A TV channel to teach migrants English is a great idea. But Fawlty Towers? Really? | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett | Opinion



Ask a random British person over the age of 30 if they can locate the origins of the phrase “don’t mention the war” and I’d hazard that most would guess correctly. Most British people of a certain age have seen, or at least heard of, Basil Fawlty’s guesthouse goosestep in the famous Fawlty Towers episode The Germans. It is a fundamental part of our comedy culture. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Fawlty Towers has been suggested as a candidate for a new TV channel proposed by the thinktank British Future in order to help migrants familiarise themselves with English, and English culture. Only Fools and Horses, Midsomer Murders, and Simon Schama’s History of Britain have also been recommended.

And yet, these apparent cultural touchstones seem to me somewhat narrow – both from the standpoints of age, and nationality (you may note my use of “English culture” in the preceding paragraph). Only Fools and Horses has never really spoken to me in the same way as has say, Kevin Allen’s dark comedic masterpiece Twin Town, set in Swansea (“buy your own fucking glue”), or the hen do scene in Gavin and Stacey, but then I grew up in Wales. The suggestions for the new channel seem to connote a particular vision of Englishness that is no longer as culturally relevant as a flick through the Mail or an afternoon with UKTV Gold might imply. And yes, it suggests a rather white, middle-England, middle-class outlook, and is, well, a bit too close to some Brexiters’ version of the country.

That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate Fawlty Towers. That episode aired in 1975, 12 years before I was born in June 1987, in London. Six months earlier, my cousin David was born in Valenciennes. Raised in France, his immersion in English was thanks not only to his English mum but also to taped episodes of Fawlty Towers at my grandparents’ house. He was able to quote from it copiously, and also found the French impersonations in ’Allo ’Allo hilarious. His English is now excellent.

I also count Fawlty Towers as a crucial part of the cultural influence gifted to me by my English grandparents, along with Shakespeare, “pre-pran” gin and tonics, and Just William. On the other side, there was more of a Welsh influence (male voice choirs, In Parenthesis by David Jones, the importance of unions, bara brith). I value both equally, which is why any television channel for new arrivals (or those who have been here a while and are still struggling with the language) needs to reflect an expanded notion of Britishness that reflects the overlapping identities that we all have in one way or another.

It’s not just about language, though. I agree with British Future that speaking English is crucial to integration, and that lack of access to classes because of prohibitive costs, working hours and oversubscription needs to be improved. A television channel – surely it would have to be some sort of streaming offering – has the potential to provide shared cultural reference points that lead to mutual understanding, but if it is to work it is crucial that the variety of programming reflects modern Britain. My mother teaches English as a foreign language and uses comedy panel shows as resources for students. To those I’d maybe add Chewing Gum, Stormzy at Glastonbury, The Great British Bake Off, Peep Show, Billy Connolly’s stand-up, Planet Earth, The Thick of It, People Just Do Nothing, Jeremy Deller’s rave documentary, Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation, Fleabag, and Jo Brand (just all of her).

Ruth Jones, Mathew Horne, Joanna Page and James Corden in ‘Gavin and Stacey’.

From left to right: Ruth Jones, Mathew Horne, Joanna Page and James Corden in ‘Gavin and Stacey’. Photograph: Baby Cow

But that’s just me. No doubt you’d have your own cultural touchstones – that’s the point. Though funnily enough, while thinking about what sorts of programming I’d choose for a TV channel geared towards English learners, it’s amazing how many of them had previously aired on the BBC. That beleaguered broadcasting corporation which can never seem to do anything right, being as it is constantly attacked, maligned, and accused of bias from all sides. Sometimes, in the case of John Humphrys – destroyer of mornings – that irritation is justified. But what a thing. When it comes to a vision of what we are and what we stand for, what else really cuts it? Just ask my cousin David. Though he might just bid you “Good Moaning”.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author