British Culture


You can really get a feel for a language by learning more about the culture of the country: its cinema, music, literature and theatre. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the cultural icons that Great Britain is best known for…

The UK has one of the biggest and most famous literary heritages in the world, with famous authors that include Emily Brontë, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Ian Fleming, C.S. Lewis, J.M. Barrie and Roald Dahl. Which other country could claim to have invented Frankenstein’s monster, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Bridget Jones, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Harry Potter, Peter Pan and Neverland, Matilda, Alice and the Jabberwock, Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, Winnie the Pooh, and the land of Narnia?

One of the biggest ‘movements’ in British literature was the Romantic movement of the 19th century. In reaction to the industrialisation of England in the 18th century, poets and authors such as William Blake, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge began to explore nature as a turn away from the artifice of the newly industrialised country. At the same time, industrialisation had made publishing and printing relatively cheap, so a lot of aspiring writers began to write novels for the masses: Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens and the Brontë sisters all took advantage of this, and the novel became a hugely popular literary form.

In the UK, we have something called a Poet Laureate, who is appointed by the monarch on advice of the Prime Minister. There are no real duties associated with the role, although it is expected that he or she will write poems for very significant national events. The UK’s Poet Laureateship has been held in the past by Edmund Spenser, Ben Jonson, William Wordsworth and Ted Hughes. Carol Ann Duffy, a favourite of British school English syllabuses, was appointed in 2009, becoming the first woman, the first homosexual and the first Scottish person to become Poet Laureate for the UK. She still holds the position today.

Perhaps the most famous British author at the moment is J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter franchise. In 2003, the UK’s national broadcasting company, the BBC, held an event called The Big Read, where the nation voted for their favourite book of all time. Of the top 10, nine were by British writers:

1. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
3. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (American)
7. Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

The UK has a very lively music scene. From classical musicians such as Edward Elgar to arguably two of the most famous bands in the world, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the UK has bred some very famous faces in the world of music. There is also a very strong festival culture here in the UK: in the summer months, people from all around the world flock to festivals such as Glastonbury, Download, T in the Park and Creamfields. Glastonbury is notorious for being held in muddy, rain-soaked fields and tents being washed away after days of great British summer rain. Glastonbury is attended by around 150,000 people every year, and tickets for events sell out within about 4 hours, after being put on sale almost a year in advance of the festival itself.

For those of us who prefer to return home to our nice cosy bed at night rather than sleeping in a cold, soggy tent, the BBC Proms are a national institution here in the UK, celebrating the best of classical music. Perfect for culture vultures, it presents performances of music from Handel, Beethoven, Bach, and many more, in the beautiful Royal Albert Hall:

Of course, the UK’s most famous theatrical figure is William Shakespeare, who was born in a small, beautiful town called Stratford-upon Avon, now a very popular tourist destination. Stratford is home to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), the most respected production company of Shakespeare’s plays in the world. The RSC tours the country and the world with their plays: in the summer of 2012, they recruited production companies from all around the world to perform a festival of 37 Shakespeare plays in 37 different languages, from Hamlet in Lithuanian to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Korean!

England’s capital, London, remains the centre of modern theatre: the Globe Theatre has been rebuilt to commemorate the famous playhouse where many of Shakespeare’s plays were first staged, and the West End of London, commonly known as Theatreland, is one of the world’s best known areas for modern theatre and musicals: The Mousetrap, by Agatha Christie, is this year showing for its 60th year at the Ambassador’s Theatre, making it the longest running theatrical production in the whole world! Going to one of the many theatres and productions in London is a very popular activity with tourists and locals alike: in 2011, just under 14 million people spent £528 million on tickets to shows in the West End of London alone!

The United Kingdom has a rich cinematic history, boasting the two highest-grossing film franchises in the world: Harry Potter and James Bond. We also have the oldest continuously running film studio, Ealing Studios, in West London. Some of the most famous actors, actresses and directors are British, including the Scott brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Laurence Olivier, Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Mendes, Vivien Leigh, Michael Caine, Roger Moore, and the one that all of your students will have heard of: Daniel Radcliffe!

This month, October, actually celebrates the 56th BFI London Film Festival, sponsored and held by the British Film Institute, which is the national organisation celebrating film in the UK. The festival celebrates old classics and brand new films, covering themes such as love, family, journeys, cult films and debuts from new directors. The BFI’s Youtube channel has some fascinating videos showing the diverse history of British cinema.

If you’d like to explore British cinema in a more detailed way in one of your lessons, there is a great resource all about the history and major movements here at the British Film Resource. You could also take a look at Empire’s vote of the 100 best British films ever here. How many have your students watched?