You can’t beat bathos
If I’m wrong, I’m hoping to get plenty of comments to contradict me, but it strikes me that no one loves bathos (defined as ‘an abrupt transition from a lofty style or grand topic to a common or vulgar one’) like the British. Just to flog a few more national stereotypes, I’d say the reason for this is that the French and Italians are too cool, the Scandis too gloomy, and the Americans too wedded to success, to appreciate bathos.
Although Simon Pegg’s ‘Cornetto’ trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End) has been acclaimed as a recent manifestation of British bathos, I would argue that it reached its apotheosis in the Carry on Films, specifically the moment in Carry on Cleo when Charles Hawtrey as Seneca reaches beneath himself and retrieves a crumpled wreath, saying ‘Ooh, here’s me laurels – I must have been resting on them’, or words to that effect. In fact, Charles Hawtrey is bathos personified. If I had an avatar, it would be Charles Hawtrey. (Let’s face it, in the fine tradition of pantomime, what dame could resist bathos?)
I suspect bathos runs in my veins. My mother once turned up at the opera with a kettle (but she assured me that strange things happen in war-time). I have attempted to live up to this heritage wherever possible, by, among other things, protesting against the arrest of peaceful demonstrators at the gates of the Queensland government with a pound of defrosting chicken in my handbag. And I like to think that I am handing on this legacy to the next generation: as a family we quite spontaneously subverted the sophisticated tranquillity of the aperitivo hour when one son dropped the scoop off his ice cream, the other dropped off his chair, and the temperature at the next table – occupied by two Monica Bellucci lookalikes – dropped several degrees, while we all laughed like drains.
The culture clash surrounding bathos was brilliantly explored in an extended sketch by John Sessions, in which he imagined a down-on-his-luck Robert de Niro signing up for a season in panto in Britain, and being shown the ropes by Billy Twinkle, a camp showman steeped in the music hall and variety tradition. Viewed through de Niro’s incredulity, the premise of panto, the drag, the cheery rudery, all sound preposterous, but his monosyllabic New York incomprehension eventually melts into admiration and eventually expertise.
And – about as far removed from the bombast of our national anthem as you could possibly get – the song we have taken to our hearts is Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. This jaunty riposte to the solemn mysteries of crucifixion, death and resurrection is apparently the most requested song for British funerals. Who says you can’t take it with you when you go?