Friends is gone for good. Could we BE any sadder?

The creator of Friends, that cultural juggernaut we all love to love, has confirmed there won't be a reunion any time soon. Will anything ever live up to it?

 

Something huge happened this week. We shared a collective human moment, in which we finally laid to rest a huge cultural icon which had cast a long, inescapable shadow. Everything that came after it was forever marked by it, directly or indirectly, for good or for ill. It was finally confirmed, chums: that Friends reunion you were secretly hoping against hope for, desperately willing into existence? It’s not happening. It will never happen. Marta Kauffman has said so, and she should know, seeing as she is one of the creators of what became a cultural juggernaut. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. In my best approximation of Chandler Bing, could I BE any sadder? (No. I could not.) 

Of course, we knew it could never happen. Are you crazy? Remember Adam and Joe’s marvellously silly low-budget but high-entertainment Channel 4 show, called, er, The Adam and Joe Show? They did an excellent spoof of Friends, called FURENDS in which the glossy Hollywood cast was played by stuffed furry creatures. Here’s a clip: 

In case you missed it, the refrain goes: “we’ll be here for you, for a hundred grand a show”. 

It would take all the money in the Emirates to bring new Friends to any screen – big or small – near you. And anyway, everyone’s moved on. Jennifer’s keeping a cottage industry of tabloids going by remaining unwed, female and attractive, Matthew’s working on Go On (and guest starring on The Good Wife from time to time, one hopes), Courtney made quirky comedy Cougar Town, David wears a beard and directs and Lisa (for my money the best actor on the show) continues to do interesting film and TV work from time to time. Friends is over. They were there for us, for ten years, and now they are no longer there, except via DVD and Comedy Central. In a world where Matt Le Blanc – reborn as an older, more silver and even wildly more attractive version of his 90s self – is in turn playing a version of himself/Joey Tribbiani on the very enjoyable Episodes, the message is clear. We rocked your TV worlds and changed your TV lives, we get it. But you need to let us go. In any case, “a hundred grand a show” was laughably modest. If nothing else, they must be too busy counting their money (pre-recession interest rates, no less) to consider a reunion. 

I’ve thought about this a lot (too much?), and concluded that Friends is probably my favourite show of all time. I was awed by State of Play, flabbergasted by The Shadow Line, charmed by Frasier, warmed by The Cosby Show, excited by Misfits and moved by The Wire. But I loved Friends. I’ve watched every episode, from beginning to end, over and over. It’s comfort food, familiar and requiring little to no effort from me at this point, which I appreciate as I get older and the boxsets accumulate. It is often betrayed by its scene furniture: the music references (oh, Hootie and the Blowfish), its now-dated cultural icons (Jean-Claude van Damme and Noah Wyle and George Clooney, at the height of their ER fame, playing doctors etc.) and its awful, awful fashion. But the gags display a calibre that was often hard to beat. Yes, they were self-absorbed, privileged twenty-somethings living in one of the most expensive cities in the world, but they were funny and real and human. After a lifetime of watching television in unhealthy quantities, Friends provides the biggest chunk of the references I have stored away in the intricate pop culture Rolodex in my mind. Sometimes, I still whisper "seven" when giving out a number. And when the person gets it, I give them a mental – or sometimes physical – high five. 

It is not perfect, of course. At the New Statesman Centenary debate earlier this month, I bemoaned the lack of diversity in Friends, from a curiously monochrome New York to the recycling of a storyline for two black female guest stars over the course of the show. And the fat-suit-clad young Monica (a standard TV trope of the "ugly duckling made good") always struck a weird note, even if it tried to pinpoint a solid and satisfying back-story for the character. The central relationship of Ross and Rachel was finely observed, their initial breakup actually harrowing for a sitcom. It had great recurring guest stars with proper arcs – Paul Rudd, Aisha Tyler, Lauren Tom, Tom Selleck, Jane Sibbett – as well as the type to draw a whoop from the studio audience – Bruce Willis, Jeff Goldblum, Kathleen Turner, Christina Applegate and Reese Witherspoon aka the Green sisters. It’s a hard trick to pull off stunt casting without you know, looking like stunt casting, but when Friends was the biggest show in the world, it managed just that. It had its doldrums seasons too: 9 and 10 were often watchable, but showcased a show that was a former shadow of itself. As for the Emily debacle of Season 4/5, the less said the better, even though it did give us a corker of a season finale and also this marvellous quiz. When one considers a ten-year run which contained an unbroken string of sparkling seasons, it would be churlish not to forgive and forget those indiscretions. 

The legacy of Friends is best seen in the television its absence has bequeathed us. From New Girl to Happy Endings, nothing quite lives up to it and perhaps nothing ever will. And we need to be okay about that and just let it die, already.

 

 

Oh, look how ridiculous good-looking and clean-cut they were.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon