Tag Archives: David Brent

The other British Holidays

In December, I did a post on British Christmas traditions and Boxing Day.  Since this week was St. George’s Day, I thought I might explain some of the other popular (and less popular) holidays celebrated in the UK.   In addition to holidays we also celebrate in the US, like Halloween and Easter, there are a number of uniquely British holidays that we would be hard pressed to understand on this side of the pond. Cause what the fuck is Guy Fawkes Day, right?

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Guy Fawkes Day is also called Bonfire Night, and falls on November 5th each year.  The holiday commemorates the ‘Gunpowder Plot’ you may (but probably won’t) remember from history class. Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament in 1605.  He and his co-criminals wanted to kill King James I and install a Catholic king. The holiday started with people celebrating James’ survival by lighting bonfires. It has evolved in the past 400 years, but often featured the burning of effigies. Effigies of Guy Fawkes were obviously the most popular,

Lewes_Bonfire,_Guy_Fawkes_effigy

but people also burned effigies of the pope and the devil, making it a pretty anti-Catholic holiday in the 17th and 18th centuries. Children would usually make the Guy effigies and then collect money from neighbors (I’m unclear on why they deserved money, but for an enterprising child I’m sure it was a good deal). The holiday declined in popularity in the late 19th century, and in the 20th became more of Firework Night. One assumes that throughout the centuries, it has also been a holiday that involved heavy drinking.  But it’s mostly a holiday in decline, having lost all meaning with respect to government or religion.  One exception is Lewes, which has the (arguably) largest Bonfire Night celebration in Great Britain.

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Saint George's DaySaint George is the patron saint of England, so this is a holiday really only celebrated in England. It falls on April 23rd each year.  His flag, the white background and the red cross is the flag of England as well. (If you’re confused right now, I’ll help you by telling you that the Union Jack is the flag of the UK). The myth says that St. George (presumably known just as George when he was alive) was a Roman soldier in the 3rd century. As a Christian, he protested the Roman empire’s persecution of his faith, earning him some enemies in Rome and he was beheaded in 303 AD. Some time before his beheading, he slayed a dragon that was terrorizing a village in modern-day Libya. Since he never visited England, I’m a little unsure why he is the patron saint of that country, but he is also the patron saint of a lot of other countries and regions, as well as scouting, soldiers, archers, etc. etc.  Those patron saints are busy people. St. George, because he was a famous soldier, became a figure of admiration for European knights during the age of chivalry, and I think that’s how St. George was adopted as the patron saint of a country he’d never visited.

St. George’s day isn’t really ‘celebrated’ in England.  People might have a rose in their button-hole. Businesses might fly the flag of St. George. One website suggested excellent ways to celebrate might include ‘eating fish and chips’ and ‘going on a pub crawl’.  As far as I can tell, that’s how England celebrates days that end in y. People don’t even have the day off work, unfortunately. There are events for children, reenacting the story of St. George and the dragon, but not much more.  There has been a movement in recent years to make it a national holiday, and to bring it back as a big part of English culture, but I’m not certain they’ll come to much.

If you are going to choose a holiday to celebrate on April 23rd, I would celebrate Shakespeare’s Birthday. Shakespeare was actually English, for one thing, and he was far more significant than St. George to the English identity and legacy.

May Day UKNext week, May will begin, and with it, May Day!
I remember being somewhat aware of this holiday growing up in the US, but I’ve never actually seen a maypole.  In the UK, they do dance around the maypole, covering it with ribbons.  They also engage in something called Morris Dancing, which seems to involve black-face.  I’ll pass on that. People dress up like weirdos, play the accordion, and dance around with black faces.

Morris DancerThe racially insensitive face paint doesn’t seem to be absolutely necessary, but looking like an idiot is clearly integral to the celebration. We have something similar here in Philadelphia, called the Mummer’s parade.

May Day, like Halloween, has its roots in Pagan traditions, and unofficially celebrates the beginning of good weather.  I like it. I think the spirit of it is similar to our Memorial Day, the unofficial beginning of what we think of as summer. It is a national bank holiday in the UK, so no work! Yay! I would venture to guess that most people don’t engage in the celebrations the holiday was made for, but do take the long weekend to spend time outdoors and enjoy the spring.  I was in London for one of the nicest spring seasons they’ve had in a long time, so my experience is not perhaps representative, but I can say that warm days in London are worth more than any weather in any other place on earth.  If you don’t believe me, go sit in Hyde Park or along the Victoria Embankment on a sunny day.

