The Great British Dream Factory

The Strange History of our National Imagination

The Great British Dream Factory
The Beatles
The Great British Dream Factory The Strange History of our National Imagination Published by Allen Lane (London, 2015)

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Chosen as a Book of the Year in the Sunday Times, Spectator and Mail on Sunday, and Guardian Paperback of the Week

The basic theme of The Great British Dream Factory is very simple: it tells the story of how, as our political and economic fortunes declined, we reinvented ourselves as entertainers to the world.

So, among other things, I look at the film empire of J. Arthur Rank; the rise of the country-house novel; the appeal of the Harry Potter books; the origins of Coronation Street; the origins of Black Sabbath; the novels of Agatha Christie, Catherine Cookson and John Wyndham; the success of To the Manor Born; the triumph of the Young British Artists; and the worldwide impact of British-made video games such as Grand Theft Auto.

I had long thought about writing a cultural history of modern Britain. But I never did anything about it until 2014, when my executive producer Steve Condie and I persuaded BBC Two to commission a series on the same subject, which was eventually given the title Let Us Entertain You.

At first I thought it would be pretty easy to turn the scripts into a book. But after a few days' work I realised that it would actually be completely impossible. So I decided to start again from scratch, covering much of the same ground but from a slightly different perspective.

Doing the book allowed me to add lots more nuance and depth to the material in the scripts. For example, the series made quite a lot of allusions to Dickens, but the book also has a lot of stuff about the legacy of H. G. Wells, who isn't even mentioned in the series.

To my surprise, some characters who worked very well on screen just didn't come alive on the page. Kate Bush, for instance, was effectively elbowed aside by Elton John, who was never really meant to be there at all. By the time I'd finished, Elton had virtually become the hero of the book. There's a sentence I never expected to write.

"I read it in less than two days, my attention never flagging ... Embracing everything from Black Sabbath’s guitarist, Tony Iommi, losing his fingers in a sheet metal press to the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, it’s dramatic, perceptive and often extremely funny."

Books of the Year, Spectator

Publisher Notes

Britain's empire has gone. And yet there is still one area in which we can legitimately claim superpower status: our popular culture.

It is extraordinary to think that one British writer, J. K. Rowling, has sold more than 400 million books; that Doctor Who is watched in almost every developed country in the world; that James Bond has been the central character in the longest-running film series in history; that The Lord of the Rings is the second best-selling novel ever written (behind only A Tale of Two Cities); that the Beatles are still the best-selling musical group of all time; and that only Shakespeare and the Bible have sold more books than Agatha Christie. To put it simply, no country on earth, relative to its size, has contributed more to the modern imagination.

This is a book about the success and the meaning of Britain's modern popular culture, from Bond and the Beatles to heavy metal and Coronation Street, from the Angry Young Men to Harry Potter, from Damien Hirst to The X Factor.

Dominic Sandbrook's superbly rich, entertaining and thought-provoking book makes it clear that The Great British Dream Factory is a very strange and wonderful place indeed.


"Terrific fun ... Sandbrook isn't like other historians ... He heads off down strange, neglected byways, teasing out unexpected connections, with the results often proving far more illuminating - and enjoyable - than conventional narratives ... I defy you not to be swept up in a narrative that's as colourful as it is dramatic."

John Preston, Mail on Sunday

"Engrossing ... delightful ... a book that relishes an argument and likes to challenge received opinion ... not only thoroughly entertaining, but crammed with as many serious insights as a shelf-ful of academic studies."

Alwyn Turner, Daily Telegraph

"Witty ... enthusiastic ... a passionate and admirable defence of coach-party musical theatre, large-print historical fiction, wedding reception rock, Orc sagas, To the Manor Born, Arnold Bennett, Billy Bunter and Billy Elliot ... The hot core of his story, though, is made of the most thrillingly unlikely material."

