July 11, 2012 8:03 pm

Britain becomes a sucker for sob story

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The British public could not love Andy Murray until he cried in public

Like most British men of my age, I was raised in the belief that boys do not cry. If you could not fight back the tears you fled to some private spot until you had regained control. Gradually the emotional repression of society eased so you were allowed to exhibit grief in the face of tragedy. But while one sympathised with such distress, one also secretly admired those who managed to hold it together in public.

We were, after all, raised on stories of heroic sang-froid and stiff upper lips. We all knew the battle speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V and it didn’t run “We few, we tearful few; we band of blubbers ...”

Now the corset has further eased to the point where a British sportsman instantly boosted his public appeal by blubbing in the face of defeat. Andy Murray, by far the best tennis player Britain has produced in decades, has never enjoyed the public affection that a domestic sporting champion normally commands. Lacking the easy charm of others in his sport, he has been seen as sullen and unlikeable. Instead of celebrating the grit and drive that has taken the young Scot close to the pinnacle, many lamented his stereotypically dour demeanour. It was a regular joke that while broadcasters claimed him as “Britain’s Andy Murray” when he was winning, his Scottishness was immediately restored the moment he lost. At Wimbledon, however, everything changed for Murray. Beaten by Roger Federer in the final and seemingly drained of all the energy necessary to hold back his emotions, he succumbed to tears as, moments after defeat, he was asked the penetrating “how do you feel?” question by a TV presenter in front of the centre court crowd.

Murray is hardly the first British sportsman to cry in public. What was depressing was its immediate impact. The BBC and Sky set the tone for most media coverage, by observing that though he had lost the match, “he won the nation’s heart”. To a sceptical public, Andy was suddenly dandy. What people warmed to was not his performance against arguably greatest player of all time but the open display of emotion that rendered him human in their eyes. Unable to simply admire him for his tennis, determination or easy good-humour, an Oprah-fied British public now mainlining on reality TV extracted this show of vulnerability as the price of its affection. He cries, therefore he is. Weeping Andy dolls will be the must-have Christmas gift. Perhaps future tournaments can skip all that tedious racketplay and get straight to the crying contest. There’s nothing wrong with crying but one does not have to think less of Murray to think a lot less of ourselves for our response. We have become suckers for snivelling.

Other nations, the US in particular, have long looked to the tear ducts as a test of humanity. But Brits held out for stoicism, doggedly despising displays of male emotion that went beyond a slight inflection in the voice or twitch of the lips. No more; the death of Princess Diana was a turning point, with the royal family reviled for failing to get out there and emote. But the fresh fervour for Murray based largely on tears marks a new low.

Public relations execs and media advisers take note. This is the new frontier in affection and contrition in the UK. Simply saying sorry has long since been devalued. Far from being the hardest word, it now trips endlessly from the lips of every faux penitent from government ministers to ousted bankers. Surely even now media experts are pulling their charges aside and urging them to sniffle on camera. “Think of your saddest memory. Now bring it. Show me the moisture” Could this have helped Bob Diamond, the ousted Barclays boss as he weathered the blows from a parliamentary inquiry into the Libor scandal? The well-schooled Mr Diamond endlessly repeated his deep sorrow and his love for Barclays, but it just didn’t wash. What was needed were the waterworks, some strategic sobbing to emphasise the contrition. “I’m so sorry. I love Barclays, excuse me I’m just ... I’m struggling to hold it together here. I just love Barclays so much. (Long pause as his sobbing head shakes violently) I just bloody love these guys. (Sniff) We let you down; I’m so sorry.”

It could have turned everything around for Mr Diamond. Far from raging about his payoff, the public would have been so swayed that we’d all have chipped in for a leaving present.

Mark my words. From here on in, it will all end in tears.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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