The UK has a number of other ‘bank holidays’, meaning businesses are closed and few people work, that don’t have any inherent traditions attached to them.  The Spring bank holiday is the last week of May, the late Summer bank holiday is in August, and sometimes there are others for special occasions (the royal wedding in 2011, the jubilee in 2012).  These are pretty similar to our Memorial and Labor day holidays.  I think I like secular holidays best.  No haughty traditions, no need to see relatives if you don’t care to.  Just a day off work to do with as you like.

Remembrance Day is one of the more somber holiday on the UK calendar. Remembrance DayCommemorated on November 11th each year (but often celebrated on the Sunday nearest that date), it marks the armistice that ended World War I.  In reality, after so many other wars since 1918, the day becomes a catch-all for honoring service men and women who died during all the wars and skirmishes since that date.  People wear poppies in their lapels and wreaths are laid at the many war memorials throughout the UK.  One thing I noticed in my travels is that every small village has a monument listing the men they lost at war.  It’s sort of lovely and humbling to see them all, and think of how those deaths would have impacted the people they left behind–especially in small villages that must have been even smaller 100 years ago.

A more light-hearted ‘holiday’ is Red Nose Day.  I like this one.  Comic Relief is a charity that organizes Red Nose Day. There are lots of entertainers and local events to get donations, in addition to a national telethon. Whenever we have charity events in the US, we get celebrities to sing patriotic songs about suffering and overcoming adversity.  In the UK, they get them to make us laugh, and they do it every year.  I like that. J.K. Rowling’s two Hogwarts ‘textbooks’ (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Quidditch Through the Ages) were both written for Red Nose Day.

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So, thank you Comic Relief. If you’re wondering, it’s called Red Nose Day because they sell red noses for you to wear at shops for donations to the charity.

This year’s Red Nose Day brought David Brent into the spotlight again for the first time in 10 years.  Apparently, he’s a music agent now representing a young rapper.

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You may notice that there’s no national holiday for England or for the UK, the way we celebrate July 4th. St. George’s day is the closest they have.  N. Ireland celebrates St. Patrick’s day, and Wales celebrates St. David’s day as almost national holidays. A time to celebrate their unique identity within the UK. Similarly, Scotland has St. Andrew’s day. England, though, does not have a firm origin story around which to rally at a specific time.  And if you think about it, it is impossible to say when England began to be England and ceased to be Briton.  The Romans invaded in the 1st century AD (CE), but the area was already occupied by native Britons.  Those people were gradually pushed further and further west, and are most closely related to the modern Welsh.  After the Romans left, there were the waves and waves of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian invasions.  England is named after the Anglo-Saxons, so did it become England at that point? You could argue that when England became a unified country is a date to be celebrated.  ‘Edgar the Peaceful’ united the country in the 10th century…and then it was promptly and thoroughly invaded, first by Danish vikings, then by William the Conqueror in 1066 AD.  Much of modern British tradition stems from William’s rule (coronation at Westminster abbey, for example) rather than from Edgar’s influence.  So the whole thing is a big ole confusing mess.  I suppose they could just pick a day, but that doesn’t quite have the same significance as our 4th of July, or other national holidays more closely related to a great story of overcoming oppression. Then again, our traditions dictate we mark this great date by having my idiot neighbors set off amateur fireworks in the parking lot across the street and everyone eating dead animals while sitting on picnic tables.  Not to mention, the Declaration of Independence was actually signed in the fall of 1776; John Hancock didn’t sign until November.
So, all holidays are utterly removed from the significance of the original day, and we should all feel free to celebrate whatever we like whenever we like. On that note, I’d better get ready to celebrate International Tuba Day next week!

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TV review: Derek with Ricky Gervais

Derek series posterRicky Gervais’ new series, Derek, just finished its first season in the UK.  It will be airing exclusively on Netflix in the US later this year (no premier date yet).  It’s only six episodes, but a second season in the UK has already been announced.

