As writers (and in Wright's case, director) of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and now The World's End, the stock-in trade of their "Cornetto trilogy" has been undercutting Hollywood bombast, mug of tea in hand. At their best, these send-ups of zombie apocalypse, buddy cop actioner and 70s paranoia thrillers are powered by a higher form of parody: simultaneously full of love for Hollywood and affirming the supremacy of humdrum Brit realities. In The World's End, I liked the idea of the piece of crap Blairite public art in Newton Haven (the town to which Pegg and his gang return for their nostalgic pub-crawl) that turns out to have a secret sci-fi purpose.
Because the British film industry has grown up in Hollywood's shadow, and because the UK was America's key film export market for so long, our bathetic instincts are honed to a fine point. If you're not sated by The World's End – which channels The Matrix, The Stepford Wives and Invasion of the Body Snatchers – then here comes Alan Partridge, wrapping up the hostage-siege film in an East Anglian cardigan in next month's Alpha Papa.
And they are just the latest in Brit bathos: 2011's Attack the Block took the alien-invasion spectacular down to a council estate and "kicked its head in". Ali G's raison d'etre was partly to put 1990s ghetto fabulous nonsense in perspective, while Rowan Atkinson's Johnny English took an even easier target to bring down a peg or two: Anglo-Hollywood double agent, James Bond. In fact, a lot of commercial British films, like The Full Monty and its anti-Chippendales stripper troupe, seem to be set up as a bluff riposte to all-American values. Maybe they must be to survive.
Perhaps Hollywood was always going to catch us in this mood. It isn't an original observation that part of the British national psyche, Magna Carta onwards, has delighted in pricking pomposity and cocking a snook at higher authority; Ben Wheatley was flying that flag when he had Peter Ferninando squat over the nettles at the start of A Field in England, metaphorically taking a dump on the genteel period drama. Such strains of underdog humour were arguably what survived when Britain's world power started declining after the first world war – and when, according to Peter Mandler's recent book, The English National Character, the country's self-image dwindled from doughty John Bull stereotypes to something more modest.
It's interesting that where the French postwar tendency toward Hollywood was to refine, aestheticise and intellectually deconstruct – as Jean-Luc Godard or Jean-Pierre Melville did – ours has been to mock, pillory and subvert. That caustic approach is exactly what is absent in an American culture driven by a demotic spirit, on the (surprisingly frequent) occasions when Joe Public becomes the hero (often in opposition to government forces). Even in the most jaded cases, like a trash-talking John McClane holding out for the working man in Die Hard, there's still a kind of American triumphalism and self-righteousness at play. There's little of the true defeatism of, say, Withnail's climactic speech to London zoo's wolves: not only a bathetic counterpart to Oscar-chasing moments, but also a self-lacerating use of our greatest cultural hero, Shakespeare, that underscores the rotten state of 1970s England.
So 2013, and here we are: world-beaters in bathos. And our USP actually goes down quite well abroad – especially when shored up with star power. Both Johnny English films were highly successful, thanks to Rowan Atkinson's global profile through Mr Bean – another iconic Brit-chump. Shaun of the Dead turned a healthy profit and became an influential noughties film. Hot Fuzz did even better internationally, and The World's End should continue that trend, with Pegg ever more recognisable after appearances in Mission: Impossible and Star Trek.
But as their films get more expensive, and their own careers more entwined with Hollywood, Pegg and Wright might find their bathos antennae harder to tune in properly. In The World's End, before they raise their game for the finale, the gag hit-rate and the intimate observational humour are more stuttering than in the two earlier Cornetto films. An awful lot of action feels straight-down-the-line Hollywood. Now I hate to cast aspersions … but then isn't aspersion-casting about our newly suntanned, transatlantic successes another noble British tradition?
The World's End is out on Friday; Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is out on 7 August.
Next week's After Hollywood will look at the reaction to Saudi Arabian success Wadjda. Which global cinematic stories would you like to see covered in the column? Let us know in the comments below.
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