The Ultimate Reference Guide to British Popular Culture
British popular culture is vast, sprawling and influential.
The UK has long been known as a nation that punches above its weight as far as cultural output is concerned, from the Beatles to Sherlock. But if you move to the UK, you’ll soon find a weight of popular culture references that far outreaches what gets exported abroad, many of which will be to TV shows the person speaking has never seen, or music they’ve never heard – simply because these words, phrases and concepts are so deeply embedded in the language and culture.
For instance, David Cameron, the Prime Minister, made references in the recent election campaign to the 1970s sitcom The Good Life, which first aired when he was nine years old – and thus a reference that is likely to be utterly lost on a sizeable portion of the electorate. Tabloid newspapers frequently include punning headlines that are utterly incomprehensible if you don’t know what they’re referencing, such as the famous Scottish Sun football news headline, “SUPER CALEY GO BALLISTIC, CELTIC ARE ATROCIOUS” (punning on ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, from Mary Poppins).
In consequence, we’ve compiled this A-Z guide to British popular culture, in the hope of giving visitors to these shores a chance of understanding what we’re talking about.
The Archers is a Radio 4 soap opera, described as “contemporary drama in a rural setting”. It’s based around the trials and tribulations of a group of farmers in the midlands, in the fictional village of Ambridge. Sandi Toksvig described it as “a memorable theme tune, followed by fifteen minutes of ambient farm noise and sighing” – and most of its five million listeners seem to enjoy it for exactly this undramatic and unchanging quality. If someone hums this and makes a comment about pigs, it’s probably The Archers that they’re referring to.
Blue Peter is the longest-running children’s TV show in the world, dating from 1958. It’s an entertainment show, with presenter challenges and arts and crafts, as well as an array of pets including dogs, cats and tortoises (which sometimes caused chaos in live filming). The most common phrase that’s emerged from Blue Peter is “here’s one I made earlier” from the crafts part of the programme, when presenters filming in real time would jump ahead to the next part of the crafting process by working on a pre-prepared example.
The Clangers is another UK children’s TV show. It had an original run of only two seasons, but it’s become a classic. The small pink Clangers live on a moon-like planet and speak in whistles and hoots, which are then interpreted by the narrator. The script contained the English version of the Clangers’ speech, which included some light swearing (the first script had Major Clanger struggling to open a door, saying in hoots and whistles, ‘Oh, sod it, the bloody thing’s stuck again’) – and it’s this, alongside the whistling Clanger-noises in general, that you’re most likely to see referenced.
Doctor Who is among the most internationally famous items on this list. It’s worth mentioning all the same, though, as most international awareness of the series comes from the revived version (2005 onwards) rather than the original series (1963-1989), and yet it is the latter that has become more firmly embedded in the cultural background of British life. Thus, anyone in a long scarf is likely to be told that they ‘look like Doctor Who’ because of the defining influence Tom Baker’s version of the Doctor had on the role. But the most common reference of all is to the TARDIS, the police box-shaped spaceship that is larger on the inside than the outside, which even on the first page of Google results for ‘like a TARDIS’ is used as a point of comparison for everything from a cafe in Leicester to the genome of carnivorous blatterwort.
The Eurovision Song Contest is, by its very nature, only a little bit British. It’s an international, televised music contest in which the majority of the countries of Europe take part, plus a handful that stretch the definition of ‘European’ (in 2015, it’ll be stretched as far as Australia). Britain has won the contest five times, come last three times, and on one occasion, gained no points at all – “nul points” in the compulsory French translation. It’s the latter that’s by far most likely to be referenced. The commentary on the BBC was done for years by Terry Wogan, who was once banned from Denmark for referring to their hosts as “Doctor Death and the Tooth Fairy”. Graham Norton has now taken the reins, but he maintains the same style of not taking the contest at all seriously, which is most of the reason why the viewing figures for the contest in the UK remain high despite our poor performance.
This classic sketch sketch show lived up to its name (no sketch ran for longer than three minutes). The Fast Show was the forerunner of catchphrase-based comedy like Little Britain (see ‘Vicky Pollard’, below) and many of its catchphrases have seeped into everyday usage, such as “I’ll get me coat” – used in the show to escape an awkward situation, and in real life to get a laugh to cover up an awkward situation.
Unlike everything else in this list, this is not about how much British people reference something, but how little. Irish humour abounds with references to St Patrick and snakes (usually self-deprecating ones about how getting rid of snakes is hardly the best thing a saint could do) but St George is almost completely absent from the British cultural landscape. Seeing a prominent St George’s Cross flag is usually the sign either that the World Cup’s on or that its owner is a fan of far-right politics, and St George’s Day, on the 23rd April, is not a national holiday.
