Bryant & May Awake

Bryant and May

How woke should a fictional crime series be?

The recent term for the old awareness formerly known as ‘PC’, and before that ‘cool’ and before that ‘hip’, has been so absorbed into the mainstream that many entertainment products now feel as if they exist on one side of the line or the other.

Thumbing through my old DVD collection – which I can’t get rid of because most of my films exist on no streaming platform – I realise just how stark the divide is. Oddly, British films from the 1950s and 1960s seem to survive the woke test better than ones from the 1970s and 1980s.

‘I don’t know about woke but he often has to be woken,’ said Raymond Land about his detective Arthur Bryant, one of a pair of ‘old white males in a woke world’. When you’ve been writing a series for well over two decades, how do you incorporate social change into your books?

The answer, in this particular case, is that the books have been incorporating social change into the stories since the outset. I’ve needed to reflect the times when they’re written even if I get accused of liberal bias (a frequent charge).

When I suggested producing a complete edition of my short stories, my young editor looked at the dates (1984 – 2021) and wondered, ‘Is there anything here that’s going to come back and bite us?’

The answer – I think – is in the main, no. I grew up a hippyish liberal in central London, acutely aware that it was not like the rest of the country, and I’ve lived to see the country increase its maturity about race and gender (though not about not at all about class). I incorporated a diverse range of characters into my books not because I had an agenda but because it would have been unrealistic not to.

Although Bryant & May are old they’re not entrenched in their opinions. I’m now 68 and have more trouble relating to many people of my age than I do relating to their children. I believe in the young and am pleased to see much of the woke agenda in the UK, which, while not as extreme as in US academia, is still capable of surprising and making me think.

There will always be people who feel threatened by change, just as there’ll always be shallow students who’ll paint ‘Warmonger’ on a statue of Churchill (easier to do than to study the subject properly) but the majority seem forward thinking and pretty sensible. ‘Woke’ will continue to be needed so long as it does not threaten free speech.

If democracy requires realignment and adjustment, the continual questioning of the past is essential. Imagine how modern politics would be if no-one had investigated George W Bush’s tales of sleeper cells and WMD and found them all to be CIA fantasies?

Do I think a statue of a slave trader should represent a city in a public place? No, I absolutely do not. London’s statues of public figures are often problematic and abstract public art is usually anodyne, but in a modern world you can’t keep making excuses for policies we now recognise as abhorrent. 

I don’t think books should be rewritten but should be prefaced with a foreword setting them in context. Museums frequently fail to explain their exhibits well, either bending over backwards to appear woke or completely unable to communicate why it was seen as OK to export treasures from other countries. The fact that it was often done with the full legal approval of the sellers is sometimes overlooked, and the picture is complicated. Other issues like pronoun identification or the dreaded ‘lived experience’ strike me as fads.The young often fail to see how privileged they are simply by having choices when most of the world has no such luxury afforded to them.

Few complaints are levelled against Bryant & May but recently someone suggested that Arthur’s rants against the French were racist. To which I respectfully point out that considering we once had French governance and and adoptive language plus a thousand year history of antagonising each other of course it’s racist and will hopefully always continue to be so. Even though we have more French residents than anywhere else. And we’ll always still be buying gites in the land of the cheese-eating surrender-monkeys.

40 comments on “Bryant & May Awake”

  1. Brian+Evans says:

    It is really good that the appalling record this country, and others, have about eg the slave trade is now being addressed. However, there is a downside in the attention being given in removing statues: it is giving these slave traders (etc) undue publicity. ie, how many of us actually stop and read the inscription on a statue to have a clue who they are for. On my bucket list travels, I have even taken photos of statues without even stopping to find out who they are celebrating.

  2. Keith says:

    Oh my days man, you can’t change Arthur’s mindset at his age! What are you thinking? 🙂

  3. linda+ayres says:

    Personally I always read the inscriptions on statues etc, I also have a compulsion to work out the ages of people now departed who are remembered on park benches etc, this may explain why I often travel alone. Statues of Slavers were not erected to celebrate that trade ,but usually to commemorate the monetary legacy to their town. Since in a lot of cases residents still benefit from that legacy isn’t it hipocrasy to remove their statue but still enjoy the legacy?