Matthew Sweet, Guardian

"Delightfully good ... an exuberant and learned celebration of British culture ... full of love for and fascination with everything from the origins of heavy metal in the metal-bashing industries of the West Midlands to the ruthlessness of John Lennon’s and Damien Hirst’s lust for money."

Nick Cohen, Observer

"Splendid ... Sandbrook is always an engaging and perceptive writer and the subject lends itself to his eye for a story and his ability to connect with the reader. This is, after all, a book about the very things that, over the past century, we have most enjoyed, from Hercule Poirot to Sgt Pepper."

David Aaronovitch, The Times

"Sparkling ... fascinating ... always enlightening ... as usual with Sandbrook, there are some lovely vignettes and incongruous details ... Academic writers could certainly learn something from his lightness of touch and ability to build an argument."

Joe Moran, Literary Review

"Beautifully written ... wonderfully counter-intuitive ... with an excellent feel for the contemporary pulse and the surprising killer detail ... I, too, have left out loads that Sandbrook has cleverly and incisively included."

Nick Curtis, London Evening Standard

"A marvellous read ... juicy, irresistible, restoring the past with all its delight, defeats and energy to the ageing spectator ... He delights in the sheer, tumbling crowdedness of British popular culture over the past half century or so, crams in at a terrific pace the innumerable stories of its successes, and lends the status of heroism to his favourite figures. The author catches with infectious excitement the cracking pace and headlong productivity of this teeming crowd."

Fred Inglis, Times Higher Education Supplement

"Masterly ... lively and stimulating ... He loves to debunk received opinion."

Robert Low, Standpoint


A N Wilson, The Tablet

"Wonderful ... fascinating ... knowing and likeable ... well worked through with myriad examples, connections and illuminating digressions ... Sandbrook is particularly good at ferreting out when things are not quite what they seem … and he is good, too, at alighting on striking cultural echoes."

Alex Clark, Times Literary Supplement

"A vivid, endlessly fascinating account of the numerous achievements of this country's national imagination. This book is my personal dream factory ... so invigorating and exciting."

Jessie Thompson, Huffington Post

"Defiantly populist ... Dominic Sandbrook zestfully charts the route that has taken Britain from 'workshop of the world' to 'cultural superpower'.”

Boyd Tonkin, Independent

"It was hard to find a more convincing read ... a highly entertaining look at everything from The Avengers to Harry Potter that proclaims Britain as the champion of culture, spreading words and songs internationally like no other."

Books of the Year, Sunday Times

"Sandbrook’s hugely enjoyable analysis of why we continue to punch above our weight in this area ... covers everything from boarding school tales (Tom Brown to Harry Potter) to country house tales (Brideshead and Downton), the works of Tolkien to the 2012 Olympics."

Books of the Year, Mail on Sunday

"An engaging and very accessible history book about our modern artistic achievements that, provocatively, also debunks some of the very icons it praises."

Simon Copeland, The Sun

"Enlightening and provocative, but most of all great fun. Sandbrook has eclectic tastes -- from Black Sabbath to "The Lord of the Rings," from "Coronation Street" to "Phantom of the Opera," Catherine Cookson to Martin Amis, "Chariots of Fire" to "Top Gear." He has smart, funny things to say about them all. He writes with affection for his subject, and he's splendidly intolerant of cultural theory and intellectual snobs."

Clive Crook, Bloomberg View

"A richly entertaining account of our national imagination ... persuasive, and often very funny, on how the notion of ‘Britishness’ has been framed by our books, our films, our television, music and art."

Jane Shilling, Mail on Sunday

"Instructive and funny ... It’s a great premise, and I dived into, and splashed around in, this book gleefully ... Here were lucid and often amusing expositions on the work of Lennon and McCartney, Ian Fleming, JRR Tolkien, Christie ... Sandbrook is an extremely engaging historian ... It would be impossible to please everyone. But when Sandbrook is pleasing, he is very pleasing indeed."

Nicholas Lezard, Paperback of the Week, Guardian

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