The very first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (BBC, 1969-1974) asked ‘Whither Canada?’, which is an interesting question for a former coloniser to ask of her former colony (and current member of the Commonwealth). Indeed, in 2012 BBC News asked ‘What Does It Mean to be Canadian?’ because Canada’s multiculturalism seemed to the journalist to preclude or disrupt notions of a coherent national identity. Although there is not enough time or wordcount available here for a full discussion about discursive national identity (see Anderson 2010 and my own paper on Kids in the Hall [CBC 1988-1994; Amazon.ca 2021-] and Canadianness from 2020 both discuss this topic in far more detail), what this does bring up is the connections between Canadianness, Britishness and (because it’s always there) Americanness.
This, then, brings me to Slings and Arrows (The Movie Network/Showcase, 2003-2006).
For those that don’t know the series, it was a roman a clef that followed a fictionalised version of the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival. The lead character, Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) was originally an actor who suffered a breakdown during a performance of Hamlet. After the death of that production’s director, Geoffrey returns to the festival to take over as artistic director, ultimately directing his own successful Hamlet– with some help from the ghost of Geoffrey’s original director Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette). Subsequent series followed Geoffrey’s productions of the Scottish Play (series 2) and King Lear (series 3) and the main themes of the plays are expressed through Geoffrey and the many other members of the company. The series was critically acclaimed and featured an almost Manichean dichotomy between Geoffrey’s view of theatre as art and social movement (not quite Boal 2008 but close) and executive director of the festival Richard Smith-Jones’ (Mark McKinney, also a series writer) view of theatre as a business, though he does fall prey to the temptations of the creative side in series 3 when helping with his great love, musicals.
Before getting into the Canadianness of the series itself, however, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single country in possession of a (perceived-)progressive national imaginary must be vastly more complicated than it seems. Though proudly espousing a multicultural ideal and, as of the time of writing, beginning to acknowledge the depredations and lingering institutionalised prejudices of and from colonialism, academic studies and popular culture relating to Canadian national identity has tended to focus upon the same civilising narrative(s) that the British and many other colonisers used to justify their mistreatment (to put it mildly) of Indigenous Canadians (Mackey 2002, Bury 2005). Responses of national and regional governments in Canada have been mixed. Official apologies for residential schools began in the 1990s from churches, in 2004 from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in 2008 from then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper and in from the Alberta and Ontario Premiers in 2015 and 2016 respectively. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee responsible for the investigation of this was dissolved in 2015 (Government of Canada/Gouvernement du Canada, accessed 28/2/23). Yet for every joint enterprise like the museum exhibition and documentary c’sna?m: The city before the city (2017, dir. Tailfeathers) there seems to be a case like that of the Ontario provincial government rejecting responsibility (Cecco 2023).
It is in this overall context that Slings and Arrows exists. The cast is predominantly white, though it does quietly subvert racial stereotypes and cultural appropriation during series 1 and 2 respectively. Instead, the series focuses upon national identities rather than subnational ones. The series features a number of well-known Canadian actors in addition to the transnationally recognisable Gross and McKinney (Due South [CTV/multiple production partners 1994-1997] and Kids in the Hall respectively), Canadian flags and other symbols are strewn about (Billig’s 1995 ‘flagging the nation’) and Americans are present only in series 1 as coarse individuals in contrast to the more genteel Canadians (who still swear, however). While Hollywood star Jack (Luke Kirby) is brought into the theatre fold, American businesswoman Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin) is the irredeemable pursuer of profit and ultimate abuser of her partner, Richard. Acland (2003) points out the ambivalent relationship Canada has with its geopolitically powerful neighbour to the south which Bury (2005) connects to a sense of superiority with regard to social progressiveness, all of which are borne out particularly in series 1.
So far, so Canadian. There is, however, another long-standing influence in Canadian culture: Britain. Jackson (2018) points out that British culture was part of the Canadian educational curriculum well into the mid-twentieth century, making it another familiar second culture to Canadians. The series itself follows a festival and productions based on the British playwright par excellence, Shakespeare. Geoffrey is haunted by a ghost of his father figure (who uses an Anglo-North-American accent) a la Hamlet. In series 3, Richard is intimidated slightly by being interviewed on BBC radio because the Queen might be listening (Geoffrey, on the other hand, is distracted from the whole thing and abruptly ends his interview by thanking the Queen for being on his money). The conventions of the Shakespearean double act are represented by Frank (Michael Polley) and Cyril (Graham Harley), two Englishmen who are a long-standing couple and longest-serving members of the company. Though the series plays extensively with orientation, Frank and Cyril are the only characters who are both canonically gay and who do not engage in relations with anyone else of any gender. This can be read in multiple ways; the most obvious connecting Britishness to history and (legitimate, however defined) art through Frank and Cyril as well as Geoffrey’s advocacy of Shakespeare over musicals or other more ‘popular’ theatrical forms.
There are many, many arguments to be made about that aspect of the series, certainly, no doubt drawing on the body of quality and cult TV work that is omnipresent in Media Studies, as well as the series’ portrayal of orientation amongst other things (twist my arm and I’ll write them up ad infinitum). Here, however, I would focus upon the point that the series is about a Canadian festival and a Canadian theatrical company’s productions of Shakespeare. More importantly, it is then taking the various themes from the featured play and giving iterations of them to the various Canadian characters in a specifically Canadian-coded context; i.e., the thinly-veiled Stratford Shakespeare festival which is itself routinely diegetically ‘flagged’ in dialogue, accents, casting and occasionally actual flags as Canadian (see Beattie 2020 for banal diegetic nationalism). Thus, I would argue that, though it has some British lineage, the series is recontextualising that lineage in a contemporary Canadian form. More than being an interlocutor (Hilmes 2012), in this instance Canadianness is actively utilising, appropriating and reauthoring the British Shakespeare into its own identity almost like a musical artist covering a previously-recorded song (Plasketes 2016) or, indeed, like different actors playing the same, long-ago-written roles as routinely occurs in theatre.
In Hamlet IV.v, Ophelia tells Claudius: ‘Lord, we know what we are but know not what we may be.’ Geoffrey uses this line in 1.5 to state that the identities of the characters in his Hamlet are ‘whoever is playing them.’ While identity of both fictional and factual people is far more complicated than that, we can see in this statement something of the series’ preferred reading of Britishness and Canadianness. There might be British influence and presence, but it is all interpreted by Canadians in and through their own perspectives and voices. With apologies to John of Gaunt (Richard II, II.i), Canada is not nor does it seem to want to be a ‘sceptred isle or a ‘fortress built by Nature for herself but instead aspires to be a patchwork quilt where its past, present and future influences and lineages are clearly visible and part of a greater whole. While my own research problematises that ideal (Beattie 2020), it is clear that the series acknowledges its British heritage but is not bound by it. Instead, that heritage is used to communicate a (constructed) Canadian identity– speaking its speech trippingly from the tongue– to a transnational audience which could have included queens, kings and commoners alike.
Dr Melissa Beattie is a recovering Classicist who was awarded a PhD in Theatre, Film and TV Studies from Aberystwyth University where she studied Torchwood and national identity through fan/audience research as well as textual analysis. She has published and presented several papers relating to transnational television, audience research and/or national identity. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Communication (Ambassador’s Distinguished Scholars Programme Fellow) at Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia and will be joining the American University of Phnom Penh in August 2023 as an Assistant Professor of English/Humanities. She has previously worked at universities in the US, Korea, Pakistan and Armenia. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
 Gross played the titular role at the Stratford Festival in 2000. I was fortunate enough to attend one of the performances.
 All the world’s a stage and there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy so I’m taking no chances.
 Regular character Nahum (Rothaford Gray) is a theatre director originally from Nigeria who works at the festival as a cleaner. It is implied that he is a political refugee because of directing a play critical of his government, though that is not built upon within the series. While he is often giving advice and/or explanation to other characters (and the audience), in 1.5 the assumption made by Ellen (Martha Burns) that he would know anything about lizards (it is implied that she believes this because he is from Africa) is clearly subverted. Series 2 features Colm Feore playing a character called ‘Sanjay;’ that the character is ultimately revealed to be a fraud called Morris positions cultural appropriation as negative but does not explicitly state that. Series 3 features a Black woman as Ellen’s best friend (and thorn in Geoffrey’s side) Barbara (Janet Bailey); while her complaints to Geoffrey are positioned as by and large as justified, her race is used only to position ailing Lear-actor Charles (William Hutt) as somewhat racist.
 See Beattie (2020) for more nuance on that.
 Oliver is canonically gay but slept with Geoffrey’s paramour Ellen as part of his pursuit of Geoffrey (of ambiguous orientation). In series 2 gay Romeo actor Patrick (David Alpay) sleeps with his Juliet, Sarah (Joanne Kelly) and Richard has a threesome with one male and one female partner in series 3. This can be read as visible bisexuality and/or gay erasure and/or an attempt at acknowledging the complexities of orientation.
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