  4. Paul+C says:

    Agree with your comment that non-Woke books could be prefaced with contextual remarks – rewriting (or even worse, banning) would be outrageous.

    Watching ‘Porridge’ on BBC iPlayer recently, I noticed that the episodes are prefaced with ‘Porridge is a classic comedy which reflects the broadcast standards, language and attitudes of the time’. This seems fine to me – although some people are very determined to find offence. Porridge is the best British sitcom ever – does everyone agree ?

  5. Roger says:

    Statues aren’t put up because people were slave-traders, but because they did something else considered worth commemorating. Whether their virtuous actions can outweigh their faults is another question.
    An interesting aspect of the statue of Edward Colston is that it doesn’t look very celebratory. It looks like a man wrestling with his conscience.
    Churchill was a war-monger. Britain was fortunate to have a war-monger available when it needed one and wise to get rid of him when it did not.

  6. tony+williams says:

    Hi Roger. That’s a very insightful comment about Churchill.

    Regarding statues: I was in Budapest some time ago, and the soviet era statues had been moved to a special place, and there were specific plaques explaining why they had been moved. It seemed like a good idea.

  7. Peter+T says:

    Since Britain was at war with Germany when Churchill became PM, he didn’t have much choice: advocate aggression or abandon his allies and sue for peace. It’s easy for us to criticise. Some of Gandhi’s writings now look extremely racist. It’s better for us to accept and learn from the past rather than use it as an excuse for a fight.

    When I was young, I ate enough meat to keep a butcher in business. Now I find the idea of eating animals at best unpleasant. Should I beat myself up?

  8. Liz+Thompson says:

    Random thoughts. ‘Porridge’ was shown to newly recruited prison officers, at least in the 1980s. By the same token, ‘Yes Minister’ was shown at the Civil Service College to enlighten us about reality in the higher echelons.
    Painting statues may indicate lack of research, but when a green grass mohawk was put on Churchill’s statue, most of us laughed. Students frequently decorate the Black Prince’s statue in Leeds City Square with a traffic cone helmet.
    At what point do we decide paint is over the top? When it’s non removable? Or when enough people take exception to the statue/building so decorated? Extinction Rebellion in Leeds plastered Victoria Bridge with coloured chalk slogans and pictures, but washed and scrubbed it all off at the end of the week’s blockade. Are we condemning the suffragettes who broke windows, or those who gummed up Barclays’ cash machines to protest apartheid?
    Time seems to make a difference, the ‘eye of the beholder’ effect. Also, I do feel that damage to buildings, statues, Town Hall steps, is less heinous than a Molotov cocktail, a baton charge by the police, or soldiers ordered to shoot demonstrators.
    Perhaps it all depends on where you stand and where you’ve come from….

  9. admin says:

    For me, ‘Fawlty Towers’ remains the best sitcom ever in the Feydeau vein. I thought ‘Stath Lets Flats’ was brilliant, and certain early episodes of ‘The Brittas Empire’ were staggeringly cruel and hilarious.
    From a very early age Churchill was raised in a world of war and confrontation, so yes, the right man at the right time, after the revolting appeasement that condemned so many Czechoslovakians to death.

  10. Roger says:

    There’d be something inappropriate and hypocritical in Extinction Rebellion not using easily removed non-toxic paints and chalked to make their point!
    Churchill was always a war-monger, Peter T. He enjoyed war. “War is the natural activity of mankind.” he told Siegfried Sassoon, “War and gardening.”
    Not taking on Hitler sooner condemned many more than Czechoslovakians to death, Admin.

  11. John+Griffin says:

    I find it sad that an acquaintance of mine, an ardent feminist who is both a campaigner and a provider of safety for battered women, has been attacked for her questioning of self‐declared gender change males ‐ only in the context of entering safe spaces such as those she has created. This, to me, is an area for discussion and compromise, not attack by activists. It is a world away from people profiting by the enslavement and exploitation of others, or indeed injury, for which there is no excuse. I have taught, am teaching currently, teens who are making gender change moves. This is a wonderful but fraught process that does not need hardline activism, just genuine support.

