'Very British Problems' Is an Atrocious Waste of Everyone's Time
Not least because it stars James Corden.
Mate. Mate. Mate, mate, mate... Mate, you'll love this. You'll bloody love this. Very British Problems, the Twitter account that became a book and a clothing range and a way of allowing guffawing, mouth-breathing internet users to bond over the idea that people in Britain drink a lot of tea, has been turned into a TV programme. Last night was its first outing. The suits at Channel 4 will be hoping it can take some of those RTs and turn them into Advertiser-Friendly Ratings.
Sadly, unlike Shit My Dad Says, the show wasn't a sitcom. We didn't get to follow the travails of Mr Very British Problem, a middle manager from Surbiton who spends his days trying to avoid talkative foreigners on network rail and his nights silently pining for Susan Tea Drinker, the nervous yet kind woman he once accidentally locked eyes with over the photocopier at work. Instead, we were treated to a selection of well known and not so well known celebs talking about how they were definitely suffering from whichever VBP (Very British Problem) was being discussed.
The Twitter account trades in the kind of clichés that seemed tired three decades before Michael McIntyre turned telling stories about going to the dentist into a multi-million pound career, so the TV programme wasn't about to start breaking new ground. This meant that there was a sort of cliché bingo you could play as Stephen Mangan, Jonathan Ross and the rest of Britain's "What are we like, eh???" crew waxed lyrical. Getting embarrassed? Tick. Talking about the weather? Tick. Drinking tea? Having trouble talking to other people? Tick. Being awkward? Tick, tick, tick! Trying to find a point to your life in a post-imperial nation whose welfare state is in the process of being dismantled? Oh you better believe James Corden went there.
Corden, of course, was a major presence throughout, sitting casually at his marble-topped kitchen bar shouting, "Love me, love me, PLEASE LOVE ME" at the camera over and over again. There was not a single VBP covered in the show that he didn't suffer from, which is hardly surprising given that James Corden is essentially Very British Problems in human form.
There he was, aghast and open mouthed, asking us what's up with people who just think they can come into your house and open the fridge. Guys, you ask if you can open James Corden's fridge, OK? That's where he keeps Matt Horne. There he was, enveloped in a fog of nostalgia, remembering a time when people just shook hands to say hello, as opposed to doing something called a "thumb shake" which, Corden wants you to know, is all the rage at Soho House these days – you can't get yourself a decent after-hours burger without having to lock thumbs with Jimmy Nesbitt. There he was, enthralling us with this piece of frontline reporting: he has occasionally had conversations with people whose names he didn't know and that was embarrassing and very British. And there he was, at the beginning of the show, laughing as he said, "I don't know why I do it, but I do it all the time," about absolutely nothing at all.
The show's theme was that we Brits don't like talking to other people and that we will do anything to avoid it. At dinner parties, in cabs, on public transport: we go through our lives consciously trying to avoid colliding emotionally with others. Francesca Martinez told us the best friends are the ones who cancel seeing you all the time. Ah yes, people I never want to see. I call them "friends". In the midst of this anti-socialness, Stephen Mangan sounded almost radical when, like a true Radio 4 revolutionary, he proclaimed: "I have spoken to my neighbours. I'm a bit of a freak like that."
The thing is, now is not the time to be cosying up to all these comfortable old clichés. Very British Problems may just be a family-friendly media platform, but it actively encourages us to crawl back into the lukewarm bath of apathy. At a time of great socio-political turmoil a battle should be raging for the soul of our nation. Instead, we have Keep Calm and Carry On. Instead, we have Downton Abbey and Very British Problems. We have tea drinking and talking about the weather and bemoaning the apocalyptic arrival of the thumb-shake.
Communicating with each other is the great struggle of our lives but instead of wondering why we can't be more open with each other, Corden & co. celebrate avoiding other people. Emotional repression and the "civilisation" of politeness have played a major part in keeping this country socially divided and immobile. After all, if you can't tell other people that you are unhappy and angry with how shit your life is, then how will it ever change? But Very British Problems and its celebrity backers would rather we all kept the doors locked, brewed up a bathtub of Yorkshire Tea and settled down with a Gavin and Stacey boxset.
It's time to leave these things behind. It's time to live in the world. It's time to connect. It's time to agitate for more than just fucking getting by until you die. Because if Britain is ever going to move forward and reinvent itself in its own imagination as a place that isn't slowly sinking into a swamp of complacency and bitterness, we need to climb out of our apathy soak. If we don't do that then in two thousand years, when this island is covered by ice, the people who dig us up will find, amidst our calcium-nourished bones, not hearts but tea mugs with the message Keep Calm and Carry On faded but still visible on the side.
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