’s send off. And some send off it was too: we didn’t watch the funeral itself as gazing on people’s obvious grief felt wrong. I carried on watching the proceedings until the coverage moved to Windsor, when it all got a bit silly and they started interviewing Alan Titchmarsh.

Later in the week I found myself at another British institution – the Children’s Society, which was formed by a man outraged by children from his Sunday School begging for food on the streets. The occasion was the launch of The Good Childhood Report 2022, which shows that children’s happiness continues to decline (for a number of reasons, and social media is only one of them) and in the context of the cost of living crisis this will only get worse. They made the point that the UK is the sixth largest economy in the world and we have the highest number of children living in poverty in Europe. Mental health is in decline, and 80% of NHS funding for this is spent at point of crisis rather than in prevention; swingeing cuts to all youth services mean children are slipping through the net.

There was hope, though: a panel of young people from all over the UK spoke eloquently and bravely about their own experiences. They stressed the need to be genuinely heard and seen by the adults around them and consulted about how they can help. My own daughter’s experiences with CAMHS supports this: the automatic recourse to CBT rather than anything actually helpful; the immediate discharge if they’re ‘not engaging with’ a counsellor; the waiting lists and the lack of child centred approach.

We also heard from the amazing Bernadette Eugene-Charlery who is working with police forces in Haringey and Enfield to ensure police dealing with young people are seeing the child as separate from the crime and making what is going to be a frightening and traumatic process as understandable as possible. The police at these stations now let the team know as soon as a young person is in custody with three-hourly reports, and they are provided with a support person who will explain what’s happening and what will happen next, who will listen to them and help them. More to the point, they are also working within the system to identify children and families who are at risk of being exploited – county lines and so on – and work with them to try and prevent them ever getting to the custody stage. I didn’t expect to end up quite as emotional as I did!

What I’ve been reading:

A Promise of Ankles – Alexander McCall Smith

Dishonesty is the Second-best Policy – David Mitchell

Life in Pieces – Dawn O’Porter

Sure of You – Armistead Maupin

What Abigail Did That Summer – Ben Aaronovitch