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The British/American cultural conflict

Greetings from London, where the weather is wet, the food is atrocious, and the teeth are unbelievable.

But, you see, that's not true any more, if indeed it ever was: Londoners are taking significant precautions to ensure long-term dental hygiene, the exploding diversity in London has resulted in a profusion of wonderful restaurants of many different ethnicities, and the weather was even wonderful this weekend, though as I write this gray skies seem to have returned.

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And yet stereotypes persist, including the most pernicious one, from this column's cultural perspective: England is a storehouse of classical culture, not a producer of the new. Since I've been here, I've gone to see one play, an open-air production of Shakespeare's "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" and one movie, Doug McGrath's adaptation of "Nicholas Nickleby." Like hundreds of thousands of other tourists, I've bought into the idea that Shakespeare and Dickens are what you see when you go to England.

This is also completely unfair. I'm here during the Glastonbury Festival, a huge three-day event of contemporary music; last night Moby and the Manic Street Preachers played, among many others. But England's biggest export these days isn't rock, it's Rowling; Harry Potter's massive sales are based on a fantastic story but also a tradition of magic, castles, and boarding schools which are quintessentially, if not solely, English. Even England has come to terms with the fact that it needs to give the people what they want, and what they want from England is the stereotype of England, rather than the complexity that is the country itself.

Which brings me to "Keen Eddie", one of the new summer replacement TV shows from Fox. It's one of the few new programs this summer that's not reality television, which already wins it a place in my heart. It is particularly interesting in the way it shows an American perspective on the English, one which features the American hero as a crude but effective yob contrasting with the somewhat effete English sidekicks. Crudeness on the one hand, culture on the other. "Keen Eddie" is a very good show, funny and occasionally genuinely suspenseful. But much of the humor relies on stereotypical perceptions of American/British cultural conflict.

Stereotypes are old sources of humor -- much of the comic relief in Shakespeare's "Henry V" comes from making fun of the Welsh. When I get back to New Yoek, I'm going to wait in line for an absurdly long time for tickets to Shakespeare in the Park to watch Liev Schreiber perform the title role. I just hope I can get past the fact he's not English.


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