A lot of what America thinks it knows about Britain comes from "Masterpiece Theater," and needs a re-boot to what Britain is today: multi-cultural, multi-accented and casting about for a new identity. Mark Phillips reports:
It's easy to think you know what Britain's all about – it's about a small, 92-year old woman with a ready smile and a taste for big hats, some of them really big. It's about two young men, one of them with a growing family, the other about to marry an American TV star.
And if you watch much TV, it's also about "The Crown" (the show, not the hat). And it's about big houses like Downton Abbey, with lords and ladies and all the little people who fuss about below stairs to serve them.
And it's all more or less wrong.
Life at the top of the British social food chain isn't what it used to be. Just ask Charles Gordon-Lennox, also known as the 11th Duke of Richmond, the 11th Duke of Lennox, the 11th Duke of Aubigny, the 6th Duke of Gordon. All the titles in the world won't get your bleedin' car to start.
It may still sometimes take the help of the common folk to get the Duke's old 1934 AC roadster (and the show) on the road, but a lot has changed around here.
Phillips asked, "When people have an image of life near the top of the social scale in Britain, it tends to come from what they've seen on TV. Do you see yourself in that tradition?"
"Well, I hope a lot more progressive than that!" Gordon-Lennox replied.
"Can you make a living as a duke these days?"
"I don't think you can!" he laughed.
But you can try. And, boy, do they try on the Duke's Goodwood Estate that sprawls over 12,000 lush acres of southern England. The place has been in the family for 321 years, if you're counting.
What the Duke's family counts are the pennies. "You know, to cut the lawn cost half a million a year or something. How are we going to drive the revenue that's going to cover that?" Gordon-Lennox said.
How? By turning what used to be a playground for aristocrats into a kind of sporting park with an aristocratic theme. At the annual horse-race meeting here, the finish line is really the bottom line.
The old car race track has been refurbished to its former glory, and is a driven by the income it provides. Other income comes from the old World War II airfield, now a private airport. And that's not even to mention the golf courses, or the old mansion and its jaw-dropping art collection that tells more than three centuries of family history.
Gordon-Lennox admitted to Phillips that part of his motivation for keeping an estate like this going is to not be "the one to mess it up."
And if Britain has changed at what used to be the top, it's also changed at what used to be the bottom.
Tez Ilyas, whose family emigated from Pakistan, is now an up-and-coming comedian who does a nice line in challenging what it means to be British today:
"The only difference between white working class and Asian working class is that one of us loves chicken tikka masala, and the other is Asian. That's the only difference!"
Phillips asked, "Do you think that's a surprise to people who aren't from here that Britain isn't the way they perhaps think it is?"
"I think a lot of Americans understand Britain as well through our music, television, and film," Ilyas said, "and in this country we haven't been so good at representing our wider ethnic diversity as America has been."
"The old stuff, the 'stiff upper lip' stuff? Not true?"
"All that's gone out the window," Ilyas said.
"The 'Upstairs Downstairs' thing?"
"No, that's gone."
In fact, Britain, he said, has become a lot like America, "just significantly smaller and with less guns."
Britain is becoming more like America. The numbers tell the story: Around 14% of the British population is now foreign-born. That's almost the identical percentage as the United States.
As historian Simon Schama says, immigration is not new. The East End of London (like the Lower East Side of New York) has seen waves of immigration for centuries. The signs are South Asian now, but before that Jews, Irish, even French Huguenot Protestants fleeing persecution have come through here.
In the post-World War II era, immigrants were drawn from the Caribbean to fill a labor shortage. And lately they've come from Eastern Europe; migrants from Poland now make up Britain's largest immigrant group.
"It's very kind of serious for us, whether you actually think of Britain as sort of permanently self-portrayed as white middle or upper-class, essentially a Britain kind of like a fly trapped in the amber – 'Downtown Amber,' we can call it," Schama laughed. "I mean, that's not healthy for any society at all. Britain's got to have a future.
But to do that it has to understand its past. Phillips spoke to Simon Schama in what was once a synagogue, now part of 19 Princelet Street, a museum of immigration and diversity, where Suzie Symes is a trustee.
"These were empty islands once, and people have been coming here for centuries," Symes said.
Phillips asked, "If Buckingham Palace is part of the British story, you're saying this little house in the East End of London is just as much a part?"
"It's just as much a part as Buckingham Palace," she replied. "And Buckingham Palace is just as much a home to migrant kings and queens over the years!"
Understanding the past, dropping the myths, and adapting to have a future … lessons the 11th Duke of Richmond has already learned.
For more info:
- The Goodwood Estate, Chichester, West Sussex
- Follow @Goodwood_Estate on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram
- Comedian Tez Ilyas
- Follow @TezIlyas on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram
- 19 Princelet Street Museum, London
- Follow @19pst on Twitter and Facebook
- Historian Simon Schama, Columbia University
Story produced by Mikaela Bufano.