The British and Big Brother
February 22, 2005 6:57 PM   Subscribe

What is it with the British and big brother? I've seen countless pieces of British that have to do with Big Brother. It really seems like a very British theme. TV shows like the Prisoner, comic books like Braintax's Futureghost, books like 1984 (british right?) all seem to hold to this. Am I right in thinking that it is a predominately a British theme? If it is, why? Also what good/popular British media deal with this subject?

I saw a documentary on television saying that Britain has a huge amount of cameras that monitor people and they are all networked. Is it because the country is relatively large and isolated (island) that it can be tracked and locked down easily?
posted by Napierzaza to Media & Arts (10 answers total)
Well, this is my opinion/observation....I'm not english and I'm not old enough (I'd judge you'd be 60-80 to really have lived through this.) But I figured, that nobody else had taken a crack (and there were too many unanswered ASK questions tonight.)

Perhaps it was a combination of Huxley's book Brave New World and the book 1984 both of which are books about dystopias reflecting a social meme of the 1930s.

England was the pillar of freedom during WWI and WWII - countries like Italy, Russia and Germany all had very authoritarian societies - societies that tried to control travel, life and "thought".

Since this sort of literature reflected social feelings at the time...they in turn influenced the visual medium, particularly during the cold war.
posted by filmgeek at 10:17 PM on February 22, 2005

Check out Alan Moore's V for Vendetta. Of course something like "One flew over the cuckoo's nest" could be seen as a non-British take on it.
posted by john-paul at 1:28 AM on February 23, 2005

I think the British are automatically suspicious of authority and this is just one kind of outlet of that. For example you'll notice that there's a pretty big market for political satire in Britain, and that our political leaders are at best tolerated rather than liked. In fact look at British comedy in general and you'll notice it more often takes the piss out of authority than American comedy does, for example (eg. Monty Python, The Office, Father Ted, The Day Today/Brass Eye).

The government are trying to introduce ID cards at the moment and it's meeting some resistence. The rest of Europe can't see what the fuss is about as many of them already have ID cards of some kind. Again, I think this comes down to many British people's automatic distrust of the government.

Incidently I believe it's correct that Britain has the biggest number of surveilance cameras however it's far from true that they're networked. Most organized surveilence schemes have been paid for and operated by local authorities - not the police. The guys watching the cameras have to phone up the police just like any other witness would. I also suspect when they count the cameras they include cameras in shops, outside offices and other privately owned cameras. Don't get me wrong, this doesn't make me feel a whole lot better about it, but at least good old fashioned British disorganization offers some level of privacy.
posted by dodgygeezer at 3:17 AM on February 23, 2005

1984 was on the curriculum at my school, iirc. so a lot of british people of my generation would have read it.
posted by andrew cooke at 3:58 AM on February 23, 2005

The best examples you have are a 1949 book and a 1967 TV series? That's hardly an obsession.
posted by cillit bang at 5:06 AM on February 23, 2005

The British are a suspicious lot who are used to being ignored politically. Consider that Britain has the most CCTV cameras per capita of any nation, and the UK really can feel like the utopian Big Brother state. Private Eye is probably the best, and most well known, regular publication which lampoons most of these issues.
posted by wackybrit at 6:22 AM on February 23, 2005

No one seems to have mentioned the obvious: 1984 was set in a near-future British dystopia.
posted by scratch at 7:06 AM on February 23, 2005

There are around 4m CCTV cameras in the UK (according to Liberty). Some of them are networked and run by the police, some are private, some are in shops. Most of them are unwatched and only ever used for evidence gathering after crimes have occurred - supporting reactive, but not proactive policing.

I have read a few books on the topic, and can recommend
CTRL (Space): Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother
whilst MIT press (so not UK specific) is a fascinating collection of academic press on the subject.
Total Surveillance: Investigating the Big Brother World of E-spies, Eavesdroppers and CCTV
is a less well constructed (but much cheaper) book featuring more UK and Europe specific material - including details of an interesting study into what surveillance operatives actually look at (young males, specifically young black males, women in short skirts etc. etc.).

And don't forget, Jeremy Bentham was British, and his panopticon is one of the first (if not the first) expressions of modern surveillance ideas.

Speaking personally, I'd be happy with better CCTV coverage. My opinions have changed very recently - I had my nose broken (and split, leaving me with a scar, hence my last askme q!) in an unprovoked random attack just the other week, in the city centre. But as no CCTV footage was recovered, there's no way of identifying the little bastard who did it. Wandering around town now has an extra edge to it - give me a panopticon any day.
posted by handee at 9:28 AM on February 23, 2005

It may have something to do with the British class system, and the working-class attitude to the representatives of law and authority. Richard Hoggart wrote in The Uses of Literacy (1957) that "they tend to regard the policeman primarily as someone who is watching them, who represents the authority which has its eye on them, rather than as a member of the public services whose job it is to help and protect them". (Emphasis mine.)
posted by verstegan at 3:45 PM on February 23, 2005

Response by poster: I was thinking there was more of a theme than that.
posted by Napierzaza at 3:36 PM on March 1, 2005

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