Douglas Adams’ comedy science fiction series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, about the hapless everyman Arthur Dent who ends up travelling the universe in his dressing gown, started life as a radio series, but has since become a series of books, a TV series and a film. A huge number of words and phrases from the series are in common usage, but the most popular by far is “42” – the series’ enigmatic answer to the question of life, the universe and everything.
British advertising has a well deserved reputation for brilliance, from the Economist’s famous billboard ads to Cadbury’s drumming gorilla (nearly 8 million youtube views!). But Ronseal’s slogan has become so well known that many people are unaware that the slogan came first and the idiom second. Anything that does what it claims to do, in a reassuringly uncomplicated way, will be described as “doing exactly what it says on the tin”.
Another Radio 4 production, Just A Minute is a comedy panel show that has been running since 1967. In it, each panelist is challenged to speak on a subject – which can be quite obscure or difficult – without pausing, repeating words (except very common words like ‘and’) or changing the subject. Or as the show itself quotably puts it, “without hesitation, repetition or deviation.” Dedicated fans of Radio 4 might also ape the synonym-heavy style of speaking that is the best way of ensuring a win.
In comparison with St George, above, King Arthur is a much more acceptable patriotic hero to reference in normal British conversation. Having said that, as often as not the references will be less to the great tradition of Arthurian myth and more to the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (their subsequent 1979 film, The Life of Brian, is referenced nearly as much). Still, expect to find generic references too, such as references to a bizarre and challenging task being “like pulling a sword from a stone.”
Sometimes a reference becomes so deeply embedded in the language that scarcely anyone knows its origin any more. This is the case with the phrase, ‘You are [insert name] and I claim my five pounds’, which is generally used to suggest that the person is behaving in a manner uncharacteristically similar to someone else. For instance, someone saying they had never ironed their own shirt might get the response, “You are Prince Charles and I claim my five pounds.” This comes from a fictional character, Lobby Lud, invented by the Westminster Gazette (ultimately absorbed into the Daily Mail). The newspaper would contain a description of that day’s Lobby Lud, and anyone who spotted the person who was playing Lobby Lud that day could claim £5 (quite a lot of money at the time), with the above phrase.
Many leading internet forums have a slang of their own that verges on becoming its own code language. Mumsnet is just such a website. They even have their own acronym list, a lot of which, unsurprisingly, have to do with pregnancy, childbirth and child-raising. With the website having comfortably over a million users, Mumsnet terms such as DD and DS (for ‘darling daughter’ and ‘darling son’) are slowly starting to permeate into common usage in other online spaces, and it seems probable that they’ll make the jump into real-world usage soon enough.
The UK’s tabloid newspapers are hugely influential. The Sun, with its three million readers, has endorsed the political party that went on to win in every election since 1979. The impact of the Daily Mail is comparable. We’ve decided to highlight the News of the World. Published from 1843 to 2011, this newspaper ceased publication after its involvement in the phone-hacking scandal. Any conversation about newspapers is likely to require a certain level of knowledge about each newspaper’s foibles and failings (everyone in Liverpool hates the Sun, the Guardian is full of spelling mistakes, etc) but in the case of the News of the World, its failings are all anyone is likely to remember it for.
The Oxford English Dictionary – or the OED, as it’s affectionately known – is the dictionary in the UK. Other dictionaries are sold (Cambridge has one too), but the OED is treated as the ultimate authority. It is descriptive, rather than prescriptive – in its own words, “its content should be viewed as an objective reflection of English language usage, not a subjective collection of usage ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’.” Because the OED is such an institution, this ultimately contributes to the nature of English as a language that does not submit easily to prescriptivism.
Private Eye is an anti-establishment satirical news magazine, known for its impressive investigative journalism and its tendency to hint at possible scandals before any more mainstream paper has enough evidence to publish on them – which does mean that they get sued a lot. The magazine is full of nicknames and recurring jokes, a staggering number of which (given its small circulation) are in general usage, such as “tired and emotional” as a euphemism for drunk, the “Torygraph” for the Telegraph and “Brenda” for the Queen.
The BBC’s Question Time is a staple of British political broadcasting, featuring a panel of political figures and questions from a studio audience. It’s another long-running show, dating to 1979 as a TV show, but taking the format of ‘Any Questions?’, which had run on radio since the 1950s. Its format and the style of its presenter, David Dimbleby, are instantly recognisable in parodies.
Round the Horne is another significant influence on the English language of which most people are entirely unaware. It was a 1960s BBC radio comedy programme that included the sketch ‘Julian and Sandy’, two camp out-of-work actors. So far, so unremarkable in British comedy – except that Julian and Sandy frequently speak in Polari, a slang used at the turn of the 20th century by the gay community, actors, sailors and showmen. A significant range of words in conventional slang usage nowadays come from Polari, such as drag, naff, barney and ogle – and much of that is because of the influence of Round the Horne.
