National anathema: how did the ‘Great British’ format take over our TV schedules?

In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it

The novelist Jonathan Coe tweeted this summer: “Looking at tonight’s TV guide, I see BBC2 is offering us Great British Railway Journeys followed by Great British Menu, with The Great British Sewing Bee over on BBC1. Plus a Panorama report called ‘Am I British?’” He forgot to mention The Great British Photography Challenge on BBC Four. Infatti, you can barely slump slack-jawed in front of the box nowadays without being force-fed Greatness and Britishness until you feel bilious.

It’s not just the (grande) British Broadcasting Corporation that persists with this titling tic; ITV recently shoved two teak-tanned Strictly judges into a union jack-emblazoned Mini Cooper for a mini-break. What’s it called? Craig and Bruno’s Great British Road Trips, ovviamente. On Channel 5, flag-wavers can enjoy Great British Ships, Britain’s Great Rivers, Britain’s Greatest Bridges, Great British Gardens With Carol Klein, and Britain’s Great Cathedrals With Tony Robinson.

Perhaps surprisingly given its leftfield origins, Canale 4 is the biggest culprit. Its roster includes Great British Car Journeys, Great British Home Restoration, The Great British Dig, The Great British School Swap and Trip Hazard: My Great British Adventure. It’s a programme slate more patriotic than Boris Johnson quaffing a pint of Bombardier in a pub staffed entirely by bulldogs.

It is getting to the point when TV execs might as well save time by adding a Great British prefix to everything. “What’s on tonight, darling?” “The Great British EastEnders, followed by the Great British Celebrity MasterChef, then the Great British News. Not to be confused with GB News.”

How in the name of Great British sanity did we get here? Of course, it’s all down to the surprise success of The Great British Bake Off. As the sweet-toothed contest rose like a perfect souffle from cult concern to ratings-grabber, greedy but unimaginative commissioners stampeded to get a slice of the proverbial pie. What most fail to realise is that the quaint Bake Off is subtly subversive, representing the breadth of modern Britain – queer, disabled, racially diverse – within those white marquee walls.

Anziché, the copycats merely replicate its twee aesthetic. “Great British” has become a handy televisual shorthand, redolent of bunting-draped village fetes and Emma Bridgewater teapots. This homegrown cliche is slapped on to wholesome contests that slavishly follow the Bake Off format, UK holiday-themed travelogues and random factual fluff.

There is also an element of post-Brexit chest-puffing at play. We’re great. We’re British. We’re probably great because we’re British? Who needs foreigners coming over here and appearing on our TVs? Bene, apart from all those prestige US dramas, nice Nordic noirs and French thrillers, ovviamente. We’ll make an exception for them.

The Great British programming epidemic has enabled a stealth soft-sell rebrand of the phrase. Such cosy cliches entrench an outdated self-image that can enforce exclusionary views of national identity: Great British titles feed Little Englander attitudes. What’s next? Britain’s Greatest Border Patrol Boats With Priti Patel? Let’s not give them any ideas.

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