There was a lot of controversy before the show started, when it got out that Ricky was playing a man who seemed to be mentally disabled.  I think most of the controversy dried up when people actually saw the show. I don’t think it’s offensive at all–it might even be a bit too safe.

The show features Ricky as the eponymous Derek, possibly the nicest man in the world.  If there is one thing this show is about, it’s about valuing kindness over all other traits.  Derek cares about everyone and every living creature, and the show illustrates how much more valuable that is than qualities like intelligence, material success, A level scores, etc.  Derek works in a nursing home; it’s his whole life.  I can’t tell you what he does exactly (in terms of a job). It seems like he is more of a companion to the residents, and he’s very good at that.  He genuinely cares about all of them.

His best friend is Hannah,

hannahwho runs the nursing home.  She is one of those women who takes care of everyone and doesn’t have much of a life on her own. She puts all of her energy into her job and truly wants to take care of all of the people who live in and work at the home.  She makes me, honestly and truly, feel like a pretty terrible person by comparison.

To make me feel better, there is Karl Pilkington (and a hilarious wig) as Dougie.

slide_277704_2042719_freeDougie is the handyman in the nursing home.  He’s not as kind as Hannah or Derek–he is more willing to say what is on his mind and more likely to be irritated by other people.  Who knew Karl could act? He’s actually really good!  Now, there are a lot of similarities between him and his character.  In my preview of this series, I noted these similarities:

He complains a lot, likes to fix things, doesn’t know why he’s friends with Ricky.  Check, check, check.

And I stand by that post.  He’s very similar to what I know of him through An Idiot Abroad and The Ricky Gervais Show–though all of these shows give us Karl through Ricky’s eyes (and editing skills), so I wouldn’t presume to actually know him.  At any rate, Dougie is perpetually annoyed, but his annoyance is geared toward people who truly deserve it.  One high point of the series is when Dougie throws out the money-grubbing daughter of a woman who has just died, because she is a heinous person only concerned with getting her mother’s things now that she’s gone.  Dougie is my hero in that episode.

There’s also Kev

derek_kev_2Derek’s friend and the least likeable of the main characters.  He is sex-obsessed, crass, and generally unliked, but his friendship with Derek and the clear evidence that he is full of shit make the audience realize that he isn’t all bad.  If he was an asshole in the exact same way and also handsome/successful, then he would be unforgivable.  The fact that he is horribly unsuccessful in life and with women make his boasts and pronouncements less offensive and more sad.

In the background there are a litany of secondary characters from the fringes of life.  There are chavvy teenagers, assigned to do community service at the nursing home, the heinous people from the city council threatening to shut the place down, and of course the residents themselves.  I kind of love Derek for the simple fact that it shows people we don’t normally see on TV.  For how many hours of super fancy people on Selling New York or The Bachelor or Real Housewives of Whichever City, you’re only likely to see a regular person on shows like Hoarders or My Strange Addiction.  It’s lovely to see people represented on TV that normally wouldn’t be, and I hope it gives everyone a greater respect for older people, even though the show is inherently more rose-colored than reality must be.

Let me start with a warning about this show.  I cried during every single episode.  It is emotional; it is schmaltzy.  Some critics think the emotion has gone too far, into the realm of absolute sentimental tripe.  I think there are arguments for that.  After all, you never seem too controversial by showing how great it would be if everyone was kind to one another.  On the other hand, very few of us have the capacity to be as kind and as selfless as Hannah and Derek.  There are, undoubtedly, people who work in a caretaker capacity that are just like them.  But there are also people who take advantage of their situation to do horrible things, and there are people who become burnt out by what they are seeing on a day-to-day basis and become apathetic or cold-hearted as a result.  Derek portrays a world free from those types.  There are your occasional villains who come in (like the couple mentioned above, visiting only to get a hold of a family ring), but they leave.  Everyone there is forgivable and forgiving, and cares about the residents in their care.  I don’t know how accurate that is.

The show is genuinely funny, but you’re more likely to spend your time crying than laughing.

