A majestic boat deserves a majestic name
By Dominic Utton.
Only in Britain could a state-of-the-art £200 million polar research vessel be given the name “Boaty McBoatface”. But when the National Environment Research Council (NERC) came up with the idea of asking the great British people to name its new ship, they didn’t count on our wickedly subversive sense of humour.
Boaty McBoatface smashed the online poll – amassing 27,000 votes and crashing the servers in the process. (The second place choice, RRS Henry Worsley, only gained 3,000 votes.) Other strong contenders included “Usain Boat”, “Pingu”, and “RRS It’s Bloody Cold Here”.
Sadly, it seems the NERC will not be bowing to the will of the people after all – they confirmed yesterday that the name will now be chosen by “a panel of experts”, no matter what the public wants.
Yes, Boaty McBoatface has become a shipwreck before it’s even set sail. A tragedy – but nonetheless, what this fleeting saga beautifully highlights is the British sense of humour at its very finest. It shows our unique ability to reduce serious situations to silliness; and to use a rebellious sort of facetiousness to prick pomposity and celebrate the surreal.
Bravo the member of South West staff at Waterloo. Trainy McTrainface. pic.twitter.com/REY9lCP6jx
— Harry Wallop (@hwallop) March 22, 2016
During the Blitz in 1940, when American journalist Ed Murrow broadcast his “London Calling” bulletins back to the US, he reported how, on the day after France had surrendered and Britain stood alone against the might of Nazi Germany, he saw a newspaper seller standing in the rubble of the capital. His placard read: “BRITAIN AND GERMANY IN THE FINAL”. At a stroke, the horrors of war were cast into an absurd light – and Murrow said he didn’t know whether to cry or laugh.
Likewise, some 60 years later, when British and American forces were locked in a deadly struggle with Taliban insurgents in the Tora Bora cave complex in Afghanistan, that same instinctive urge to puncture seriousness came to the fore. The US soldiers called Tora Bora “The Caves of Death”. The British squaddies, on the other hand, dubbed it: “Tora Bora Tomkinson”. Suddenly, that American hyperbole just looked a little … silly.
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Why do we do this? Is it tied up in our natural British reserve – because ostentatious statements, acts and events embarrass us, and we feel a need to alleviate the seriousness somehow? Is it that we are a naturally subversive lot – and can’t resist thumbing our nose at authority, blowing a raspberry at those in charge? (Hence why we celebrate a man like Eddie the Eagle – soon to me immortalised in film.)
Or is it simply that we’re suckers for a touch of the surreal? We are the country of the Goons, Monty Python and Vic and Bob, after all.
Perhaps the answer lies in a combination of all the above. So when over 390,000 British people registered their religion as “Jedi” on their 2001 Census forms (including 2.6 per cent of the population of Brighton, oddly) there was certainly more than a whiff of subversion about it – but it was a peculiarly British subversion. When we want to protest about something, our preferred method is to do it by taking the mickey.
It’s that same pricking of pomposity that prompted the British crowds to taunt – rather than cheer – David Blaine as he starved himself in a Perspex box on the South Bank of the Thames in 2003. In a stroke of comic genius, Loaded magazine even sent burgers up on a remote controlled helicopter to dangle by the magician’s head.
What was the thinking behind the piss-taking? It wasn’t nastiness. It was a nation saying: “Stop showing off, man. It’s undignified.”
See also Spike Milligan’s perfect demolition of the vanity behind award ceremonies. As he received his lifetime achievement gong at the 1994 British Comedy Awards he interrupted Prince Charles’ glowing tribute with: “The little grovelling bastard.”
Boom! After that all the backslapping and congratulating suddenly seemed a bit… pathetic.
One also suspects that in most countries, describing the heir to the throne in such terms might be seen as scandalously unfunny – here it brought the house down.
Jarvis Cocker waving his backside at a self-deifying Michael Jackson at the 1996 Brits, politicians having to share stages with men dressed as giant prawns at every General Election results declaration, Ali G asking Buzz Aldrin if man would ever walk on the sun (“Yeah, but what if they went in winter, when the sun is cold?”), just about everything The Day Today ever did… all unfailingly funny, all rather surreal, and all symbols of the common people sticking two fingers up at the establishment.
But perhaps the best example of our uniquely British combination of the daft, the subversive and that innate need to puncture the pompous, came on the biggest stage of all.
The 2012 Olympic opening ceremony will be remembered for its beauty, its ambition, the breath-taking visuals and glorious set pieces… but also for two moments that perfectly capture just what makes our sense of humour the best in the world.
Rowan Atkinson skewering the self-importance of Vangelis’s Chariots of Fire theme (sighing, checking his watch, taking a selfie, reaching for a hankie, all whilst maintaining that same one-fingered note on his keyboard) was a comedic masterclass… but the biggest cheer of the night was when the Queen appeared to parachute into the Olympic stadium.
It was very silly, it was more than a little bit impertinent… and it showed that even our monarch could take the mickey out of herself. It was also wholly, uniquely, British.
As for the RRS Boaty McBoatface … nobody who voted in the online poll really believed that the NERC would ever actually give their shiny new flagship such a ridiculous name. But the fact the po-faced men in charge have had to publicly admit to ignoring the results of their own competition in order to call it something more sensible is a sort of victory in itself.
And that’s funny in anyone’s book.