Britain in a Day director Morgan Matthews on what it means to be British

On Saturday 12 November 2011, the British public were invited to record their lives for a groundbreaking new documentary


How would you advise an alien on what it’s like to live in Britain? Would it be better to give them census data, a list of statistics or a year’s worth of EastEnders? When we are so diverse and eclectic, capturing the essence of what it means to be British is perhaps a tall order – but that is exactly what I set out to do with Britain in a Day.


On 12 November 2011, a day chosen at random, people from all over Britain recorded 800 hours of video and submitted it via YouTube, capturing their lives on that day and in doing so, sharing both the ordinary and extraordinary.

I’ve spent the last seven months watching the results – a wonderful collection of uniquely personal and intimate insights into who we are. As I waded through the footage, I became addicted. There were surprises, belly laughs and incredible moments of poignancy; some of it beautifully filmed and some of it rough and ready and captured on a mobile phone. Some sent hours of footage, some just a few seconds. In total we received over 13,000 clips from people around the UK.

The day in question was just an ordinary Saturday in November. Some people spent the day at home, some people spent the day pig racing. Some people joined the Occupy movement at St Paul’s Cathedral, others were watching the Lord Mayor’s Show. A surprising number of people spent the day by the seaside. A choir that specialise in bird noises went about their business. It would be very difficult to explain to the alien why we were doing any of these things. A nation of hobbyists isn’t put off by a cold day.

There was an overwhelming and disarming honesty in the footage we received. With no camera crews mediating, people were keen to share what was important to them – in their own space and in their own time. I gained a privileged insight into the lives of others. They felt familiar – like people I know; my friends and family – like me. Yes, we have a wonderful diversity in our geography, accents, ethnicity and background, but it seems we share the same concerns, hopes and dreams.

In these insecure times, we are much more aware of our own sense of happiness and what makes us happy. Some people are doing exhilarating things for thrills while others are taking pills to elevate their mood. Some are coping with loss or a break-up while others are recording a loving moment – including an incredibly moving scene when a young couple get married at a hospice where the bride’s father is a patient.

What is so apparent is that we directly relate our sense of happiness to our family and relationships rather than our job or career. Perhaps when our material futures are threatened, we are increasingly reverting to our relationships to find security. No single clip – and the final film has over 320 contributions from different people – captures the essence of the film, just as no one person or thing captures the essence of modern Britain. Clips from people who have no relationship, rub up against each other creating connections and accumulating meaning; there are contrasts and paradoxes everywhere. Just like Britain.

Clearly, each one of us is unique, but I experienced an irresistible sense that there are many mysterious things we have in common that also unify us and create our national identity. Britain in a Day holds a mirror up to the UK and I hope you see yourself reflected in it. 

Director Morgan Matthews’ Britain in a Day is at 9.00pm on Monday on BBC2. Check out the trailer below…