The show is very clearly a Ricky Gervais project, but at the same time it is quite different.  No matter how crass and unlikeable Ricky can be when he is confronting the world as himself (I have a coworker that loathes him completely), his works always have a good heart and good people behind them.  In The Office, Tim and Dawn are the heart of the show, but by the end of the run you do truly care for David Brent and for Gareth.  The only real villain of the piece is Chris Finch, and we see him put firmly in his place during the special (my favorite moment ever).  In Extras and Life’s Too Short, you see an egotistical, foolish, deeply flawed, very negative main character, but the show always makes clear that these traits are not rewarding.  In the end, these characters focus their energy on their personal relationships and not on the success they so long for.  That same sense of good and kindness is the main centerpiece of Derek, but Derek approaches it in a different way.  It’s there from the absolute beginning, as the prevailing quality of the main character.

It is schmaltzy, and it is sensationalist (to use the old definition of causing sensations), but it is cathartic to see and experience what life might be like if we were all a little less smart and a little more kind. It made me cry to the point of extreme discomfort on more than one occasion (especially the finale), but it did feel good afterward.  I really enjoyed the show and will definitely be watching the second season.

Ricky as Derek with dogs

The British Christmas special

There is a Christmas tradition as popular in the UK as mince pies: the Christmas special. Popular TV shows generally have a stand-alone special episode airing in the week of Christmas (or on Christmas day itself).  Unlike most TV series here, these Christmas episodes are not within a specific season but stand alone (usually at the end of a season or a few months after the end).  I may be wrong, but this might be partially because the TV seasons/series in the UK do not run Fall-Spring, like they do here.

Some of the most famous Christmas specials in the recent past were shows like the Vicar of Dibley, Only Fools and Horses (these specials continued to air at Christmas years after the series itself was cancelled), as well as shows more known on this side of the pond, like The Office and Doctor Who. From what I have read, the Christmas special episodes of the two big soap operas, Eastenders and Coronation Street, are always the most depressing episodes of the year. And these are soap operas for whom melodrama is an understatement. According to tvtropes.org, people gather around to watch the emotional and physical carnage.  Fun.

This year, I saw two Christmas specials that made their way across the pond in one form or another: Downton Abbey and Doctor Who. Before I get into those specific episodes, I’d like to talk about my favorite Christmas specials in British TV history.

The Office UK Christmas Special

The Christmas Special for The Office UK also functioned as the series finale (a habit of Ricky Gervais’ apparently), so it was extra meaningful. It was a two part special (or two specials, according to some) that aired on December 26th and 27th in the UK in…whatever year it was.  Things are quite different in the special than they  were in the series, with Dawn and whats-his-name off in Florida, David Brent trying to make a career in Comedy, and Gareth the manager of the Slough branch of Wernham Hogg.  Of course the Tim and Dawn relationship is the big story of the specials, and it makes me happy and sappy every time I watch it, partially because of my intense love for Martin Freeman.  But another key moment is one that advances the slow story of David Brent becoming a human being.  He meets a nice woman who he likes, and who likes him.  That alone is lovely, but the best part (perhaps of this entire TV show) is when he stands up for her to Chris Finch (worst person ever).  Every time I see that I have renewed faith in his ability to evolve as a character.  The US Office presented a much more sympathetic boss, but David Brent walks a fine line between being irritating and being empathetic, which I think is more accurate and realistic.

Extras Christmas Special

Again, Ricky Gervais chose to end his series with a Christmas special.  This one has Andy Millman choosing between commercial success and artistic integrity.  In the end, he firmly says no to commercial success for its own sake, though I’m not sure he’s any closer to artistic integrity.  Again, he evolves as a person and that is rewarding, though not in the same way as occurred in the Office finale.  The best part of this special is undoubtedly the last five minutes, when he finally stops being an utter ass.

