February 3, 2012 9:08 pm

The world as seen from England

However seductive we may find France or Spain or Italy, they must finally be deemed baffling

In 1095, Pope Urban II delivered a sermon in Clermont, France, calling on Christians to recapture the holy city of Jerusalem from Muslim rule. As the academic Thomas Asbridge put it in his rigorous three-part series The Crusades (BBC2 Wednesday), which ended this week, the Pope was capitalising on “the idea of otherness”. Some of the crusaders had been in disputes with each other. Their shared Christianity had not been enough to solve it but their differences with each other proved less important than their differences from the Muslim enemy.

The idea of “western values” is the modern equivalent of Christianity in terms of being an international force used to justify warfare in the east, as Asbridge suggested in the final moments. But the equivalent in terms of inspiring a sense of community and solidarity, and of erecting an idea of otherness, is national pride. The sense of national identity has gained strength in England over the past millennium through wars and sporting competitions, and been confirmed by our differences from other cultures. However seductive we may find France or Spain or Italy, for example, they must finally be deemed baffling.

The group of nicely differentiated, plausibly chummy middle-aged men at the centre of the engaging thriller Mad Dogs (Sky 1 Thursday) are still, three-quarters of the way through the second series, contending with the difficulties established in the first. They were witnesses to a murder, and perpetrators of another. Now they are in possession of a bag of drug money. Last time around, they were on Mallorca, where their friend was living. This time, the friend dead, they are on Ibiza. The programme isn’t especially well-written. There is too much dialogue along the lines of: “I would hate to be stuck in the trenches with you, Rich.” “You are stuck in the trenches with him.” Philip Glenister, the oldest of the four actors (the others being Max Beesley, John Simm and Marc Warren), tends to offer the second line in such exchanges.

The characters’ adventure has provided a surprisingly coherent portrait of the makeshift morality that determines their conduct – what is deemed safe and conscionable, and what isn’t. Organised religion – its pomposity and irrelevance as good as a fact – is treated roughly: a statue of Mary is used to hide the loot, a collection plate becomes a potential source of money in a crisis. The men trample over customs about which they have a considered low opinion, caring little for Catholicism and stealing money from street entertainers, but paying greater respect to practices, such as voodoo rites, for which, lacking familiarity, they don’t yet have contempt.

Abi Morgan’s adaptation of Birdsong (BBC1 Sundays), a novel written by English Francophile Sebastian Faulks and concerned with a young Englishman in France during the first world war, might have been expected to offer a portrait of Anglo-French relations, or of what an Englishman feels about England or Englishness when away from home. Anything would have been preferable to what we were given: a series that, despite its two 85-minute episodes, felt rushed and vague, dealing with the timeless subject of True Love in the Esperanto of war-torn romance. In the first episode, on being asked what he dreamed about as a child, Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) replied: “The usual, I expect ... a life of sorts.” The French women had dreamt of heartbreak and foreign adventure, making Stephen look like a bit of a stick in the mud. And given that he is shown to be a passionate seducer, and altogether more French than the cold man whose wife he steals, it was hard to know what to make of these character details, two of the very few that emerged with any clarity through all the staring, panting and digging.

Part of the appeal of Top Gear (BBC2 Sunday), which has just begun its 18th series, is in watching Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May express incomprehension of foreign cultures. Or pretending to – so much of the programme involves pantomime play-acting and scripted dialogue that it’s tempting to see the whole thing as a put-on.

In this week’s episode, in which the three drove around Italy, Clarkson was thrilled to be in a Lamborghini while Hammond was stuck driving a car built in Leicester. Lamborghini/Leicester, Himalayas/Hampshire, Juventus/Woking: Clarkson posited a number of glamorous/grey oppositions, in all of which England came off as the loser. But being English – being sarcastic, self-deprecating and secular – is what Clarkson cleaves to, taking his worldview to other countries and judging them by the degree to which they accord with it.

He looked bemused on being pulled over for working without a licence on a Sunday – he didn’t wonder about the origin of this custom, merely suggested that it explains why Italy is “nearly bankrupt”. Clarkson couldn’t see that this law might be related in some way to the glamour of the Lamborghini: you can’t pick what you like from a national culture. But he is damned if he won’t try. In his version of things, England is cursed by the reasonableness that the Englishman cherishes as his birthright.

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