Rash Report: The British are coming! (Just in time, too.)

  • Updated: April 9, 2011 - 10:09 PM

England's royal wedding, 'The King's Speech' and 'Upstairs, Downstairs' colonize American pop culture with impeccable timing.

FILE - In this Nov. 16, 2010 file photo, Britain's Prince William and his fiancee Kate Middleton are seen at St. James's Palace in London, after they announced their engagement. Prince William and Kate Middleton will marry April 29, 2011 in Westminster Abbey, the historic London church where Princess Diana's funeral was held, royal officials said Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010.

Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth, ASSOCIATED PRESS - AP

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A British Invasion that's more Westminster Abbey than Abbey Road will hit critical mass this month.

On the heels of the Best Picture Oscar for "The King's Speech" comes Sunday night's premiere of an updated "Upstairs Downstairs," which is part of PBS's "Masterpiece Classics 40th Season."

Then, on April 29, coverage of Prince William and Kate Middleton tying the knot ought to rope in millions of Americans, many of whom will welcome a bit of British civility right about now.

Media is an actor in all three dramas. In "Upstairs Downstairs" and "The King's Speech," the new media of its day -- radio (or "wireless," as it was often called, foreshadowing today's Wi-Fi) -- plays prominently in the dramatic dénouements.

In "Upstairs Downstairs," BBC's reexamination of the rigid roles assigned to the British aristocracy and working class, the three-part series is bookended by kings' speeches on the radio, during which the listeners stand and respectfully listen. The second speech is given by King Edward VIII, who is abdicating the throne in favor of his mistress, Wallis Simpson, an American commoner.

He's succeeded by his brother, King George VI, whose success at overcoming his stutter in order to address his subjects over the airwaves is the drama behind "The King's Speech."

Both are great stories, well told. But as far as monarchies and media goes, royals on the radio are rather quaint compared to the modern multimedia coverage of the royal wedding.

Just about every media form (except for 3D-TV, which the royal family politely declined) will make the Windsor wedding one of the most-watched events ever. Predictions of viewership run as high as 2.4 billion, or about a third of the world's population.

Exhaustive coverage on broadcast and cable TV, as well as newspapers, magazines, music (a ceremony soundtrack on iTunes, and later on a CD), websites, social media and, yes, radio, will amplify the nuptials to such a degree that the 1981 Prince Charles-Lady Diana wedding will look like an elopement.

The movie, miniseries and maximum wedding coverage comes at a time when world-weary (and world-wary) Americans -- exhausted by news of pan-Arabic uprisings, the natural and man-made crises rocking Japan, as well as our involvement in three foreign wars -- may be forgiven for favoring country music over "God Save the Queen."

Yet Americans still seem interested, if not riveted, by U.K. culture. "Britain is easy," said John Watkins, Distinguished McKnight University professor at the University of Minnesota who is an expert on British history and culture. "It has all the exoticness of being a foreign place, but it's the same language."

This ease is reflected in by the close diplomatic ties between the two countries -- the "special relationship," as it's called. But the cultural commonalities don't mean we've lost our fundamental governmental differences.

"We need the monarchy to remind us that we're not one," said Watkins. Even though at times we may envy some aspects of a system we fought a revolution to break free from.

"The person who embodies the myth of the country is the monarch," Watkins said. "You can love the queen and hate Tony Blair. Every so often we would like to have a head of state who is not the president."

That dichotomy is one angle on Anglophilia; class is another. The royal wedding, "The King's Speech" and "Upstairs Downstairs" are all also marked by sharp social-class divisions.

Kate, after all, is a commoner (albeit one from a wealthy family), as is the therapist in "The King's Speech." And the "Upstairs" aristocrats and the "Downstairs" servants live separate lives in the same house.

Yet despite America priding itself as a country without major class distinctions, the royal real-life and historical dramas are big box office.

"Americans are kind of fascinated with the trappings of aristocracy, in part because we are a highly class-divided society, but one that has also a lot of social mobility, and which has tended to deny distinctions of status," said Joseph Gerteis, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota.

This denial of social class comes amid historically high income inequality. Joseph Stiglitz, economics professor at Columbia, recently wrote in Vanity Fair that the top 1 percent of Americans now earn nearly 25 percent of the nation's income and control 40 percent of the nation's wealth, compared with 12 percent and 33 percent, respectively, 25 years ago.

Yet despite the rich getting richer, social mobility -- the sense that birth does not determine social class -- has helped "blunt the kind of class consciousness that you see in Britain," said Gerteis. "Americans tend to see everyone as everyone else's social equal. It's one way that we have been a very democratic society."

Another definition of class -- social graces, not social systems -- may also be a reason behind the resonance of the three cultural events.

America's aristocratic class has its pop-culture figures as well, such as Donald Trump, whose public persona says a lot about present-day social class and social grace. The billionaire reality TV host is now a possible presidential candidate.

He's been brash, as always, especially since become a "birther," claiming that President Obama "doesn't have a birth certificate," or if he does, "maybe it says he's a Muslim." Trump's been rewarded with a Fox News contributor gig, although his act is too much for even his easily alarmed colleague Glenn Beck, who said Trump has "made me a little uncomfortable recently."

A lot of people are a little on edge these days, which helps explain why some seek the reassuring embrace of Mother England.

"Timing is not my strong suit," stammers George VI when asked if he knows any jokes. It may not have been the king's strength, but for films like "The King's Speech" and "Upstairs, Downstairs," as well as fairy tales like the royal wedding, the timing couldn't have been better.

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. Rash Report appears on Saturdays.

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