What has Britain become in the eyes of the world if not a historic theme park? We are no longer a real living place; our great industrial heritage has been recycled into museums and galleries, our factories are restaurants and the newest architecture in London is a big wheel for tourist trips and a high-rise shard, which is predominantly empty save for the Shangri-La hotel. We now survive on our past and endless recreations of our history are written and performed and turned into souvenirs and fan-fiction.
In this new supposedly classless society, Royalty and the aristocracy, cornerstones of the establishment, have themselves become the lowest brow of culture. The fans who queue for a glimpse of a royal wedding or buy a souvenir T-shirt are either tourists or subjects kept in their place so that the royals can maintain their existence. With the acquiescence of the gossipy, sycophantic tabloids, the high becomes low and an uneasy co-dependence is established.
Despite or because of this dumbing down, the status quo is preserved and we are now nominally ruled by a dynasty of millionaires propped up by a predominantly privately educated government (the Prime Minister and many of his cronies are old Etonians). Although they despise it, the upper classes tolerate a little public humiliation because privately they are having the last laugh - they are still in charge. In his diaries, the snobbish ex-MP, Alan Clark, contemplated how to afford the upkeep of his beautiful historic home, Saltwood Castle. He feared that, like many of the great houses in Britain, it would have to open to ‘the public trampling and soiling and scattering crisp packets.’
Snobbish, class obsessed Britain is on its knees but we still love to celebrate the birth of a new prince or cry at the death of a princess. The royal family are in some ways avatars for the lives that we, trapped in mundane drudgery, can never have. So Carry on Henry (and Ann and Elizabeth and Di and William) lets keep recycling the past and forget about the not so great present.
The artworks in British Low Culture revel in the ugly underbelly of British culture. Engaging a kind of low-sublime, the unique high to low cultural position of the royal family and its history come under a treasonous spotlight. Tabloid newspapers, the Tudors and the scandalous Mary Queen of Scots are playfully engaged in subversive spectacle. The tongue-in-cheek, bawdy humour itself has a birthright in British music hall and frolics for the masses. From the 1910 song by Harry Champion, I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am, through Carry On films, to the recent, highly sensationalised but historically inaccurate television series, The Tudors, this particular royal line has proved irresistibly popular and relentlessly exploited as cheap entertainment.