4 Things Famous Films Got Wrong about Life in Britain
Is there anything that propagates British stereotypes as much as the films that are set here?
In real life, Britain is a diverse country of 60 million people, made up of rolling fields, dramatic mountains, cute villages, thriving towns, bustling cities – in other words, as varied a place as any other that gets routinely misrepresented on film. Just as the continent of Africa gets presented as one homogenous savannah with not a city in sight, Austria is composed entirely of the Alps and there is nothing in France except Paris, so too is Britain converted into a kind of postcard version of itself.
For a start, modern Britain doesn’t feature nearly as much in films as the Britain of the past does. If you want jousting knights, 18th century gentlewomen on rain-soaked moors, grubby Victorian orphans or heroic soldiers in the First or Second World War, you’ll find plenty of them in British films. But modern-day Britain features rather less. Even when it does appear, it can be with an odd sense of timelessness, such as in the Harry Potter films; theoretically they’re set somewhere between the early 90s and the present day, but other than the size of the Dursleys’ TV and the number of skyscrapers in London, they could be set at nearly any time in the second half of the 20th century. So for a start, many films give the impression that Britain exists in some kind of semi-Edwardian time warp.
But the mistakes films make about life in Britain – whether deliberately, through poor research, or entirely accidentally – go far beyond this. Here are 4 more things that films get wrong about life in Britain.
1. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Misrepresentation: the size of the country.
The 1991 classic starring Kevin Costner and Alan Rickman isn’t known for its historical accuracy. Its titles are set against the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts events that happened about a century before the usual setting of the Robin Hood myth, and the quality of its history doesn’t improve from there. It’s also worth mentioning at this point that Kevin Costner’s attempt at an English accent is best described as “memorable”.
But these complaints are small fry compared with probably the biggest error in the film – and it comes less than 15 minutes in. Robin Hood, played by Costner, and his companion Azeem, played by Morgan Freeman, land at the white cliffs of Dover. It’s getting dark. Robin assures Azeem that they will be with his father by nightfall, and they set off walking. The scene transitions, and they are at Hadrian’s Wall, with Robin asking Azeem why he keeps walking behind him, rather than alongside him. A short while later on the same day, they arrive in Nottingham.
By Google Maps’ estimation, walking from Dover to Hadrian’s Wall would take 118 hours, or nearly five days without a break. It’s about 350 miles – quite a long time for Robin to become curious about Azeem walking behind him. Hadrian’s Wall to Nottingham, on foot, is another 59 hours to cover 179 miles. The whole round trip is 340 miles longer than it needs to be – Nottingham lies halfway between Hadrian’s Wall and Dover heading north, so Robin and Azeem’s journey in fact takes them straight past Nottingham (well, their route is about 35 miles east of Nottingham, but when you’re already walking that far…) to the north of England, when they would wave to Hadrian’s Wall and then turn round and head south again. Alternatively, given the walk seems to take maybe a couple of hours or less, you can assume that Robin and Azeem are walking at a little under the speed of sound.
It’s been said that one of the key differences between the UK and the USA is that in the USA, a hundred years is a long time, while in the UK, a hundred miles is a long way. It’s certainly the case that the two countries perceive distances differently, and after a visit to the USA, it becomes more understandable why so many American tourists come to the UK and comment loudly about how small everything is. All the same, it’s not quite so small that you can walk the length of England and halfway back again in time for dinner.
2. Thor: The Dark World
Misrepresentation: London’s geography.
A smaller error of geography crops up in Thor: The Dark World. In Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, you get the impression that the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing with their bonkers geography; they just wanted to get in a shot at Hadrian’s Wall and if they had to imply that between scenes their heroes were travelling by fighter jet, so be it. Giddy mistakes seem to be something that writers enjoy in medieval stories, especially Robin Hood; in the BBC series from 2006, Allan-a-Dale is told by a gaoler that he can’t have water, and retorts, “I wasn’t asking for ice and a slice!” The BBC’s Merlin, meanwhile, became well known for its anachronisms, and the 2001 film A Knight’s Tale beat them all by showing medieval peasants at a joust clapping enthusiastically along to Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’.
By contrast, in Thor: The Dark World, there was no joy in making mistakes. In the film, Thor gets on the Underground at Charing Cross. He asks how to get to Greenwich and is told, “take this train – three stops”. Unfortunately, as any Londoner said loudly to the screen when they saw this, three stops from Charing Cross will take you to Regent’s Park, Lambeth North, Goodge Street or Kennington – but definitely not to Greenwich. Charing Cross to Greenwich (in fact, most places to Greenwich) is a fiddly journey involving several changes of train. Not conducive to rapid storytelling, but certainly conducive to not infuriating 8 million people any time they sit down to watch your film.
It seems like the error annoyed the producer, Kevin Feige, just as much. When Tom Hiddleston, who played Loki and who was born in London, told him about it, Feige said, “It was shot in London. It was made by Londoners. Why did nobody tell me?” It’s an interesting demonstration of how errors sneak in and fail to be caught – after all, by the time everyone arrived on the Charing Cross set for filming, it probably felt too late for the cast or the extras to say, “either that line needs changing or the signs do”. Also, three stations from Greenwich is Mudchute – which probably didn’t sound so appealing.
3. The King’s Speech
Misrepresentation: the politics of the 1930s.
If you’ve seen The King’s Speech, the story of how King George VI overcame his stammer to give an historic speech at the start of the Second World War, and then heard the speech itself as King George VI delivered it in real life, you’ll probably be quite impressed by the accuracy of the film – the two are almost uncannily alike. There is incredible attention to detail in things like the rendering of a thick London fog. Hugh Vickers, royal adviser on the film, argues that “it’s the essence of the story that counts, and the essence of the story here is very sound indeed.” It’s hard to argue with him, and many critics have agreed that the small details have been handled well, and the mood of the era has been captured successfully.
All the same, its grasp of the politics of the abdication and the early days of the Second World War leave quite a lot to be desired. The Second World War is the closest that the history of Britain comes to a straightforward tale of good and evil, and filmmakers are understandably keen to leave that undisrupted. But the desire to keep everyone in their proper place, where Germans are villains, Churchill and King George are heroes, and the abdicating King Edward and Neville Chamberlain are in a grey area in between is the cause behind the majority of the film’s inaccuracies.
King Edward VIII supported appeasement and is suspected to have had some Nazi sympathies. In the morality play version of history, then, supporting his continuing reign would hardly be appropriate for a hero – so in The King’s Speech, Churchill is depicted as supportive of the king’s abdication, even though he fiercely opposed it in real life. Similarly, King George VI, as a hero, can’t possibly support appeasement – so in the film he doesn’t, even though in reality he endorsed Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, to an extent that many people thought outstripped a monarch’s constitutional freedom to influence politics. Another bizarre example of the same trend is that in the film, King George is unable to understand a news broadcast in German, as the hero can’t be shown to speak the language of the villains. But as two of his grandparents were German, it’s highly likely he would have understood it.
The other source of inaccuracies is the desire for the royal family of the 1930s to be weirder than they were. So George and his family are much crueler to one another, and more emotionally distant, than records suggest they were in real life. George is also clueless about real life (such as how lifts work) in a way that a man who fought as a midshipman in the First World War was unlikely to have been – but it does make his character seem more exotic and more interesting, so it appears in the film.
4. Johnny English
Misrepresentation: how the British monarchy works.
Is it unfair to criticise a comedy for being inaccurate? Probably, but let’s do it anyway. Johnny English is a 2003 film about an inept spy, played by Rowan Atkinson. He learns of a plot by a villainous Frenchman, Pascal Sauvage, to (spoiler alert) get himself crowned king in order that he can use the royal right to seize every piece of land in the country and turn Britain into a giant island prison. We won’t spoil the ending.
There are plenty of bizarre things about the British monarchy. One well-known example is that the Queen has right of ownership of all unmarked mute swans in open water – or in simpler terms, the Queen is allowed to claim the vast majority of swans in the UK as hers if she wants to. But she only exercises this ownership in certain parts of the Thames and nearby rivers. She’s also immune from prosecution and doesn’t need a driving licence to drive.
There are countless more such rights and related stories, though how many of them are true is tricky to judge. It’s very easy for a story to go from “the Lord of Such-and-Such presented Edward III with a hare on his visit to his lands on Sunday” to “the Lord of Such-and-Such must always present the monarch with a hare when he or she visits his lands on Sunday.”
In the same way, the monarch’s right to seize any land they like doesn’t really exist. Kevin Cahill’s book Who Owns Britain? claims that all land in the UK belongs to the Crown, and any freehold is actually just a lease from the Crown that can be revoked. But this statement is misleading. Ownership by the Crown doesn’t mean ownership by the monarch, just as passports being issued by the Crown doesn’t mean that the Queen rubber-stamps them all.
That’s not the only problem with Sauvage’s evil plan. He manages to get the Queen to abdicate by threatening the lives of her corgis (cunning!) but unfortunately for any real-life Sauvages, it’s not just up to her. When Edward VIII abdicated, he had to get the consent of every country where he was Head of State. For Queen Elizabeth II, that would mean asking 32 different countries including Australia, Jamaica, Canada, New Zealand and, of course, the United Kingdom. It would take quite some time for Her Majesty to abdicate in all of them, and that’s if she managed to persuade them that it wasn’t under duress.
Which films set in England have you seen – and were they accurate? Tell us in the comments!
Image credits: still from the king’s speech; underground sign; british village street.