Land of Soap and Glory

An Ode to British TV

by Guillaume Clement

18 November 2015

If you type the word “doctor” in the Wikipedia search box, “Doctor Who” appears ahead of “doctorate”. Now that’s cultural relevance for you.
Peter Capaldi as Doctor Who, Series 9 

Britain is a relatively small country. By area, it is smaller than Germany or Italy—it’s even smaller than the US state of Michigan. Its population is comparable to that of France but it’s still just about a fifth of the United States’ 318 million. Yet British shows often make up the majority of my Netflix queue, and possibly a sizeable portion of yours, as well.

According to British historian Dominic Sandbrook in The Great British Dream Factory (Allen Lane, 2015) “since 2011 Britain has sold more than 600 shows abroad, six times as many as Germany. Downton Abbey is watched in more than 250 countries. Top Gear is sold to some 214 countries, more than any other factual program on the planet”. How could such a relatively small nation produce such shows that have taken the world by storm?

Let us not forget that what we have here are shows about lowly servants and witty dowagers on an aristocratic estate in Yorkshire at the beginning of the 20th century, and a sci-fi show whose hero saves the world using a screwdriver and whose CGI, circa 2005, looks as though it had been designed on a Nintendo 64. Yet none of that has prevented Downton Abbey and The Office from bagging a couple of Emmys and Golden Globes. Doctor Who has won several domestic awards (BAFTAs) as well, and enjoys widespread international recognition.

If you type the word “doctor” in the Wikipedia search box, “Doctor Who” appears ahead of “doctorate”, for example. Now that’s cultural relevance for you.

This list of brilliant, successful British shows could, of course, be much longer. Older classics such as Fawlty Towers and Absolutely Fabulous have defined British humor for several decades now and have been broadcast the world over. Teenage dramas in the vein of Skins and Misfits have invented new ways for parents to freak out about what their children may be doing on a Saturday night. The latest version of Sherlock has turned the Conan Doyle classic into a modern iPhone-wielding genius and proved you can have an unpronounceable last name and still become a movie star (right, Benedict Cumberbatch?).

This kind of cultural dominance extends to TV outside of the classic sitcom and drama formats. The BBC’s Great British Bake-Off, an amateur baking competition organized in a tent (a tent, people!) is among the most-viewed shows on British TV every year and has made its way overseas through international adaptations (the original British version can even be found in the United States on PBS). Even British soap operas have somehow achieved some sort of international recognition. Emmerdale, a soap opera about the lives of a small rural community in Yorkshire, has been broadcast daily in Scandinavian countries and even gave its name to The Cardigans’ 1994 debut album.

The question that begs asking, then, is simple: Why is British TV so brilliant? How have international audiences been able to relate to Dear Old Blighty’s cultural idiosyncrasies? The tongue-in-cheek humor and picturesque Britishness that pervades all these exports undeniably constitute strong selling points, but more reasons need to be looked at in order to understand how British showrunners have been able to convince the whole world to watch endless period dramas and detective shows which would have your grandparents believe that Oxford is the murder capital of the world. To quote journalist and commentator Stuart Maconie in Adventures on the High Teas: In Search of Middle England (Ebury Press, 2009): “The sheer wanton lawlessness of Oxford as presented in the Inspector Morse books and TV series has become something of a humorous cliché. At such a rate of slaughter (one hundred and twenty-odd deaths in sixty-odd hours), the entire city would surely be depopulated before long”.

I personally believe that the superiority of British TV boils down to three simple factors:

1. British TV has QI, the best comedy panel show in the world, featuring Stephen Fry and David Mitchell (see clip below). That, in itself, should constitute sufficient reason to watch nothing but the BBC.

2. There’s a TV channel simply called “Dave”. That’s quite aspirational.

3. I have no official statistics on this, but my gut feeling, based on many years of faithful binge watching, is that you’re more likely to see a man’s naked bottom than a woman’s naked breasts on British TV. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but at least you’ve got to appreciate the boldness of the move in an age when female pop stars are constantly flaunting their cleavage to sell records. (Nothing terribly wrong with that, either.)

While I feel that the aforementioned provide sufficient explanation for the success of British TV, I agree that deeper investigation may be required, so here are a couple of more factual, and probably more relevant, arguments. First, British TV shows are obviously in English (in spite of local accents which may occasionally prove subtitle-worthy even to an anglophone audience) and therefore easier to sell to a global audience, including of course the mighty American market. While several attempts at turning successful British shows into US remakes (Coupling, The Inbetweeners, Little Britain USA, Skins, Top Gear) quickly went south and hardly ever yielded more than one season, the only really successful ones have arguably been The Office, House of Cards and Shameless, which ended up becoming phenomena of their own, quite different from the original version. The success of original shows abroad does call into question the usefulness of remakes, since non-British audiences don’t seem to be deterred by, say, northern accents, Cockney rhyming slang and lovely words like “bloke”.

