Brits hatch ‘Great’ escape

LONDON — As reality TV shows such as “Survivor,” “Big Brother,” “Celebrity Big Brother,” “Pop Idol,” “Fame Academy” and the execrable “I’m a Celebrity! Get Me Out of Here!” fill the airwaves of the United Kingdom, it’s a relief to know that at least 3.3 million of my fellow residents tuned into another kind of reality Nov. 24 — the one offered by the BBC’s interactive historical-biographical series “Great Britons.”

The gimmick was simple and critics carped that it was as tacky as any of the shows noted above: Brits were given the chance to vote people on or off the Island, albeit for the purpose of determining who was the greatest Brit of all time.

Sure, the vox populi can be a terrifying force, especially when it’s positing such Brits as Michael Crawford, Princess Diana, Paul McCartney (more on him in a minute), crooner Cliff Richard and ’80s pop wonder Boy George for this vaunted distinction. But there’s a rainbow beyond such clouded logic.

If you’ve never heard of top 10 Brits finalist Isambard Kingdom Brunel, don’t feel bad. Most Brits hadn’t either until engineering students at the English university named after the great industrial designer started stuffing the ballot boxes for him. Since the final program announcing the winner, runner-up Brunel is practically a household name.

And there are those others who made the final cut, including Darwin, Elizabeth I, Lord Nelson, Shakespeare, Newton and Cromwell. Each of the 10 finalists merited an hourlong program hosted by a passionate advocate who believes his or her candidate made the grade and should be named the True Brit.

Imagine, TV viewers getting a history lesson that inspires them to pick up a phone and vote for a figure of import and stature. It certainly beats having them couch-bound and slurping up that other reality as portrayed by a bounty of wicker-hut-building dolts, tarts and poseurs.

Speaking of reality, in keeping with the traditions of the formats, I have a confession: I didn’t vote for the winner of “Great Britons,” Winston Churchill.

I’m happy he won, and I’m happy that, thanks to the BBC series as well as Albert Finney’s recent Emmy-winning turn as the English icon in HBO’s “The Gathering Storm,” I now know more about his role in saving the world from Hitler and his minions. But my vote was for John Lennon, who placed seventh.

Am I as loopy as the other pop culture nuts who punched the keypad for Crawford, Boy George, Diana, et al? Maybe I am, though with the explanation that I was trying to irritate John’s fellow ex-Beatle Paul, whom I pictured sitting in a Scottish castle madly emailing votes for himself. Needless to say, he finished way out of the money, between Maggie Thatcher and William Wilberforce.

And there’s another upside: Thanks to “Great Britons,” I’m now the newest member of the Isambard Kingdom Brunel Fan Club.

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