BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Queen Mother of England of course holds a special place in the hearts of Britons. But do you know her name? It happens to be Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon Windsor, but you probably didn't know that. Here in the Colonies we don't have much cause to recognize Mum's name or the names of scores of others who have earned fame over there. As Bob discovered, our British cousins have lately developed an extremely low threshold for defining celebrity.
WOMAN: You've looked after loads of their celebrities, made them up--
MAN: Yeah. Yeah.
WOMAN: -- which one's your favorite - who's your favorite [...?...]--? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
MAN: I do loads. I do loads. But I really like doing Gail Porter. She's absolutely brilliant. I do Melanie Sykes, Melinda Messinger-- I mean ranges - you know - all different ages. [SEVERAL SPEAK AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD:Gail Porter, Melanie Sykes, and Melinda Messinger. Who in the world are Gail Porter, Melanie Sykes and Melinda Messinger? They're nobody, that's who they are. Great Britain is at the moment so painfully bereft of world class celebrities that their demi-celebrity chat show hostesses are reduced to interviewing demi-celebrity hairdressers about the demi-celebrity entertainers whom you almost certainly have never heard of. For a country that produced Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, 007 Sean Connery, Princess Diana and the Beatles, the current celebrity drought is an embarrassment and a heartbreak.
RICHARD YOUNG: Any time you went to an event you always knew you had to put your best dinner suit and bow tie on. It's been a long time since I wore a dinner suit and a bow tie.
BOB GARFIELD: Richard Young is a freelance celebrity photographer who has been shooting pop stars and royalty for 40 years.
RICHARD YOUNG:People I'm going to photograph in, in London doesn't really warrant it, and I look around me and I see this - the, the, the people that everybody is going mad about, and I think to myself these are not stars! How for crying out loud can these people have the audacity to call themselves celebrities?
BOB GARFIELD: Who are the big celebrities in, in the United Kingdom right now?
WOMAN: I guess you'd say Robbie Williams, Gordon Brown--
BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you a followup question, please. Who are Robbie Williams and Gordon Brown?
WOMAN: Well one is a pop star, one's a politician.
BOB GARFIELD: Here's the one who isn't a politician.
ROBBIE WILLIAMS: [SINGING] HELL IS GONE AND HEAVEN'S HERE THERE'S NOTHING LEFT FOR YOU TO FEAR, SHAKE YOUR ASS, COME OVER HERE NOW SCREAM!
BOB GARFIELD: The song is titled Let Me Entertain You. You can hear it on your favorite top 40 station --never.
BOB GARFIELD: Excuse me. I'm Bob Garfield from National Public Radio in Washington. Can I ask you a question? Who are your big celebrities?
WOMAN: It's got to be David Beckham's wife. Yeah. Hush Spice.
MAN: Big celebrities in England? Nasser Hussein, the English cricket captain. He-- he's, he's one of my favorites.
MAN: I don't know - Tom Cruise--
BOB GARFIELD: Tom Cruise, American.
MAN: Yeah. Christina Ricci, Michelle Pfeiffer--
BOB GARFIELD: American, American.
MAN: Yeah, worldwide I think most of the big actors and actors are American.
MAN: David Beckham I suppose and his wife, Hush.
BOB GARFIELD: That's the best you can come up with.
MAN: Yeah. 'Fraid so.
BOB GARFIELD: Isn't that a pitiful state of affairs?
MAN: Sad. Sad.
BOB GARFIELD:It's worse than sad. It's pathetic. Whenever Briton comes up with a decent celebrity --Anthony Hopkins, Elizabeth Hurley, say -- they pick up and move to the United States where we have Hollywood and a superior way of life.
Indeed, like Russia with wheat and North Korea with rice, the Britannia that for decades exported its big stars, its music and its fashion now is reduced to importing from the States! Madonna's arrival has given Fleet Street a chance to hound somebody significant for the first time since the death of Princess Diana.
It's all a sign, says University of Sussex media studies professor Andy Medhurst, of a nation that is living so obsessively in the past that it has lost its grip on the present.
ANDY MEDHURST: England's become a kind of theme park country for lots of people who visit here. They have the things they tick off - it's like Disneyland with royalty - things they want to take home with them of images and memories of the English past. An English present doesn't interest many people outside England. [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD:Witness Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery, a movie that spoofs the time when Britain was setting the cultural agenda for the world.
ANDY MEDHURST: And he's a Canadian who's become an American pretending to be [LAUGHS] an Englishman, so there you go!
BOB GARFIELD: How embarrassing is that? But this tragic dearth of indigenous celebrity resources isn't merely embarrassing. It's the final proof after the march of the Euro, the flop of the Millennium Dome and the U.S. military domination of the Balkan crisis that the country that defeated the Spanish armada, that controlled colonies on four continents, that faced down Hitler is now completely irrelevant to the rest of the world. What Robbie Williams proves once and for all is that the sun has set on the British Empire. Professor Medhurst.
ANDY MEDHURST: The days when we could have claimed to have sort of cultural dominance across the Atlantic certainly are long, long gone. I think what we have to do is recognize where our place on the global ladder is and we always had a very inflated idea of where that was, and I guess now we're having to-- to face facts, you know. We're a small island off the northwest coast of Europe which is not a bad thing. It's just -- the thing that is.
BOB GARFIELD:They've given us their language; they've given us their common law; they've given us their muffins. Once upon a time the British wove an exquisite tapestry of accomplishment. Now they are a faded, musty dropcloth of a former world power, and if you expect them to continue entertaining us, you can just put it out of your mind. The Princess is dead. Long live Madonna.
BOB GARFIELD: Can I ask you a question?
MAN: Yeah, go.
BOB GARFIELD: Who are your big celebrities.
MAN: You know I don't know at the moment; I really can't bring anyone to mind. Sorry. [LAUGHS] [MUSIC]