Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love in the early Aughts, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

Who is Freddo and What’s a Krankie? Puzzling Through the References on British Television

IMG_0423As far as immigration sagas go, my move to the U.K., minus a couple of slight stumbles, has been a relative cakewalk. Yes, securing a spousal visa proved to be somewhat Kafkaesque, but in the end, I was granted entry into a beautiful country populated by friendly folks who—and this is crucial to the ease of my transition—speak the same language as I do. As I’ve discussed in a previous post, I’ve had to get used to a few British-isms during my brief time residing in the land of jumpers and crumpets, but the learning curve could have been much steeper. Everyone around me could be speaking Mandarin, or Estonian, and I’d morph into one of those Ugly American tourists who, upon arriving in a bustling foreign city centre, immediately begins screeching “DOES ANYBODY HERE SPEAK ENGLISH?” (What, you think I’d actually be able to master conversational Estonian? Not a chance in põrgu.) My North American accent may sound a trifle strange to my British neighbours, but in general they seem to understand what I’m saying, and vice-versa.

Watching British television, however, can make me feel like a bewildered traveller in dire need of a Berlitz phrasebook. The barrage of references that are beyond my comprehension—Manchester United football heroes, obscure House of Lords members, beloved pantomime performers, Irish boy bands that were big in the ‘90s—makes my head spin. My English husband and I can’t get through a single evening’s viewing without me barking “WHAT’D THEY SAY?” over and over at him like an elderly moviegoer in constant need of a shush.

One of the most popular formats on British TV, or “telly,” is the panel show. These include such long-running favourites as Have I Got News for You, Mock the Week, and the late, lamented Never Mind the Buzzcocks. Comedians and pundits are divided into teams and are awarded points seemingly at random by a jocular host. A winning team is crowned at the end, but the set-up is ultimately just a flimsy excuse for the panellists to deliver bon mots on the news of the day or the topic at hand or really anything that comes to mind. (Possibly the closest equivalent on U.S. television would be Whose Line Is It Anyway, the improv game show first hosted by Drew Carey and then by Aisha Tyler, which is itself an adaptation of an old British show of the same name.) It’s on these panel shows that the baffling references reach rapid-fire frequency.  I find the political mentions puzzling enough, although the concept of politicians being liars, feckless fools, and/or self-aggrandizing blowhards is so universal that even if I’m unfamiliar with the specific shortcomings of, say, Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson, I can tentatively laugh along. Other references leave me thoroughly flummoxed and cross. A panellist will make a wry remark about some snooker pro, the studio audience will titter knowingly, and the panel will move on to the next quip while I’m still struggling to wrap my head around the idea that snooker is an actual thing and not some gobbledygook nonsense word. “Beware the Jabberwock! The frumious Bandersnatch! The caroming Snooker!”

On an episode of Mock the Week this past season, the subject of Freddos arose. Apropos of nothing, one panellist opined that the cost of a Freddo was no longer the 10 pence of yesteryear, to which the host retorted, “Let it go with the Freddo! Everyone is obsessed with the cost of a Freddo!” Freddo became a running joke throughout the episode— “Freddos come from a little French village called Le Freddo”— with the laughter growing heartier after each mention. I was utterly lost. The closest pop culture association I could think of was Fredo from The Godfather, but that didn’t make any sense in the context as there were no follow-up wisecracks about one-way fishing trips or il baccio della morte. That there was a price affixed to it deepened the mystery. Perhaps Freddo was some kind of hair salon coif, like a bob or a pageboy? As in, “I got a Freddo at the Kut ‘n’ Kurl the other day and I think I look years younger!” I was just about to turn to my spouse and sheepishly inquire about the particulars of this Freddo person/object/position-in-the-Kama-Sutra when, miraculously, the host intervened. He explained that a Freddo was in fact a chocolate bar made by Cadbury. (More specifically, per Wikipedia: “A brand of chocolate bar shaped like a cartoon frog, standing up and wearing clothes.”) Of course! That was obviously going to be my next guess.

It was an exceedingly rare instance of clarification. British telly viewers are expected to be fluent in the country’s culture, as indeed almost all of them are. You should know without any aid from Google that the Chuckle Brothers are a vintage comedy team corny enough to be name-checked ironically, that Ray Reardon is a veteran of the snooker circuit — snooker again! —who bears a passing resemblance to Dracula, and that Scottish entertainer Janette Krankie is, in terms of artistic importance, so far out of Jane Austen’s league that one can’t help but howl at the comparison. That last one may seem like a no-brainer even to an outsider; there are few artists in any medium who measure up to Austen, after all. But it’s only funny if you’ve previously been exposed to the inelegant, nay, downright goofy, comedic stylings of Krankie and her performing partner/husband Ian. (Check out this video for proof. Mind-blowing!)

Even though I grew up glued to episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers on PBS, I was woefully under-prepared for total immersion in British telly. And the pop culture stream flows irregularly across the Atlantic in both directions. My husband has never heard of Joe Namath, or Reggie Jackson. (But then he wouldn’t recognize the names of any Manchester United players either. Not a sports fan, my hubby.)  And he has not once, in all of his culturally deprived existence, experienced the genius that is Gilligan’s Island. I could chant “a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour” at him until I was blue in the face and he’d merely shrug. And possibly worry that I was having a stroke.

My online pal Ian—no relation to the Krankies—moved to the U.S. from Britain a few years ago when he married a lovely American woman and has similarly encountered many stateside pop culture staples that are alien to him. Prior to the move, he was unschooled in the charms of A Christmas Story and was therefore rather confused when he happened upon an American cable channel airing the film in a round-the-clock marathon during the holiday season. Likewise, the whole Pee Wee Herman phenomenon never reached him in the U.K. But on the upside, neither did the prop comic Gallagher. “I know he smashes melons, but that’s it,” Ian confesses. That’s already too much Gallagher-related info to retain.

As with so most other adjustments to life in a country other than one’s birthplace, this is a problem that only time can solve. It may take years and many, many panel show viewings before I can truly be in on the joke. But I fancy myself an apt pupil. I’m already planning on compiling an Excel spreadsheet entitled “People Who Are Hilariously Inferior to Jane Austen” for easy reference.  And in the interest of furthering my education, I’d even be open to this snooker thing, depending on how it frames my face. We are talking about a hairstyle, right?


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