Archive for british tv

Downtown Abbey

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2012 by Tom Steward

No wonder Americans think we still live in castles. Thanks to one of Britain’s most popular TV exports to America, the nation would be forgiven for assuming that the downtown areas of our cities look like the grounds of stately homes. Being as British and American accents differ, or that we ‘have an accent’ as I’m more readily informed here, G and I’m sure others were led to believe that the ‘Downton’ in Downton Abbey was not a place but a direction. The downtowns of US cities are comparable to the restaurant, nightlife and shopping quarters of UK city centres and high streets. If it really was Downtown Abbey, Central London would be some sort of class-system role-play theme park where in order to get lunch visitors would have to adorn Edwardian clothing playing either the aristocracy or servants and compete to see which side could repress more of their pasts.

Carson da Butler

Downton is in fact the fictional Yorkshire-based setting of Julian Fellowes’ (the egg-shaped man who apologises for aristocratic misdeeds on UK talk shows) and Gareth Neame’s ITV Sunday-night period drama series Downton Abbey. It’s clear from very early on that things tend to come to Downton rather than the other way around; people, cars, war, Spanish flu. It seems that 1912 to 1919 in British history was just people arriving at doors. Unlike most geographically-fixed locations for TV shows, like Jersey Shore,which seem able to go virtually anywhere in the world, DA probably won’t venture further than that the post office in the village where the servants receive blackmail letters. When war ‘came to Downton Abbey’ it went by so fast that it seemed to have actually been fought in the grounds of the building, like a game of Risk gone awry.

War has come to Downton Abbey

One of the most pleasing aspects of the programme is that it is unashamedly soap opera. The BBC’s adaptation of Dickens’ Bleak House in 2005 tried to show viewers how period drama could work as soap opera by flagging up similarities between serialised 19th Century novels and modern-day soaps, putting each episode on twice-weekly like Eastenders or Coronation Street. DAonly runs at 8 or 9 episodes per season but its eccentric storylines delivered in intimate conversations between paired characters which then cyclically wind around a single location like a tape spool leave a distinctly soapy residue. It seems it’s not just the form but the content of soap opera that works in period costume. G likens DA to the ‘Telenovela’, continuing dramas on TV in Latin American countries which have much of the melodrama and contrivance of soaps but have shorter runs that end definitively.

Just like Downton

For lovers of classic British TV, movies and books there’s not much new here. At times it feels like an infomercial for a Greatest Hits album of historical great house stories-isn’t this Upstairs Downstairs?-that’s just Mrs Danvers from Rebecca-didn’t they do that in Brideshead Revisited?-but not available in the shops, just illegal download in the US. For many in America, however, DA seemed new and different. Maybe it was the absence of a certain stuffiness in British period drama that can be off-putting to lay viewers. DA in contrast is jokey, emotionally engaging and accessible. Perhaps it taps into the same demand for stories of wealth and status that brought Dallas back to TV, with added topical pleasures of seeing the rich dragged into the mud of reality through war, inter-class marriage and scandal. Or could it be that Americans are more comfortable with us as things of the past?

Look familiar?

Whatever the source of DA’s appeal, it has a novelty currency in the US that British TV viewers wouldn’t necessarily see. Sunday-night, period-set serials are ten-a-penny/a dime-a-dozen (delete as appropriate) in the UK and I’d say Downton Abbey succeeds by virtue of the quality of its performances, dialogue and loving ridiculousness of storyline which sets it apart from never-classic fare like 60s-set rural emergency services dramas Heartbeat and The Royal. Propping up the first two qualities with a cane she’d-use-if-she-had-to is Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess. Maggie may be bribing the script editor as she’s been given enough witticisms, barbs, jibes, punchlines and put-downs to make Groucho Marx seem politely reserved, delivering them with a ‘who me’ innocence that befits the roundest eyes in showbusiness. As a measure of the third there is Bates (Brendan Coyle), the unluckiest man to have lived in the existence of the world, dinosaurs inclusive. With a slight shift in tone, he could be Oliver Hardy.

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Watching Telly with Americans

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2011 by Tom Steward

Over the past few weeks I’ve had a taste of my own media medicine. I’ve been watching British TV with an American and absorbing rather than catapulting those oh-so-clever anthropological field notes about the bizarre idiosyncracies of a national TV culture. And what’s even more humbling is that I’ve been doing it with someone far, far better at it and more succinctly expressive than me (see-that sentence only needed one ‘far’). G stayed with me in July and from time to time we embarked on the daunting prospect of sitting down to watch British TV. I say ‘daunting’ because I want G to move here next year, and it felt like the onscreen lack of Real Housewives after their most recent divorces and Kardashians sporting the previous week’s surgical alterations might set back the emigration propaganda campaign several ages. G found a lot of British culture in catch-up mode, especially when it came to fashion, so finding programmes on TV we had watched together in the states months before weren’t too much of a surprise for her, though it was pleasantly for me. I thought we were at least three or four years behind. Turns out we are on the meat (great drama, comedy and reality) but not on the gristle (celeb fucking and shitcoms)-thanks ITV2!

