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Lifestyling Britain:
the 8-9 slot on television

Against the background of devolution and re-emerging Irish, Scottish and Welsh national identities within the United Kingdom, the British Council and the Centre for British and Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Warwick organised a week long conference Looking into England, 12-18 December, 1999.

Delegates and speakers were invited from around the world to discuss a number of topics relating to English identity, English culture, English constitutional issues and generally what it means to be English. During the first four days the discussion revolved around lectures, papers and workshops given by a series of academics and writers.

The fifth day was an open forum day in which members of the public joined the delegates to hear a number of guest speakers and engage in discussion on various aspects of Englishness.

The event was directed by Professor Susan Bassnett, founder of the Centre for British and Comparative Cultural Studies and Chairwoman of the British Council's British Studies committee.

Charlotte Brunsdon, Chair of the Department of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick, looked at Englishness through television in Lifestyling Britain: the 8-9 slot on television. The writer on film and television, John Ellis, described television as the private life of the nation state, an institution through which nations narrate themselves to themselves. Charlotte Brunsdon began by reminding us that, internationally, British television is respected for its news, its documentaries and its dramas. Much less respected in critical terms is lifestyle broadcasting, which has been one of the key genres of the 1990s. Brunsdon suggested that it is in this seemingly trivial genre that we can find some transformations in the national story British television narrates.

Lifestyle programmes have a number of key components. They tend to be presented by what Charlotte Brunsdon described as 'bossy white women'. There is a lot of mateyness between the presenters and the guest ordinary people. They always have a climactic moment when the newly transformed whatever - garden, house, person - is revealed to their nearest and dearest who have been kept away for one reason or another. She showed an example of such a 'reveal' where a totally transformed garden in a typical suburban house was revealed to a suitably (and genuinely) astonished husband/male partner. The power of the 'reveal' lies in the way in which ordinary life is rendered melodramatic.

However, more interesting than the way ordinary people react to the extraordinary is the social representation of what is ordinary in contemporary Britain. The couple in the example above were of mixed race.

In another clip from a gardening programme an elderly West-Country-accented son of the soil, complete with flat cap, shows off his garden to, and shares ideas with, a young urban gay male couple. This couple are affectionately referred to as 'the boys', but their sexuality is never mentioned in the programme. It is also now commonplace to see a public display connected to the domestic and the personal, often accompanied by bursts of emotion, especially at the stage of the 'reveal'. None of this is the way ordinary Englishness and ordinary English people would have been portrayed in the 1970s.

The people behind the lifestyle programmes within the television industry are not pushing a pluralist Britai n/Engl and. They have a different agenda, one of entertainment and commercialism. 'Why have originality when you can have ratings?', says Peter Bazalgette, a key influential figure in TV programme making.

Yet despite the attitudes of those who agree with Bazalgette, something very interesting is happening. Whereas not long ago in a programme like Nationwide, for example, the nation was holding up a mirror to itself as a society of white, middle class people in nuclear families, it is now narrating to itself as a pluralist, multi-ethnic culture. Gays win gardening contests, couples are unmarried and of mixed race, many parents are single. None of these lifestyles are presented as problems or social issues but are simply part of the fabric of everyday Britain. Thus the ordinary which television, especially lifestyle programming, is narrating to the nation is undergoing a subtle and subversive change in front of the eyes of the viewer. Much of the lifestyle programming appeals to the same white, middle class audience that Nationwide did yet it is presenting them with a very different view of the England they live in.

All of this goes on against a background of debate about the quality of present day television. Is television 'dumbing down'? Charlotte Brunsdon's answer is yes, perhaps, but it is also definitely 'pluraling up'. Television in England today, especially the lifestyle strand, is secular, contemporary and socially interesting.

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