False National Unity
Can we not say that Hugh Grant is a weird amalgam of what sociologist Jeremy Seabrook has called the 'cadences of command', and the blinking and stammering of the inarticulate? Does Grant's appeal rest on this apparent paradox of the accent of perceived articulacy, with the actually barely articulated?
Often, earlier in Grant's career, in films like The Lair of the White Worm and Bitter Moon, this combination left Grant as a supporting player: a kind of cameo-performer of cringe-inducing awfulness illustrated especially well in Hugh's dance floor disaster in the latter film. There was something in Grant's persona that suggested the clumsy, and even as he became defined as the new Cary Grant after Four Weddings and a Funeral, one noticed a fundamental difference. Cary's cluelessness would often come from a situational chaos - the way Katharine Hepburn disrupts his life in Bringing Up Baby, destroying in one scene his car and in another his dinosaur skeleton, or in North by Northwest, where he is on the run and unsure of the depth of the trouble he's in. In Hugh Grant the cluelessness is often a faux pas, generated out of basic stupidity, most obviously illustrated in the Four Weddings and a Funeral scene where he asks someone how his gorgeous girlfriend is, and the friend replies she's no longer his girlfriend. Grant then says it's for the best: she'd been rumoured to be bonking someone else in case things didn't work out. The friend, mortified, then informs Grant she's become his wife.
Now Cary's basic decency comes out of not who he was (Bristol-born Archibald Leach), but out of the values that he took from film to film that were, essentially, mid-Atlantic, geographical vagueness. Hugh's, on the other hand, comes out of an unequivocal Englishness, and so we often see in Hugh Grant's films, (and especially the ones we will concentrate upon here), and more generally in his persona, a further apparent contradiction to set alongside the cadences of command and the stammering: the assumed decency of Englishness and yet the indecency of Hugh Grant's 'character': the persona he projects in interviews. Relating his own relative comfort in singledom he says in an Empire interview, 'Comic Genius, 41...': "I take satisfaction from the hugely prevalent failure of my friends' marriages. Ninety-five per cent of them have fucked up now." When asked by Premiere if he keeps a hate list, he says he used to, "but now it wouldn't go on a 20 mega-byte hard disk." And yet Hugh Grant also says that he cares how the media presents him. "You do want to be liked", he insists in the same Premiere interview, 'Taken for Granted'.
But how does he achieve the reputation for cleverness and likeability if he's often a stammering wreck in his films and less than warm towards others in life? We return again to Hugh Grant's Englishness, or rather a specific type of Englishness. In an essay, England Your England, George Orwell talks about how the British "ruling class obviously could not admit to themselves that their usefulness was at an end...They belonged to a class with a certain tradition, they had been to public schools where the duty of dying for your country, if necessary, is laid down as the first and greatest of the Commandments." Now when Orwell says "they had to feel themselves true patriots even as they plundered their countrymen", it is almost a variation on Hugh Grant's niceness no matter if there is much that suggests cynicism and facetiousness. Is there some a priori assumption of decency in the notion of Englishness that transcends the behavioural specifics?
It is as if what Grant plays on is the provocation of an assumed niceness revealing a nastiness that is chiefly that of a provocateur. But because Grant is English, the niceness takes care of itself, so all he has to do is graft onto that niceness a nasty edge that will never be taken as seriously as the basic decency he's deemed to possess because he is English. It's this 'decent indecency' that is central to About a Boy. Here Grant plays a work-shy, label-obsessed, commitment-phobic Londoner whose prejudices against vegetarians and general do-gooders the film sees as merely incorrigible when we might be inclined to think them detestable. What is it in Hugh Grant that allows the viewer to believe in a character arc that's barely plausible in dramatic terms - a character arc that moves him from shallow solipsist to an emotionally-engaged social being who learns to love? Is it because Hugh, unlike Cary Grant, hasn't so much a persona of his own, but an Englishness that allows for the expression of an ambivalent persona? He doesn't move towards integration, but plays up the 'dis-integration' - the gap between English decency and half-hearted self-definition. When Hugh Grant's character talks about splitting his day up into half-hour slots, this isn't self-defining existentialism at work, it is just an attempt to stave off boredom and avoid social contact. Thus even his rudeness and laziness are taken as superficial character traits next to his final realization that he's really just part of one big happy English family.
Let us be provocative and say Grant's ambivalence is possible because of the 'enchanted glass' - a term Tom Nairn offers when talking about British citizens' relationship with the Queen. According to Nairn, when a British citizen meets the Queen, even the usually resilient anti-monarchical citizen folds in her company. (The Enchanted Glass) Now of course we're not saying Grant's persona is necessarily regal, but we might say part of his appeal resides in a 'regality', a sense of that a priori Englishness that can't be pinned down to behavioural specifics, but instead that the behavioural specifics represent a flimsy sense of self next to the demands of national identity. If it was famously said of Cary Grant he spent so long pretending he was Cary Grant that he eventually became Cary Grant, we could say the opposite of Hugh. Where Cary seemed to lose his Englishness but never quite became American, allowing him to become his own man, Hugh retains his Englishness to such a degree that any attempt at self-definition, be it in interviews or films, seems irrelevant next to his basic heritage.
And what is central to this Englishness as projected by Hugh Grant? Two things most especially: modesty, and a lack of ambition. Certainly in Bridget Jones' Diary Grant plays a callous cad more interested in his publishing career than love, but if we refuse to reject his character out of hand initially, it is because of the very charmed Englishness he projects: that there's something in his English demeanour that allows for decency to be assumed until it is unequivocally countered: until we realise the behavioural specifics are too encompassing; and it is left to Colin Firth's upright lawyer to represent Englishness at its best and most fundamental. (In Love Actually and Sense and Sensibility it is the reverse: as he plays the loveable prime minister in the former, and the finally deeply loving Edward Ferrars in the latter.)
Now we realise there's a problem here. What we're proposing is Englishness as some halcyon state when, as Doris Lessing suggests in her book, In Pursuit of the English, "the sad truth is that the English are the most persecuted minority on earth." Yet Lessing also says, "The press, national institutions, the very flavour of the air we breathe indicate their continued and powerful existence." Is Grant's generally self-deprecating persona consistent with the persecution-complex, and the final likeability central to the way he fits neatly into a notion of institutional Englishness, into the 'regality' aspect already mentioned?
It is this idea of Hugh Grant's essential Englishness that's the issue here, that whatever his personal characteristics they seem secondary to a bigger, broader identity. Is it not central to Notting Hill, where Grant offers lines like 'whoops-a-daisy' and has a wonderfully unforced life as he runs a travel book shop and lives in salubrious Notting Hill? What Grant offers is English normalcy next to Julia Roberts' movie star fame - a level-headedness that's quintessentially English. And yet is it really a level-headedness, or is it a regal superiority? In maybe the key scene in the film, Grant and his fellow English underachievers talk about failure while Roberts relates the neurosis of success. Grant gives the impression of a casual, unforced acceptance of one's fate, Roberts the driving sense of living up to herself in relation to her career and her weight: she talks of having semi-starved for years so as to keep her figure.
What is interesting is that the lack of ambition on Grant's part isn't a fundamental belief in a stoical existence, but closer, you sense, to a certain security to which an upper-middle class Englishman is entitled. Nairn describes this 'type' viciously but astutely when he says the voice "is more accurately described as the slurred, allusive, nasal cawing of the English gentry. Great Britain's accepted tongue is the ultra-distilled by-product of drawing-room, shoot and London club, a faded aristocratic patois remarkable for its anorexic vowels and vaporised consonants. This is social geography that links this vernacular to the London-Oxford-Cambridge triangle; while the social power of the same locality which has turned it into the inevitable emblem of authority, acceptance, literacy and nationality." (The Enchanted Glass) So when Americans like Andie McDowell in Four Weddings..., Julia Roberts in Notting Hill, and also single-mum Rachel Weisz in About a Boy fall for the laid-back Grant, we should remember that within this attitude they desire - and that we as viewers are supposed to engage in - is a dubious Englishness tying into comments by Orwell, Nairn etc.
This, then, is Englishness without a progressive aspect. As Nick James in Sight and Soundreckons, commenting on Notting Hill's ending', "anyone versed in the iconography of the English immediately thinks of The Secret Garden with its 'little bit of earth'...of Kipling and all the other literary touchstones of Empire contentedness..." Where numerous other British actors - Chistopher Ecclestone, Robert Carlyle, David Thewlis - utilise themselves in such a way as to bring out contradictions within Britishness, Grant more than any other British actor of his generation allows for these contradictions to be buried under the historical assumption James talks about.
Thus it isn't enough to say Hugh Grant is a hopeless actor. Sure, Four Weddings... co-star Kristin Scott-Thomas reputedly said to Grant, "Just shut up, darling. It's you. You don't even have to act." But then again, why the neurosis? "For me, it's physiological," he says in the Empire interview. "The pressure's so great - especially if you've been good in rehearsal." But during the actual shoot "you've got to be as light and natural and funny as you were in rehearsal. It's torture. It's been like that for ten years and getting worse." So this article is not about questioning Grant's integrity, nor even his acting ability, it is bigger and broader and raises questions about Englishness that Orwell touches upon when saying in the essay, 'The Lion and the Unicorn', "England is the most-class ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly. But in any calculation about it one has got to take into account its emotional unity, the tendency of nearly all its inhabitants to feel alike and act together in moments of supreme crisis." Now let us not exaggerate; watching a Grant film is hardly a moment of supreme crisis. But nevertheless, the feelings generated, the sense finally of decency and decorum, may be similar. That sense of well-being many feel after watching Four Weddings..., Notting Hill and About a Boy surely resides in the aforementioned Orwellian notion of Englishness. When we watch the interior (psychological) and exterior (sociological) complications of Ecclestone in Jude and Revenger's Tragedy, Carlyle in Riff-Raff and Safe, and Thewlis in Resurrection and Naked, the opposite of Orwell's unity is revealed.
While Grant's ambivalence comes from an unforced self-definition secondary to an innate Englishness; in Thewlis etc. it is the disunity, anger, irritation and resentment that is expressed - the idea that any notion of national unity is a joke. Thus Jude ends with Ecclestone's life in ruins knowing he will never go to university, Naked with Thewlis wandering the streets of London homeless, and Riff-Raff with Carlyle setting fire to the building site on which he's worked. Within these narrative cul-de-sacs the actors offer tic-ridden body language and demotic speech, as if their lives are a constant struggle for self-definition knowing that accepting a cosy social position isn't an option. When Grant offers a series of fucks as he wakes up late at the beginning of Four Weddings...his is the demotic as comic, the word coming from no deeper a place than momentary irritation. When the same word is offered by Thewlis, Carlyle and Ecclestone there is a texture to it, a sense of a hard life lived rather than a casual swear word used. But perhaps for those who feel on the outside looking in, Grant's casual approach to life, language and nationality may prove more offensive than the crudest of speech. After all, it was Orwell who said, in England Your England, 'Is not England notoriously two nations, the rich and the poor? Dare one pretend that there is anything in common between people with 10,000 a year and people with 1 a week.' Grant's persona often seems part of that pretence.
© Tony McKibbin