  12. Keith says:

    Fawlty Towers was indeed brilliant. I never tire of Fools and Horses. Friday Night Dinner, Bottom, Father Ted & One Foot in the Grave. Even The Muppet Show brings the odd guffaw. There have been some wonderful shows since. The Mighty Boosh was just incredible. I wonder if anyone has ever watched the Scottish TV serials Still Game and Burnistoun. If not then you really should. The Lovecraftian sketch they made was epic.

  13. Derek says:

    If it is right to remove statues to slave traders and slave owners shall we write to the governments of Italy and Denmark asking them to remove their historical statuary? Both the Romans and the Vikings spent hundreds of years taking British slaves.
    Should we also demand the same of North Africans? In the 17th century the Muslim Barbary pirates raided the coasts of western Britain with the sole purpose of taking British slaves to sell in the North African slave markets.
    Isn’t there a naive historical sloppiness within British woke’ thinking to apparently consider that slavery was invented by white Europeans to exploit black Africans?
    I don’t notice the United States removing statues of the slave owning owner George Washington either.

  14. Peter+T says:

    Roger, I don’t disagree with you. Looking at history, I can’t deny that war, even totally pointless war, does seem to be something we take up far too easily. What I’d say in favour of Churchill was that he worked extremely hard to learn, to inform himself and was surprisingly open minded in gathering opinions and information. It contrasts with the more typical lazy, closed mind, corrupt git we install as PM.

    Getting back to woke, how would the Goon Show be considered today? In the 1950s, it got by because the BBC didn’t understand it. In the 1970s, it was quite acceptable. But now, would it be racist?

  15. Brooke says:

    A “woke” Arthur is too horrifying to contemplate. Like contemplating the Last Judgement after a weekend of debauchery.

  16. Stu-I-Am says:

    Of course the lads are “woke.” Arthur just happens to be up and about in an astral plane.

  17. admin says:

    Ha ha – Let’s not bring the Bible into the woke argument or we’ll be here for centuries. Especially if we include the non-canonical testaments.
    Roger – I took Czechoslovakia as an example because I’ve been reading about the war from middle European sources lately. Sort of wish I hadn’t started…

  18. SteveB says:

    Slavery has existed since antiquity, a normal hazard of life, and was justified by Aristotle.
    Until 1500 or so the largest slave trade was of Europeans by Africans.This trade continued until Napoleon’s conquest of North Africa. The number of European slaves in Africa was also over a million at the peak.
    The UK bought its black slaves from African slavers.
    The largest slave trade ever by far was by the Portuguese from its Africa colonies to Brazil.
    Another large slave trade was Dutch slavers from South India, also 7 figures.
    The idea that slavery is “wrong” as opposed to”cruel” is quite new in history and in legal codes.
    Just some context as I see it anyway.

    Personally, I wouldn’t care if all the statues were taken down. I reckon 50% of people today could anyway scarcely tell the difference between a statue of Churchill and a statue of Hitler, especially if you took the latter’s moustache off and gave him a cigar.

    On a different subject, actually I could imagine a woke Arthur.

  19. SteveB says:

    @Admin if you are into recent middle european history I truly recommend the book “Lemberg: Die vergessene Mitte Europas”

  20. Brooke says:

    Speaking of reading…suggestions, please! ( I’m desperate to get out of reading research, which I’ve had to do lately)

  21. Colin says:

    I recently read We begin at the end by Chris Whittaker, excellent book

  22. SteveB says:

    @Brooke Ive heard that Christopher Fowler has some new books on the way 😉
    The book by Ritchie Robinson on The Enlightenment I would recommend. The first couple of chapters on science are less strong, because he doesn’t really understand it, but the rest is great and very readable and not only informative but also humane.

