12/08/2013, by CLAS

Gibraltar: More than ‘Britain in the Sun’

On the back of successful viewing figures, Channel 5 has lost little time in commissioning a second series of its fly-on-the-wall documentary ‘Gibraltar: Britain in the Sun‘. Notwithstanding the personal trials and tribulations of the individuals featured in the programme, the overall picture presented of Gibraltar is overwhelmingly positive. Glossy production values, quick edits, overlapping storylines, frequent motion shots and constantly bright colours present the territory as a lively and exciting place to live or to visit. Judging by early commentary in the Gibraltar press and in social media, however, the reaction of Gibraltarians themselves to the programme have not been universally positive.

My colleague at the University of Leicester, Chris Grocott, has already pointed out how the premise of the programme is potentially misleading. Building on a long-standing tourist strategy of successive Gibraltar governments, the programme makers strive hard to highlight those aspects of Gibraltarian life that reflect a forceful and idiosyncratic reading of ‘British’ identity and values – from apparently unanimous support for monarchy and the military to red telephone boxes and policemen with traditional helmets. Perhaps more troubling is the way that Gibraltarians are often sidelined in favour of a succession of British expatriates; the complexities and unique features of the local population often ignored, perhaps because they do not always sit so neatly with the image of ‘The Rock’ so suggestively invoked by the title of the series.

Confusion as to the ‘British’ nature of Gibraltar and its residents is nothing new, and as I have tried to convey elsewhere, has often depended on the pre-existing prejudices and contextual knowledge of the observer. Visitors from the early nineteenth century onwards were apt to draw radically different conclusions on the subject, sometimes expressing astonishment at the ‘Spanishness’ of a nominal British territory, or at the very least (and accurately) noting the multicultural mix of the civilian population. British writer Laurie Lee, by contrast, described Gibraltar during a visit in 1936 as ‘slate coloured, aloof… shadowed beneath a plate of cloud, immersed in its own private rain storm. To travellers from England, Gibraltar is an Oriental bazaar, but coming in from Spain I found it more like Torquay…’ Above all, what tended to unite outsiders’ accounts of Gibraltar was a sharp distinction between the supposedly ‘British’ features presented by the large garrison and resident colonial administration, and the more complex linguistic and cultural practices of the civilian population who would eventually come to regard themselves as ‘Gibraltarians’. To date, the makers of ‘Gibraltar: Britain in the Sun’ seem to be falling into similar traps, and it is to be hoped that a second series will devote more time to exploring the lives and cultural values of the ‘native’ population.

I use the word ‘native’ with reluctance, not due to any implicit political judgement over the rights of Gibraltarians to self-determination (a claim that Spain still rejects in both its moral and legal senses), but for fear of falling into a further trap that has captured the makers of this series. ‘Gibraltar: Britain in the Sun’ all too often betrays what might be termed a ‘colonialist’ discourse towards its subjects, and this more than anything might explain the mixed reactions to the series in Gibraltar itself. Most obviously, in both selective editing and Timothy Spall’s voiceover, a tone of condescension is apparent. Gibraltarians may not always be presented in a negative light, but their behaviour is often portrayed as slightly comical, whether this is the schoolboy’s pretensions to be a ‘hero’ lifeguard, ex-mayor Momy Levy’s insistence upon standing when the Queen appears even on television, or Tito Vallejo’s desire to dress up in ancient military uniform.

Meanwhile, the programme dismisses the popular Gibraltarian drink Tinto Verano (incidentally, also a staple of many Spanish bars) as ‘basically red wine and lemonade’. Even more egregious, Spall introduces a brief commentary on Gibraltar’s ‘language’ (this terms is certainly contested by academics) Llanito/Yanito by opining that ‘it may sound like gibberish’. Gibraltarians are also placed firmly within familiar British clichés of ‘lazy’ Mediterraneans when Spall discusses the shortened ‘summer hours’ in place (for very good reasons) during the often-oppressively hot summer months. More examples could easily be added to this list.

If quasi-colonialist superciliousness creeps into the presentation of Gibraltarians, this is even more apparent in the series’ occasional and reluctant handling of things Spanish. Again, the narrative sits nicely with familiar preconceptions about Spain’s (and Spaniards’) attitudes to Gibraltar, which can easily be exacerbated by Gibraltarians’ own public discourse on the subject. But the effect is to present a stilted and damaging oversimplification of an always complex cross-frontier relationship. ‘Britain in the Sun’ consistently shows Spain and the Spanish in a negative light: Spain as the ever-present ‘bully’ of Gibraltar with needless frontier queues and regular incursions into Gibraltar’s waters; individual Spaniards only ever witnessed as drug users or as smugglers; a British tourist desperate to cross the frontier for medical treatment in Gibraltar since the Spanish hospitals are not good enough. In short, in a rather worrying jingoistic fashion, Spain offers a useful counterpoint for the programme makers as showing Gibraltar to be ‘better’ simply by virtue of it being ‘British’.

It is to be hoped that a second series delves deeper and more sensitively into Gibraltarians’ culture and history if its aim is to offer an accurate portrayal of this unique territory and its people. It is also to be hoped that a more nuanced understanding of Spain’s relationship with Gibraltar (both positive and negative) can replace the current narrative. Given the recent increase in tension between Spain and Gibraltar, a repeat of the first series’ presentation of the relationship will only add to mistrust and hostility on either side of the frontier, and throw fuel onto a potentially dangerous fire.

Gareth Stockey, Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies

Photo: Arne Koehler, Wikimedia commons

Posted in Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies