These days, it seems you can’t scan the TV schedules without being confronted by programmes set in Cornwall. Just this week we have ‘Rick Stein’s Cornish Christmas’ on BBC. On Channel 4 there’s ‘Newquay: 24/7 party people’, while Channel 5 is showing ‘Cornwall’s most scenic railway journeys’. ‘Cornwall Air 999’ can be found on Really, whatever that is. And of course, ITV3 has endless dollops of Doc Martin. Only a week or so back Greg Wallis, in his ‘Inside the factory’, was showing us how a real Cornish (not) pasty is rolled out at Ginster’s hi-tec food production facility for the masses handily placed near the Tamar.
Cornwall punches well above its weight in televisual terms. With around one per cent of the British population, it receives a lot more than one per cent of coverage. Why?
The word I’m searching for here is ‘trope’, meaning a commonly recurring motif, language or discourse used to describe an object, an idea or indeed a place. Rachel Moseley, in her book Picturing Cornwall, neatly sums up the familiar media trope of Cornwall as ‘a site of escape, refuge and consumption’ and ‘a picturesque and purchasable retreat from the urgency of modern life’.
Moreover, Cornwall is also a, if not the, favoured resort at times of turmoil and trouble in the metropolitan centre. Rachel Moseley has described how the romantic figure of the woman perched on the Cornish clifftop became commonplace in the mid-twentieth century. This was a time of growing anxieties about the place of women and the future of Britishness.
Is the current wave of programmes on Cornwall just a coincidence or does its timing tell us more about the troubles of Englishness than it does about Cornwall? Take ‘Cornwall with Simon Reeves’. After wandering the globe doing travel programmes, this year Reeves turned his attention to neighbouring Cornwall (his home is in Devon). It was claimed this was the result of travel restrictions imposed by covid. But was it also most convenient?
In the series Cornwall is first comfortably contextualised as a ‘favourite tourist destination’ and a place of unquestioned ‘natural beauty’. But this pristine place is under threat. With no visible sense of irony after years building up a massive carbon footprint, Simon is heavy on environmental concerns, the loss of biodiversity, the crisis of plastics in the sea and the like. Even poor old Cornwall, pure and unsullied as it is, is threatened by these more universal issues.
This closely resembles the attitudes of the Newlyn School of painters in the 1880s. In their eyes, Cornwall was, or should have been, an unsullied part of rural England, primitive, unspoilt, the last refuge for a simpler way of life, one more in tune with nature.
At a time of growing uncertainties about the unfolding climate crisis added to the hysterical anxieties of Brexit and the running sore of racism, the English are again confusedly looking for solace in their ideal place. And that place is again Cornwall, as it was in the 1880s and again in the 1940s.
This has implications. For one, Cornwall’s actual history as one of the pioneering industrial regions of the British Isles fades into obscurity. Meanwhile, the peculiarities of Cornwall’s cultural identity are overwhelmed by the notion that it is merely England’s last refuge, an antidote to the blight of urban ‘civilisation’, a place of escape, all reinforced by a dodgy deluge of TV representations. Furthermore, will this tidal wave of trepidation and the patronising concern for what is held to be England’s past end up washing away the final vestiges of Cornish Cornwall?