Late at night and very early in the morning, BBC Radio 4 transmits a weather forecast for seas around the British Isles. It’s intended for people involved in shipping and with its short, telegraph-style format, is nigh-on incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t know what each part of the forecast is referring to. A sample might be, “Tyne, Dogger. Northeast 3 or 4. Occasional rain. Moderate or poor.” Yet the soothing tones of the forecast mean that many people enjoy listening to it even though it is entirely irrelevant to them what the wind-speed might be off the coast of Orkney. Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Prayer’, for example, references the areas of the Shipping Forecast without any explanation, in complete confidence that her readers will understand the reference – and typically, they do.
Another advertising slogan that’s crept into common usage, this dates from Tango’s adverts from 1991 to 1997. In them, someone drinks from a can of Tango, is approached by someone in orange and slapped/shouted at/startled in some way, and then the catchphrase – ‘you know when you’ve been tangoed’. Via some bizarre process of evolution and association with the orange-ness of Tango, the phrase ‘you’ve been tangoed’ has come to be a way of poking fun at someone who’s slightly overdone the fake tan.
While the television on this list has most revealed the vast influence of the BBC, University Challenge started with the rival broadcaster, ITV, from 1962 to 1987, before being revived by the BBC in 1994. The format has remained remarkably consistent, with two quiz teams from different universities, displayed on screen as if one were on top of the other, questioned by a quizmaster on a challenging variety of general-knowledge topics. The best-known phrase from University Challenge is the opening, “your starter for ten is…”. TV quizzes have a remarkable way of getting their catchphrases into the popular consciousness, from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’s ‘Phone a Friend’ and ‘Ask the Audience’ to Mastermind’s ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish…’
Another catchphrase comedy contribution, Vicky Pollard was the apathetic teenager from the BBC’s Little Britain, played by Mark Lucas in drag. While other catchphrases from the show have gained some traction (such as ‘computer says no’), Vicky Pollard’s refrains, such as “Oooh my god! I soooo can’t believe you just said that!” and “Shut up! I ain’t never not even dun nuffin’ or nuffin’!”, effectively define a certain stereotype of awful teenagerdom.
Wimbledon is the annual British tennis tournament, taking place in early summer and thus being subject to a thousand jokes about rain. The main court now has a retractable roof, which spoils the fun. Wimbledon is notable for two things: bringing the British support for underdogs to ridiculous heights (or perhaps it’s just that we can’t admit we’re not very good at tennis) and showing the wonderful flexibility of national identity: when Andy Murray is winning, he’s a British hero; when he’s losing, he’s useless and Scottish.
It’s exhausting to figure out exactly where X-Factor sits among the plethora of reality TV talent contests. Suffice to say that it’s one of the most popular and most influential. The judge Simon Cowell has set the standard for nasty TV judges, and as a result of how hugely popular the X-Factor has been, his style of nasty commentary has been repeated and repeated and repeated, both on and off the screen.
Another famous BBC sitcom, this time about a long-suffering government minister (later, as the title suggests, Prime Minister) who is engaged in a constant war with the Civil Service, who stymie every attempt he makes to create actual change. It was meticulously researched, so it’s hard to tell which of its influences actually came from reality instead – for instance, its description of the Civil Service nicknames for various honours (e.g. KCMG – Kindly Call Me God; GCMG – God Calls Me God) is entirely taken from real life. But it’s probably best known for its flawless use of over-complicated euphemism, such as when one character says “It is a responsible discretion exercised in the national interest to prevent unnecessary disclosure of eminently justifiable procedures in which untimely revelations would severely impair public confidence” – all to avoid the use of the word “cover-up”.
Z-Cars is just one of the many examples of police drama on UK TV; another famous example is the Bill. These and their close cousins, crime and detective dramas (which are even more popular) are interesting because they’ve spawned an entire mistaken set of slang. We talk about the slang the police actually use here, but police drama has introduced a lot of things into the popular lexicon that hadn’t previously been used at all, such as police officers calling each other ‘Reg’ in tribute to the character on The Bill, Reg Hollis.
We’ve only covered a small selection of the rich lexical heritage of British popular culture in this article. If you want to share any of the things we’ve missed, please leave a comment below!
TV and film stills used pursuant to the Fair Use doctrine. Image credits: The Archers; Blue Peter copyright BBC; The Clangers copyright BBC; Doctor Who copyright BBC and the Daleks copyright the Nation estate, created by Terry Nation; Eurovision Song Contest; St George; Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; Ronseal advert copyright Ronseal; Just a Minute; King Arthur; Daily Mail clock; mum and child; News of the World; Oxford University Press; Private Eye 1, 2 and 3; Question Time copyright BBC; pride flags; radios; Tango; University Challenge; Vicky Pollard; Wimbledon; X-Factor; Yes, Minister copyright BBC; police car.