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How to Behave in Britain (1943)

August 2, 2017

Probably some of you have already seen this.  It’s a light-hearted and entertaining information film designed to be shown to GIs arriving in Britain during World War II.  As the troops arrive by ships, it is agreed that a documentary made by an ordinary serviceman will be more effective than a lecture from any senior officer (American or British).  Burgess Meredith is ordered to start explaining Britain to bewildered new arrivals.

Burgess Meredith explains the importance of offering everyone you meet an American cigarette and that you should also try to look impressed when people try to show off bits of bark.

There’s an amusing scene where a demonstration is given of how to lose friends and alienate people in a British pub.  You will marvel at the astonishing restraint of the kilted Scottish soldiers as they calmly absorb the hilarious jibes made by the visiting G.I at the expense of their masculinity.

Burgess Meredith learns about not eating too much food when you’re being entertained by severely rationed people, about how to pronounce “Cirencester”, and about how retired schoolteachers (called back into the classroom to replace younger teachers now in the services) are all exactly like Robert Donat in Goodbye Mr Chips.

Eventually, he makes it to London, where he is promptly robbed by Bob Hope.  To console himself, he checks into a nice hotel and is seen propped contentedly in bed playing with a fancy cigarette holder, a prop that would help to define his signature role on television more than twenty years later.

He is, however,  interrupted by his own sergeant who drags Burgess Meredith back to barracks, and indeed straight across the channel to open up a second front.  All the while, our hero is shouting bits of extra snippets of culturally sensitive advice which he’d forgotten to deliver earlier.  You half expect to hear him land upon the killing fields of Normandy (a year in the future as it happens) with the words “Hang on, I forgot to explain the rules of cricket!”

Perhaps the most compelling sequence comes about two thirds of the way through, however, when Burgess Meredith addresses the camera to explain that most Limeys seems to be slightly less racist that most of us Yanks, so if you see (for example) an elderly white woman having a polite conversation with a black soldier – try not to freak out too much.  At least pretend to be cool with it – for the duration of hostilities at any rate.

Then a General Lee appears.  He must be a real general because he’s assuredly not an actor.  As his name suggests, Lee is from the Old South, and his grandfather fought for the Confederacy.  Standing in front of Burgess Meredith and an unnamed black infantryman, Lee gives a speech about someone or something called “the neegrah”, who is now apparently doing valuable war work, and may deserve certain civic entitlements as a consequence.

By the end of the film, I’ve ceased to chuckle at the affectionate treatment of British whimsy, and feel a profounder nostalgia not for the thatched cottages, the pub etiquette, or the endless cups of tea, but for a time when the country I was born in and grew up in was regarded as slightly less racist than other places.   Thanks to the hideous Brexit campaign and its grisly ongoing aftermath, it will be decades before Britain can ever hope to aspire to such a “slightly less racist than other places” reputation ever again.  I will not live to see such a relatively benign state of affairs.

 

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