Another pragmatic reason for the perceived quality of British shows is their diminutive length. Seasons tend to be shorter, featuring six- to ten-episodes at the most, which may frustrate fans but also means that the focus is on quality, not quantity. With that in mind, it’s amazing to see that The Office (the British version, of course) has gone on to become such an influential and revered show since it’s only 14 episodes long.

This focus on quality rather than quantity may partly come from the considerable role played by public TV in Britain. The BBC in particular has enjoyed a very prominent status, thanks to a dozen stations, four of which broadcast fiction. The fact that the BBC is a public institution funded by the Television Licence (making it completely commercial-free), suggests that ratings may not be as important to the BBC as they are to private commercial channels like ITV, which broadcasts Downton Abbey. Hence, the BBC may be able to be slightly more adventurous in its programming choices, the absence of commercials meaning that there’s no need to sell advertising space in the middle of mainstream programs aimed at broad target audiences. However, Channel 4, another leading channel in British fiction, does rely on commercial revenue (whilst being a public channel as well) and can nonetheless be credited with several groundbreaking original shows (Skins, Misfits, Shameless and so on).

Sadly, the glory days of the BBC may nevertheless be coming to an end in the near future, as the corporation is now facing budget cuts as part of Britain’s austerity measures. Negotiations are under way to re-evaluate the BBC’s range of services and difficult choices will have to be made: some channels may need to be shut down and less airtime may conceivably be devoted to new original comedy and drama. Still, it’s not all dark yet: the public corporation tried to shut down its indie music station (6Music) in 2010, but then went back on its decision in the wake of unprecedented support from listeners and musicians alike, including Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, who was then a show host on the station.

While British TV is undeniably carried by a favorable institutional context, a few words do need to be said about the quality of the content itself and the persons responsible for it, especially the actors and the writers, whose experience often spans cinema, theatre and television. For example, Richard Curtis is credited for Blackadder (an ‘80s period comedy series featuring Rowan Atkinson and Stephen Fry), a handful of Doctor Who episodes as well as the screenplays for highly-regarded British movies like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually. Downton Abbey is known as Julian Fellowes’ creation, but a little research will indicate that Fellowes (who happens to be a member of the House of Lords, incidentally), first wrote the screenplay for Gosford Park, a successful movie based on the same aristocratic universe as Downton.

Even Stephen Moffat, now best-known for being the writer and showrunner behind the highly-regarded Doctor Who and Sherlock series of recent years, dabbled in cinema screenplays as well. Moffat indeed penned the 2011 Adventures of Tintin movie alongside Edgar Wright, but it has to be said that the vast majority of his work focused on television, starting with Coupling, an early-noughties sitcom providing a more daring (and hence, more hilarious) alternative to the popular American show, Friends. Many of the shows which are owed to those writers are quite representative of what could be perceived as quintessentially British wit, humor and self-deprecation, which attract viewers in search of such quirkiness.

The quality of the writing is backed by an all-star cast of homegrown actors, some of whom have gone on to feature prominently in Hollywood blockbusters, like James McAvoy, who rose to fame thanks to his part in the original version of Shameless, based in Manchester. Andrew Lincoln made his debut as an incompetent, newly-qualified educator in Teachers even before his parts in Love Actually and The Walking Dead. Alex Kingston is not only famous for her role as expat Dr Corday in ER or, more recently, Doctor Who, since British audiences may remember her performances in ‘80s British series The Bill and Grange Hill.

The list could go on, but the common point between all of them is simple: they are all RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) alumni. The prestigious London-based drama school has spawned such stars as Anthony Hopkins, Ian Holm, John Rhys-Davies, Alan Rickman, Michael Sheen, and Tom Hiddleston. In other words, the school has trained the actors who are now associated with popular cinematic depictions of none other than Hannibal Lecter, Bilbo Baggins, Gimli, Severus Snape, Tony Blair and Thor. Quite the roll-call.

At RADA, most of the wannabe actors receive classic tuition in drama that prepares them for the silver screen as well as the stage, and in fact many of them started out their careers in Shakespeare adaptations, with a handful of them joining the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company, such as Sean Bean, Alan Rickman and Alex Kingston among others. The Company also contributed to the emergence of several non-RADA alumni whom you may have heard of, notably David Tennant (best known as Doctor Who between 2005 and 2007) and Ian McDiarmid—none other than the evil Emperor from Star Wars.

All in all, Britain can boast one of the highest rates of brilliant writers, actors and comedians per capita in the world (a metric rarely measured in world statistics, unfortunately). Why is that? Well, according to some, we should thank the industrial revolution. In fact, Dominic Sandbrook went all the way back to the Victorian era to unearth the roots of Britain’s domination over the world of entertainment. While Sandbrook concedes that, at the time, “the idea that the British were born entertainers, bubbling with natural flair, good humour and musical exuberance would have struck people on both sides of the Channel as patently ridiculous”, he goes on to argue that “Britain’s history as the first industrial nation gave it not just a relatively large, affluent and, crucially, literate public, but also the means for talented people to reach them, from railways to newspapers.”

In other words, next time you marvel at the genius of Doctor Who or Sherlock, don’t just credit the wonderful actors, the superb writers or the mighty BBC—give praise to the steam engine.

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