  23. Brooke says:

    @Steve, yes I’ve heard the rumor about Fowler. As I live in the US it will be a year before I can confirm the truth of it.
    Thanks for the suggestion –Robinson’s writing is praised. Will get kindle sample and try it out.


  24. David+Ronaldson says:

    Random responses: people often analyze Basil Fawlty’s interaction with the Germans forgetting he was concussed at the time. Re. statues: some choices are bizarre. I think of Henry Bartle Frere, who travelled the world under the then Colonial Office banner,, annoying people in a genteel fashion and starting small wars and rebellions and earned himself a statue near the Embankment.. I am woke-ish for an 58-year-old, but often have to Google the latest approved language to use in a Diversity and Equality committee I sit on.

  25. Peter+Dixon says:

    Steve B and Derek – I agree, slavery was the basis of most of the civilisations we would consider as classic. Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Vikings and probably most iron age societies were built on cheap, forced, controlled labour. The Britain / Africa / America slavery story is largely highlighted because it is (relatively) recent and well documented. Both England and the US have behaved abominably throughout the last century in kicking the racial can down the road, only to leave it full of bile to people who don’t understand how to sort it out.

    Are statues put up to celebrate slavery? I think not – I don’t think anyone has a statue to “Sir Billy Bloggers because he was undoubtedly the second most cruel and despicable slaver between 1800 and 1825”. The statues are usually to people (alright, men) who spent money they had earned in order to fund other, often worthwhile causes, found colleges etc. Nowadays these colleges and universities have multi-ethnic teachers and students with a broad range of opinions and education. A significant number of these institutions would not have existed without some form of ‘slavery’.
    My own family worked in coal mines in the Durham coal fields for several generations. As children they started working underground from the age of 6, they would sit in complete darkness for 12 hours working ‘doors’ to prevent gas escaping through the mine. The men worked in appalling conditions in seams running with water, scared of roof falls and gas. In Wales women and girls did the same, stripped of clothing because of the heat, causing palpitations among Victorian women at the very idea. These people lived at the whim of of English ‘gentlemen’; landowners who were usually directly related to the magistrates, clergy and soldiery who would condemn any worker who tried to complain and punish them with relish. Society in the coalfields was the ‘wild west’ but in Englands green and pleasant land.

    I think people need to educate themselves before they castigate people who had no part in ‘slavery’. Does the 6 year old with a candle 5 fathoms underground have anything to feel guilty of for being somehow better off than a slave picking cotton in the southern states of America? Should the children or grandchildren of that child apologise? Did everyone in Great Britain benefit from the slave trade? Discuss.

    We’re in the 21st century – we shouldn’t be picking over the past, any more than we should ask Italy to apologise for building Hadrian’s Wall.

    After 100 years we just have to say: ‘Its history – we can’t change it’, otherwise we will eat ourselves over problems caused before our grandparents were born.

    Learn from the past, don’t use it as a stick to beat people with.

  26. SteveB says:

    I don’t think the British / American story is highlighted because of the reasons you say. The Portuguese slave to Brazil is both more recent and much larger, and also very well-documented. It’s American cultural dominance that causes it and nothing else. And it’s my impression that more and more British social problems are being framed as aspects of American problems, which they’re not, and I don’t think it will end well.
    Your other points are very correct, it’s only a couple of centuries since unmarried mothers in England would have their babies in secret and feed them to the pigs.

  27. Peter+T says:

    I see that Sheffield University is de-colonising its courses. Many mathematicians and scientists from the last 500 years are under scrutiny. Newton apparently invested in the South Seas Company and Dirac was born in Bristol. Yikes, who could be more decent and inoffensive to the world than Dirac? (I resisted the rare temptiation to add half a dozen exclamation marks). Oxford University has been exposed as receiving sponsorship from oil and gas companies. I hope the exposeur rides travals by horse (and collects the waste) and will insist on being taken to hospital by horse and cart if they ever need urgent medical attention.

