Culture, TV

Review: Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip BBC2

Review: Ian Hislop's Stiff Upper Lip – an Emotional History of Britain, BBC2Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip – an Emotional History of Britain, BBC2

Ian Hislop asks when and why we British have bottled up or let out our feelings and how this has affected our history.

How do you tell the emotional history of a nation? Particularly when it is all based on a reputation that is about as up to date as notions of the British Empire, the Dunkirk spirit, Khartoum, the Charge of the Light Brigade, Mrs Mineva and Noel Coward?

Spectator editor Ian Hislop, no stranger to BBC TV through Have I Got News for You and more recent shows on WWI servicemen, has a go.

His three-part series is about the British idea of suppressed emotion and reserve – the famed stiff upper lip that shall never quiver no matter how deep the adversity. The British are, and ever shall be, stoic, restrained and unflappable. How did that reputation come about and what happened to British reserve that the upper lip, once so stiff, now quivers on every daytime TV guest, footballer and X-Factor contestant? How did we get to Gazza, hysteria over the death of Diana and lately, Andy Murray breaking down on court?

Hislop, the talking gerbil, is the quintessential upper-middle class English gent who still embodies British reserve and correctness at all times. That, and his acerbic wit are among the the qualities that make him a great satirist and pundit on the news panel game but less than effective when walking the battlefields of the Somme.

Turning his hand to social documentary, with a desert-dry sense of humour, Hislop tilts engagingly at British stereotypes.

Describing how emotional reserve became a national virtue (saving us from revolutions and other European contamination) and how national modesty became a topic of national pride, Hislop dips into British history with the usual mixed bag of locations, portraits and the occasional talking-head expert commentaries.

Out and about, Hislop is not a natural with the public or academics; his entire schtick is to be witty, clever, ‘sarky’ and he can’t afford to overdo that in a documentary.

In chronological order (it is a history, after all), Hislop examined the British temperament, starting with the exuberant middle ages through to the early 1800s in which no emotional excess seemed taboo. It was the threat of Napoleonic Europe and the anarchy of revolution that forced on the British the unassailable iron-clad shell, typified by saviour of the nation, the Duke of Wellington. Compare and contrast with soppy girl’s blouse Lord Nelson.

The Stiff Upper Lip was the British method of control, an example of the high moral fibre of the British and a response to the chaos across Europe. By setting the example, the ruling upper classes were advocating the lower classes suffer their adversities in silence, or as the many slogans on mugs and T-shirts in shops today declaim: Keep Calm and Carry On. By such means were wars won and Empire built.

Hislop concludes that far from being an unemotional people, the British simply have a perculiar way of expressing it, from the Glasgow Boys Brigade to EM Forster. There have been as many critics of the Stiff Upper Lip – Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, Mary Wollstonecraft, not to mention the heretics in the Romantic movement, pouring out their longings. Scandalous!

Despite the Victorian and Edwardian character ‘flaw’ to nurse and cherish their bereavements, the Empire further stiffened the British uppper, as did WWI and WWII.

As documentaries go, there’s an awful lot of tell and not much show. This could easily be one of Hislop’s radio documentaries, save for the procession of books, portraits, houses, monuments. The biggest asset is Hislop himself, buttoned down, cheerfully understating, revelling in the quirks and eccentricities of the British character, almost a Monty Python caricature of the very thing he describes. He is also a bit too knowing and can’t resist playing to the gallery. He knows that we know he’s running along in second gear, capable of being much more piercing, arch and cruel. A model of British restraint, in fact. SC

Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip – an Emotional History of Britain, BBC2
Broadcast September-October 2012.
Available on BBC iPlayer
Image credit: BBC

Related: London: The Modern Babylon

About Sue Corsten

Sue Corsten is a film and TV make-up artist based in the UK.


6 thoughts on “Review: Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip BBC2

  1. Thank you for the good writeup.

    Posted by Griner Lehrman | Oct 17, 2012, 6:00 pm
  2. Hi there; its an intelligent primetime documentary when there’s few enough of those around. Hislop isn’t your tpical craggy pretty boy presenter. More.

    Posted by Gill Barter | Oct 17, 2012, 10:07 pm
  3. cool!

    Posted by carolinne kamille | Nov 5, 2012, 4:24 am
  4. I was strangely moved when Lady Diana died, as it was such an unexpected and sudden occurrence. I visited Pall Mall to view the scene at Buckingham Palace, and experienced the unique phenomenon of thousands of people standing in respectful silence. It was truly incredible. I was able to move straight through the crowd in order to go right up to the gates of the Palace to look at the flowers. All the people in the crowd were gentle and polite and let me past. While the occasion was unique and unprecedented in my experience, it felt very British in its restraint and respectfulness. No flambuoyant show of emotion whatsoever.

    Posted by melisathomas | Nov 8, 2012, 8:32 am
  5. is it going to be on again soon?

    Posted by jan milton | Nov 11, 2012, 7:00 pm


  1. Pingback: Review: Crossing England in a Punt: River of Dreams | Everything Express - Apr 7, 2013

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