Warning: contains a spoiler for The Haunting of Bly Manor episode 6
When you belong to a cultural superpower, you get used to things being all about you. Wrapped in the soft cotton wool of cultural dominance, you so rarely feel the prick of non-recognition. To grow up the same nationality, race, and on the same patch of land as the planet’s most celebrated writers, artists and musicians is to feel that their stuff is yours too. Unlike other groups, there’s no fight for representation on your hands. The world literally speaks your language. Fiction is your comfort zone.
The extreme and enduring comfort of which must explain why the slightest jolt feels so unacceptable. The British like to think of ourselves as a solid, unflappable people, but really, we’re all paper doilies who tear at the slightest violation. And the worst violation we can suffer is at the hands of Americans who get Britishness wrong.
The Haunting of Bly Manor, Netflix’s new spooky series based on the works of Henry James – an American who elected late in life to become a British citizen, so technically a win for our team – is well aware of British indignation. In episode one, there’s a gag in which a Yank does a comically bad English accent and receives an eye-rolling response from a Brit (not an actual one, but Henry Thomas doing a sort of James Mason), and a running joke about said American’s inability to make tea (she approaches it more or less like the woman in this video with the added injury of using a coffee pot).
Trained in decades of King Ralph-style culture-clash jokes about the snooty British tutting at graceless Americans (see Downton Abbey, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Buffy the Vampire Slayer…), The Haunting of Bly Manor knows the routine: Brits get uppity about this stuff.
Why then, does the show go on to commit the most egregious offence of all by making English characters speak American? Only the US pronunciation of ‘twat’ as ‘twot’ is as likely to put an end to the Special Relationship and get everybody dusting off their Revolutionary War muskets as hearing a so-called Englishman saying “math” without an “s” at the end.
(Sidenote: as a young English child with weekly access to 1980s US sitcom Kate & Allie, I envied nothing more than the brown paper grocery bags and sugary Pop Tart treats of the New World, and so to borrow a bit of US glamour, once wrote the singular ‘Math’ on the front of my school subject exercise book. It was returned to me with the errant “s” added on and twice underlined. Mr Welsh in Year 7 wasn’t having any of my transatlantic nonsense.)
I say ‘so-called Englishman’, in Bly Manor, “math” was said by an actual Englishman: Matthew Holness, actor, writer and the genius co-creator of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Holness plays sweet toff Dominic Wingrave in the show. In episode six ‘The Jolly Corner’, Dominic works out that he’s not the biological father of his youngest, Flora, and confronts his wife about it: “Math didn’t work did it? I mean that if she wasn’t early, she was actually right on time, that math wouldn’t work. […] Six years, it took me six years to do the math.” Three times. Three. Where’s Year 7 teacher Mr Welsh when you need him? Not script-editing a Netflix show, where he’s sorely needed.
An episode earlier, an Englishwoman twice offers to “arrange a ride” for her housekeeper. In a rare event for the British aristocracy, she’s not talking about horses (nor is she Irish and offering to procure her housekeeper the services of a male sex worker, or, as we call them in England, trumpet-dandy). She’s talking about a car, in which any English person would always get a lift and never a ride.
It continues. In episode two ‘The Pupil’, English chef Owen urges a bunch of mostly British people to sample his “cake batter” and not a one of them responds by saying ‘Batter? You mean cake mix, you bellend. No more Kate & Allie for you’. In episode three ‘The Two Faces, Part One’, a little English girl performs a party piece about a kitten unravelling “yarn” rather than the English term ‘wool’. (Thankfully she describes said yarn as originating in a “jumper” and not a ‘sweater’, which is, when you think about it, a horrid name for something you wear.)
The Haunting of Bly Manor was filmed in Vancouver and Washington, but is mostly set in England and specifically, Hampshire (in the south, the county I’m from). For the most part, the US and Canadian locations do a good impression of the English countryside. Their London streets are less convincing, but the addition of flat caps and trilbies to the heads of every man who walks past in the background helps to mitigate things. Yes, it’s supposed to be London in June 1987 and not January 1912 but as one of the greater things to mourn in modern culture is the loss of people habitually wearing hats out of doors, it’s allowable.
Hats, anyway, are so intrinsic to British culture that when Owen picks Dani up to drive her to Bly, where should she be standing but outside a shop selling them. Hat shop = instant London. (In The Turn of the Screw, the original Henry James novella on which Bly Manor is based, a large proportion of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel’s lustful evil is genuinely expressed via the fact that in life, both were often to be found out of doors without a hat. Look it up if you don’t believe me.)
In true ‘Wee Britain’ style, the residents of Bly Manor eat the traditional meals of the English – bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie, and a pot of tea with every meal. The presence of Yorkshirewoman Jamie (played by English-southerner-doing-a-Northern-accent Amelia Eve) presumably explains the presence of tea as a mealtime accompaniment because it wouldn’t happen in Hampshire – at least, not on my watch. Nothing, as far as I can tell, explains the presence at Bly Manor of the poshest policeman ever to say ‘Why hello, why hello, why hello.’
Pouring salt on the wound is that Bly Manor is filled to the rafters with real British people. In the cast (Rahul Kohli, T’Nia Miller, Tahirah Sharif, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Matthew Holness, Amelia Eve, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Amelie Bea Smith…) and on the writing staff (Michael and Paul Clarkson, Laurie Penny…) the show has enough Brits to form its own cricket team. And yet not one of them spoke up about these severe infringements to our national character.
It’s almost as if there are more important things to worry about. As proven though by the fuss kicked up over Netflix’s fluffy new series Emily in Paris, in which Americans commit the second worst crime imaginable and get Frenchness wrong, there’s no end to the nose-out-of-joint sensitivity of the West’s most pervasive cultures. The French have a point. After all, it’s not as though there are any other films or art about Paris. No, if the umbrage is there for the taking, by golly, we’ll take it. Pip pip!
The Haunting of Bly Manor is streaming now on Netflix