  28. Adam says: uk sitcom for me is The Inbetweeners. They spoke like teenage boys spoke, absolutely brilliant characterisations, and the show managed to perfectly capture the enthusiasm, embarrassment and heartache of growing up. Unsurprisingly the US remake was dismal and quickly vanished.
    In my experience youngsters are so much better than previous generations in their outlook (my teenage daughter and her friends are incredulous and horrified by the casual homophobia and racism they see). I think it is really difficult to understand how previous societies thought and acted without making a black/white judgement based on our own experiences and norms. I wonder if in two hundred years time people will look back at anyone who ate meat and want to eradicate them from history? (extreme example, but you get my drift).

  29. Brooke says:

    @Colin–We Begin At The End is a great recommendation–Just downloaded sample. Thank you!

  30. Roger says:

    A really grim – and accurate – view of Central and Eastern Europe can be found in Timothy Snyder’s history books. You need a strong stomach and an equable constitution to read them, though.
    As Dirac’s father taught at Bristol Grammar School (?), presumably funded by slavery, perhaps Dirac, who suffered a horrendous childhood, should be regarded as another victim of the slave trade, Peter+T. The complicating factor with Churchill is that he was much more than just a war-monger, but all of his other qualities made him a better war-monger when he had to be one.
    North Africans – most North Africans – have been muslims so they haven’t put up statues for a thousand years, Peter+Dixon.

  31. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    26% of Sheffield University’s tuition fee income is said to come from Chinese students.
    Perhaps they should consider human rights in China before accepting it.
    I’m sure they would say that’s different because Chinese students will learn from living in the U.K. – but banning Newton etc isn’t going to help anyone.

  32. Peter+T says:

    Woke = alert to injustice.

    Who can be more woke than Arthur Bryant? He’s an honest policeman and has been for more decades than we should go into. He’s undoubtedly learnt that life is not fair and that the justice system is designed to protect the rich from the poor more than the vulnerable from the wicked. And he has suffered more than his share of injustice. In spite of all that, he soldiers on in pursuit of a slightly better world. What can you say against him? He’s intolerant of criminals and has been known to be impatient with idiots.

  33. SteveB says:

    I think patterns in history and patters of behaviour stay the same. For instance, cities, priests, kingship, frontiers arose in different places in the world absolutely independently of each other.
    Similarly the Hitler youth, the righteousness woke police, and the Pioneers all tap into standard adolescent behaviour patterns.

  34. Brooke says:

    What Peter T said.

  35. Beth says:

    I’m devastated! Love Bryant and May and just read Wild Chamber. I had/have tickets for the mousetrap for my 21st birthday and you just revealed the murderer! Why? Not everyone lives in London, not everyone has been around for 60 years. Everyone was supposed to keep the secret.

  36. admin says:

    Beth, people have been parodying the Mousetrap’s murderer for almost 70 years! The biggest culprit is the show itself, which is so hackneyed and hammy that it’s obvious from the outset. Even Christie told friends the play was substandard and wouldn’t run. It gained a reputation among tourists as being easy to follow in English.

  37. Roger says:

    Perhaps The Real Inspector Hound could replace The Mousetrap…

  38. Helen+Martin says:

    Don’t forget, Admin, that Beth was/is looking forward to the performance, a gift for her birthday. Never mind, Beth, by the time theatres are open you’ll have forgotten or blurred it and any play will be marvelous by the time we get there.

  39. Beth says:

    Thank you Helen + Martin. So yes Agatha Christie has been going for decades, but I havent! I shouldn’t be ridiculed for my age/ knowledge of detective fiction if I am devouring books! Surely? Hopefully Mnsr Fowler is still being read in 100 years, and we shall not tell the ending. And no Helen, I shall not forget who didit. !!!

  40. Anne Tisell says:

    From the bottom of my heart,Mr Fowler,I thank you,for Bryant and May and the PCU. I am on my second reading of the series and have just noticed the song title challenge in the Hall of Mirrors. The odd song out is the Scorpions’ Twentieth Century Man! How sneaky! Had me Dazed and Confused for a while! Write On you Crazy Diamond!

Comments are closed.