Christmas Tardis

There has been a Doctor Who Christmas special every year since David Tennant took over in 2005.  In fact, the Christmas special was the first appearance of the tenth Doctor.  Unfortunately, they haven’t all been gems. David Tennant spends most of 2005’s “The Christmas Invasion” asleep (literally), and we are stuck with Rose, Jackie, and Mickey the Idiot. In “the Runaway Bride”, Donna Noble makes her first appearance as a very argumentative pseudo-companion and the whole episode isn’t very Christmas-y, though there is a return of the Santa Claus robots that plagued London the previous year. A high point of 2007’s “Voyage of the Damned” is the Doctor discovering that everyone in London leaves each Christmas, because there has been an invasion for the last two years.  Little moments where the show pokes fun at itself really make it worth watching.  Each Christmas special has some really spectacular visuals, but often times they are not the best episodes taken on their own.  I’m not a fan of “The Next Doctor” and “The End of Time” left me heartbroken and angry.  “A Christmas Carol” had Michael Gambon, but that was the best thing about it.

And this year? This year was called “The Snowmen” and I have to say I think it was the best Christmas special they’ve had. The visuals were great, though I am very partial to Victorian England so that may have had something to do with it. Also, though, most of our current Christmas traditions emerged in Victorian times, so it’s a very Christmasy looking episode.  We see the return of Oswin, confusingly, and we see some very creepy snowmen.

Doctor Who Snowmen

My personal favorite part was the Doctor pretending to be Sherlock Holmes.  Hilarious.  After a lackluster first part of the seventh season, this episode gave me a lot of hope for when the show returns in the Spring.

Christmas at Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey has now had two Christmas specials, and I can’t say I cared for either of them.  The first one, did at least take place at Christmas, however!  And the ending was much happier.  It took place in 1919/1920, and there were sad points (Bates being convicted of murdering his wife) but there were happy moments (Matthew and Lady Mary finally getting together). It had some emotional resonance because of that fact.  This year’s Christmas special was …infuriating.  Warning to all who have not (in a totally legal way) seen season three and its special–spoilers!

This year’s Christmas special took place just a few months after the last episode of season three, though it did not take place at Christmas time. The Grantham family goes north to Scotland to visit the super annoying Lady Rose, and now we know that she will be in the show regularly from now on–much to my chagrin. The men stalk deer (in deerstalkers…). Edith continues to settle for unavailable and unworthy men, in an effort to have someone at all. I don’t really like her.  A strumpet of a housemaid starts making eyes at Tom Branson,  A rotund grocer tries to marry Mrs. Patmore because he is deeply in love with her sandwiches. Thomas is beaten nearly to death by ruffians after a highly contentious game of Tug of War (really?).  But there’s just one thing that really makes news in this special.

If you follow the gossip about DA at all, you know already that Dan Stevens, who plays Matthew, is leaving the show.  I had heard that he would be in a few episodes the following season, just to end his run, but apparently not.  Mary is very pregnant in the special, and as soon as I saw that, I had an inkling.  A few loving and tender moments between Mary and Matthew throughout the special clinched it. By the time Mary was giving birth, I knew it would be a boy, because they need an heir, and I knew it was curtains for the Tramp Matthew.  Also, whenever anyone in any movie goes out for a ride/drive and are extremely happy, they’re going to be killed in a car accident.  For proof of this precedent, see City of Angels, Lawrence of Arabia, etc.  It was just really predictable.  And not Christmasy.  And not fun.  And I feel that Julian Fellowes has just killed off too many people in this show.  The death of the heir on the Titanic starts the first episode, but on camera we have the deaths of William, Mr. Pamuk, Sybil, Lavinia, all of the minor characters who die on and off screen, and now Matthew.  It’s a lot for three seasons. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was on for seven seasons, featured a town rife with earthquakes, vampires, demons, gods, and every other nasty thing…and though there were a ton of red shirt deaths, only a few major characters were killed.  Just saying.  I found this Christmas episode irritating and disappointing.

I find that Christmas specials sometimes put together everything trite and overwrought that the creators can envision for the series.  It’s very rare that they get it right, and manage to convey a Christmas theme and an important part of the life of their characters.  What I do like about a Christmas special is that it adds some pomp and circumstance to the holiday.  In America, the Christmas episode of a show is just part of the season, and usually airs about three weeks prior to the holiday.  In the UK, these specials can happen when the show isn’t even on the air anymore–Christmas is important enough to mark out on its own. I don’t even like Christmas, but I like a Christmas special.  I wish we had them here. Though, I prefer when Ricky Gervais is in charge of them, not Julian Fellowes.