 

Keeping up with the Kardashians...barely.

 

 

But we had a bigger problem than an out-of-date hat. British TV was ‘weird’, ‘so weird’ and ‘weird’. For G, it was as if Britons had collectively decided to substitute a working TV set in the corner of the room for a 19th Century ventriloquist dummy with its mouth sprung to repeatedly gawp the word ‘Mummy’. I vigorously protested this as a case of cultural alienation but didn’t exactly have the backing of the TV stations themselves, who throughout the month defected to G’s side by broadcasting footage of old men arguing with Simon Cowell about the existence of a Worzel Gummidge musical before Pertwee-lisping through pop hits or swapping their tried-and-tested flagship mobile spectacle reality shows for season finales where half, quarter and minus wits get berated in four rooms by several regional accents. Round One to G.

The Apprentice Indoors

 And Round Two to her as well. It was through G that I realised something that had never before occurred to me; that American TV, even the rough stuff, is by and large far more innocent and sanitary (I mean this more than sanitized-you’ll see why when I tell you what show made me realise) than British TV. What was the breakthrough programme? Why-eye, Geordie Shore, the Return-to-Oz style dark sequel to Byker Grove. An identically-designed British re-make of MTV reality hit Jersey Shore, it eschews the likeably harmless original premise of laughing at mutantly muscled, beboobed and tanned buffoons for an exponentially grotty and lewd indoor dogging video and creepily crass cock-size discussion show. All the lovably hare-brained schemes and dopey catchphrases of the original sunk  sewage-like into ruthless dirty-dicks campaigns of professional fornication and fuck-punctuated verbal cesspools. I initially thought this was just censorship differences but it’s also about our predilections as a nation for sleazy Sodom-and-Gomorrah docs set in seventh circles like Ibiza and late-night town centres. Why we want these on TV baffles me just as much as why we want them in reality. G said all that in one word: ‘nasty’.

Byker Grove was never like this...

Some of G’s confusion derived from how British TV was scheduled and broken down. She found the advert breaks interminably long, which at first I refused to accept from an American, until I realised that US TV commercial interludes are short but frequent, and just because UK TV is covertly irritating in its spread of adverts doesn’t mean it’s any better, worse in its sneakiness possibly. US TV timings are rigorously routinised-all programmes begin on an hour or half-hour. We’re far more casual with our timings, at least on terrestrial TV-a 10-minute documentary on bees here, a 10 no 12 minute news spot there, oh look, there’s an independently-made short film that’s exactly 3 minutes long for some reason. I can see how it would irritate someone brought up on regimented TV time, but I was left feeling rather proud of our irregular randomness.

There were some notable successes. G was an instant addict of Come Dine with Me, proving that it is a faultless universal formula (something like ‘Idiot + House + Cooking x4=Compulsive Sneering’) and that the world is brought together by its response to the show’s contestants with the global chant ‘Where do they get these people?’.

U.S. Auto Know Better (Volume 2)

Posted in British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2011 by Tom Steward

Top Gear in the USA

While you’re enjoying the not-at-all tiresome spectacle of Dick Van Dyke dicking (or dyking) around on roller-skates as part of a major police murder investigation which he has no right to be involved in anyway, I thought I’d do a follow-up to my last blog about Top Gear. This one contains hard evidence of how this ‘Series of Unfortunate Bellends’ catches up with you when you’re an Englishman in the New World, in places you would never possibly expect. It also shows that Top Gear can be prime cultural capital to have in certain situations befacing a border-crossing Briton in and around the US, but only if used judiciously. To the best of my recollection, this is a transcript of a conversation between me and an agent at the border between the Mexico and the USA, having just come back from Tijuana:

(Tom walks up to checkpoint, passport in hand. Agent checks passport)

Agent: So, Top Gear or Fifth Gear?

Tom: Errr, hum, pum, well. Top Gear, I suppose.

Agent: Ah, you like the comedy, huh?

Tom: It’s certainly got that.

Despite my surprise, which evidently turned me into some sort of bumbling British huffer-puffer character in a 40s film played by Nigel Bruce, I couldn’t believe my luck. Instead of tricksy questions about where I’d been, what I’d done, and why the hell I was bothering them, I was being asked about television, something which I have professional expertise in. But this was a double-edged sword. I was about to get ahead of myself.

