Webb’s response combined British understatement, manly humility and a reference to cricket - which of course made him hugely popular.
I find Captain Webb both ridiculous and rather marvellous and it is this ambivalence towards the stiff upper lip, and also to the modern lack of it, that made me want to explore the whole phenomenon in a documentary. The series is subtitled An Emotional History of Britain, even though you may not feel that I am a very suitable guide.
One historian attributed the rise of the stiff upper lip in its Victorian heyday to “English public schools and Scottish Presbyterians”, which covers my education and genealogy pretty comprehensively. But I did not just want to produce an obituary for a bygone national characteristic because, as I discovered, it has been pronounced dead before and I am not sure it is completely deceased this time. Rather, I wanted to trace the process of our buttoning up and unbuttoning over the past three centuries and find out what were the origins, successes, failures and legacies of our “keeping calm and carrying on”.
And it is an extraordinary story. The British did not always value these qualities of unflappable resilience. In the 18th century we were living in what was called the Age of Sensibility when, to be a really civilised person, you had to feel things deeply and to display that emotion publicly. But then came counter-currents of politeness and restraint, of rationality and control and, as so often in British history, it was the French who provided the great turning point. The French Revolution provided a terrifying spectacle for the British of the power of passions running riot, of the mob abandoning self-control, and we began to define ourselves as the opposite of all those “excitable foreigners”.
The war against Napoleon gave British cartoonists a field day to develop a caricature of a lascivious, short-tempered Frenchman who wore perfume and read too many books and thus provided a perfect contrast with our own sober and serious Duke of Wellington, the prototype figure of the Stiff Upper Lip.
The 19th century marked the imperial highpoint of stoical unflappability as it was rolled out across the nation, becoming the established national self-image for men and women. At the beginning of the 20th century this turned into tragedy in the trenches of the Western Front, where a generation walked straight into the guns and it seemed that no one could ever believe in the stiff upper lip again.