Understanding America’s ‘special relationship’ with England
In the romantic comedy “Love Actually,” Hugh Grant plays an enchantingly dithering British prime minister who’s a cross between Tony Blair and, well, Hugh Grant. Grant’s PM keeps dithering until the moment when a good ol’ boy, Clinton-esque American prez (played by Billy Bob Thornton with subtle malice) makes a pass at the PM’s personal assistant, with whom the PM is secretly in love. Whereupon the PM stops dithering, announcing at a press conference that real friends don’t treat their best buds in a second-rate manner.
Perhaps it’s sheer coincidence – or evidence of some steel beneath the sheepish mien – but Hugh Grant also starred in the other great Brit filmic put-down of America, “Notting Hill,” playing a shy bookstore owner who rejects Julia Roberts’ bitchy American movie star.
Of course, in the end, he falls for her “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her” blather, but still. It’s a bit of a sticky wicket, as the Brits would say, this so-called “special relationship” between America and England.
It’s been likened to kissing cousins, siblings and best friends. But it’s really more like parent and child. And everyone knows what happens when the grown kids come to visit for the summer. We haven’t even set foot across the pond and already the pot has been stirred. London Mayor Boris Johnson – he of the permanent bed head – informed The New York Times that many of the elaborate security features at the summer games have been requested by the Americans. The Times, which can do snark like nobody’s business, opined in a piece on Queen Elizabeth II’s style that England is well-aware of its status as a second-tiered nation. (Gee, which is worse – being a second-tiered nation or knowing you are?)
Is it any wonder that we are the villains in each other’s movies? In this summer’s first blockbuster, “The Avengers,” Tom Hiddleston plays Loki, Thor’s bad-boy baby bro, as a chunk of charm and a ton of trouble, using his Brit accent to such chilling effect that you would think he were doing Edmund in “King Lear” instead of a comic-book character in a super-duper heroes movie. In “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” – a mash-up of every “Titanic” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie that has ever set sail into theaters, from the folks who did the hilarious “Chicken Run” – Jeremy Piven, the lovably obnoxious agent on “Entourage,” is Black Bellamy, the nemesis of the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant again!) in his quest for the coveted Pirate of the Year Award.
We suppose all this is inevitable, given the way we began. American history 101: The British were mean to us and so we had to leave home, so to speak. It’s a bit more complex than that: There’s stuff about footing the bill for the colonies, taxation without representation, military miscues and misunderstood cultural identity that needs to be explored.
But suffice it to say, the British had a hard time quitting us. They were back for more in the War of 1812 and as late as the Civil War were rooting for the South in the hopes of a divide-and-conquer strategy. (In the Robert Downey Jr. “Sherlock Holmes,” they’re still hoping for a mother-and-child reunion of sorts, a sentiment expressed by vile Lord Blackwood, who observes America was England’s once and can be England’s again. Yikes.)
Culturally and commercially, though, the British have never quit us and we have never quit them. They have invested in our businesses, bought up our real estate – lots of our real estate – and given every town in America a summer Shakespeare festival.
To say nothing of “Downton Abbey,” the latest American Brit obsession. And how great is it that Shirley MacLaine has joined the cast as Lady Grantham’s American mother, arriving just in time no doubt to stir up trouble at Lady Mary and cousin Matthew’s wedding.
We in turn have given the British jeans, Coca-Cola and rock ’n’ roll, which they returned in the form of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, etc.
They saved us and Western civilization not once but twice and we were there to help. Indeed, in the manner of that quintessentially British novel, Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” – in which all is not clear until the very end – perhaps the reason we left in 1776 was so that we’d be strong and independent enough to be there in 1941.
On 9/11, the British returned the favor. “Grief,” Queen Elizabeth II said in a moving speech then, “is the price we pay for love.”
Right back at you, Bess. So get out the welcome mat. We like our air conditioning high, our drinks cold, our turkey off the bone – You do have turkey, don’t you? – and our baseball games long.
What’s that? Oh, just cue up “Downton Abbey” and let’s all have a nice cup of Earl Grey, shall we?