(Agent winds up ‘interview’. Tom begins to shuffle away)

Tom: They’re changing Top Gear, you know.

Agent: Visibly Alarmed What?!

Tom: They think it’s gotten too comic, so they’ll be less sitcom stuff in it.

Agent: Oh no.

At this point, I’m cursing my own stupidity. Here I had a border agent in the palm of my hand for merely being from the same country as ‘When Bigots Stage Accidents’ and I blow it! Couldn’t just leave it at a few innocuous exchanges, could I? No, I had to provide a production tidbit to bow out on, and then risk an angry border agent who’s just lost his favourite TV show shooting the messenger with extreme prejudice by detaining me forever. He didn’t, and I was on my way. But I’m sure the blow was lightened for him somewhat when this happened mere weeks later:

U.S. Auto Know Better

Posted in British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2011 by Tom Steward

There’s a British show you can’t avoid when watching TV with Americans, and it’s not for want of trying. Not only is it mis-representing what British telly is all about, it’s also drastically underselling us as a people. The American’s televisual window into the British psyche used to be Benny Hill, where Britons were shown to be highly sexist though only moderately successful at defiling women but prepared to go that extra mile to make it happen. Now we’re seen the world over for a whole host of bigotries, thanks to this programme, and for an array of approaches to bigotry. Yes, I’m talking about Top Gear (or ‘I’ve got a car, have you got a car?’ which I have renamed it in honour of the two lines that can substitute for any dialogue in the show). This car review programme has been around on British TV since the late 1970s, but has in the last decade splintered injudiciously into a barn-based talk show, a sub-Terry and June sitcom of endless campsite misunderstandings, and a version of The Cannonball Run without the debonair wit. Whereas host Jeremy Clarkson once saved his idioctavely (somewhere between idiotic and provocative) opinions on politics and news for column inches, he now puts them more and more in the show, and has even recruited a couple of crapprentices, James May and Richard Hammond, to one day be as hateful to the world as he is.

Disgracefully, Top Gear is consistently the most popular and beloved programme on British screens, and has proved to be the BBC’s most profitable export around the globe, particularly in the US market. What is even more baffling about the show’s international popularity is that Clarkson, May and Hammond (the Kirk, Spock and Bones of prejudice) are majorly responsible for its success. American audiences prefer to see the UK hosts rather than having a native re-make, which would normally be how to translate it overseas. The British establishment of TV academics seem resolved to resist explaining the global popularity of Top Gear. At a conference two years ago, a member of the editorial board for the ‘BFI TV Classics’ book range said outright that they would not commission a monograph on the show because ‘we didn’t want another book about Jeremy Clarkson’. Now I wouldn’t want to feed into Clarkson’s publishing empire either, but finding out what makes Top Gear so coveted might tell us something about what viewers are like across different nationalities, if only to force us to recognise our bad habits and change them immediately.

The Twataman Empire

People wanted more than one volume...look at yourselves!

But there’s a few things I’ve learnt from talking to Americans about Top Gear that helped me to understand its appeal in the US a little more. While watching the show with a friend in San Francisco, I asked why Americans were still so taken with the BBC version and remained lukewarm towards Top Gear USA, the US re-make. My friend told me she liked how the programme lambasted some of the major car companies in the US, and thought that this would be impossible to do on a US network show, where the same companies would most likely provide the advertising consideration. So maybe the cult of Clarkson, May and Hammond is not solely responsible for its success in the US. Maybe it’s also the vicarious and anarchic thrill of a programme breaking free of the dependence of advertising and loyalty to sponsors which has characterised American television since the 1950s. My friend openly admitted to finding the slapdick (my term) comedy of the three hosts hilarious, commenting that ‘we don’t have people like Clarkson on American TV’. ‘Fox News’ I thought, but didn’t say.

Nevertheless, the hosts’ freedom from corporate affiliations goes against an industry where hosts, especially on daytime TV, will suddenly starting doing a promotional spot in the middle of the show. Because it so freely flouts the commercial conventions of American television, and the presenters challenge the notion of an US TV host as a corporate spokesman, I can see how the programme would appeal to Americans on the left of the political spectrum, especially those who believe in and thirst for a non-commercial alternative to heavily sponsored and company-loyal TV. For UK viewers, the hosts are outwardly known as right-wing bigots, the competition to get products featured (positively or negatively) on the show is fierce between car companies, and the commercial-free, independent BBC  is accused of promoting consumer capitalism. Something has clearly been lost in the translation.

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