Sir David Attenborough vs. Morrissey vs. Sir Paul McCartney. No, it’s not a WWE Triple Threat Match, although that would be a fine way to settle the score; it’s the top 3 finalists in a poll held by The Culture Show to determine the Greatest Living British Icon. After weeks of voting by the general public, the plethora of talents most beloved by the British public was whittled down to a final ten, and now only three remain. By the time this is published, the winner will have been announced, and maybe we’ll all laugh at this with the benefit of hindsight – but for the moment, let’s compare our choices. Two knights of the realm versus a man who once threatened to ‘drop [his] trousers to the Queen’. It’s quite a bizarre match, not least for the generational difference.
Personally, I’d imagine there were more devoted Smiths fans among the main audience of The Culture Show than Beatles obsessives or nature enthusiasts, but maybe that’s just judging on the viewers I know. I predict a Morrissey victory, and for what it’s worth he has my vote.
McCartney has always irritated me on some implacable level, most likely for outliving John Lennon – although Heather Mills is still an evil, money-grabbing witch. Least favourite Beatle or not, he’s still been around a lot longer than she has, and displayed a considerable amount more talent, hence earning the dinero that she’s now pursuing. But when it comes to song-writing, there are definitely far more Morrissey than McCartney compositions on my own playlist – I’d go so far as to say I consider The Smiths more influential than The Beatles. (Feel free to abuse me in the street).
Attenborough is an entirely different kettle of fish. The comparison is therefore completely different. In his own field, Sir David is clearly the master; there’s no one in broadcasting to rival his experience or pedigree. Some of his advocates on the show have even said that he is saving the world. This wild claim, like the one that Morrissey’s lyrics save people’s lives, should probably be put aside, but it’s a good selling point nonetheless. Attenborough is a hero to many, and deservedly a very respected man. But is he iconic? Is he the symbol of a whole culture, or even a generation? He can lay claim to many acheivements, but I feel he is more saint than icon – working good works for the good of planet Earth, but not embodying a mindset, a genuine uniqueness.
Whereas Attenborough is essentially a naturalist, albeit a very good one, to many people McCartney – but more specifically Morrissey – are most than just singers. The Smiths, as one review put it, carved out ‘a world not defined by standard rock iconography’; and there’s that word again. His lyrics are synonymous with unrequited love, teenage depression, and poetic nostalgia. The Beatles changed the world of pop, but Morrissey is thought by many to have challenged its foundations. He is seen as a prophet for those whose awkward, vivid feelings were never before so truly, eloquently expressed. For all these reasons and more, it seems to me that Morrissey has had a more direct effect on the minds of people across Britain than either of the other two contenders. Perhaps he has sold less records than McCartney, and is less popular than Attenborough, but as a lyricist and spokesman he is inspirational to millions; truly British, and truly iconic.