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Watching TV With Britons Part 1: Eee By Glum!

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, Local TV, TV channels, TV Culture, TV News, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2014 by Tom Steward

Goodbye! Like Seinfeld’s Elaine upon encountering a caring Jerry, selfless George and talented Kramer, I’m in the bizarro world. I started this blog as a Briton casting a foreigner’s eye over American television and the Americans who watch it. Now British television is foreign to me and the viewing habits of UK audiences are as curious to my mind as America’s once was. Those of you who read the blog regularly will know that I am now a resident of the United States (or have assumed I am the worst pirate in TV history!). While I’m still in the privileged position of returning to my homeland without the jarring feeling of alienation felt by most ex-pats, I cannot say the same about British television. It is not simply a question of being out of touch, but experiencing the TV I knew from the outside in. I see the problems more clearly, but I am less forgiving of them than a native now. Here’s Part 1 of my round-up of the TV I watched while I was back in the UK these past few weeks, which looks specifically at what I saw of and about the North while away:

BBC Northwest Tonight (BBC1)

If I had ever forgotten what a place of horror the North can be, I was scared straight by the top item on the local news about a priest who was arrested for murder. There was also a sub-plot about the various presenters switching roles that went clear over my head, and reminded me that local TV news is more parochial soap opera than neutral information source.

Remember Me (BBC 1)

Python Found In Sheffield!

Python Found In Sheffield!

Seasonal ghost stories are an overlooked tradition in British television, as is the utilisation of former Python Michael Palin as a TV actor. This Sunday-night 3-parter was a welcome return for both, and brought the haunting beauty of the Yorkshire coast to half-light. I’m always complaining about the lack of Britain’s multiculturalism in our flagship drama and South Yorkshire’s substantial Asian population should be represented in any depiction of the area, as it is here. But I couldn’t help feeling there were underlying xenophobic anxieties about immigration in the way the story unfolded (incidentally rather in keeping with the current normalisation of anti-immigration discourses in British politics) which undermined the diversity. It’s one thing to show the social harmony between the elderly white and Asian communities in Sheffield, another to envelope that in imagery concerning the vengeful spirit of an Indian colonial wreaking havoc on British shores.

Inside No 9 (BBC 2)

There's No Escape To Narnia In Inside No 9!

There’s No Escape To Narnia In Inside No 9!

Horror comedy writing-acting duo Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith may have left the North behind after the gloriously gothic sitcom The League of Gentleman, but their anthology-based follow-up to the macabre melodrama Psychoville is easily their best work yet. Classic British horror movies were as influential to the pair’s writing as the variously horrifying Northern towns they grew up in. But in this series of one-offs centred around buildings and rooms that bear the number 9, it’s easier to detect the legacy of great British dramatists like Harold Pinter and Mike Leigh than Hitchcock and Hammer.

Through The Keyhole (ITV)

This was once a beloved and genteel daytime panel show presented by British institution Sir David Frost in which middlebrow celebrities tried to guess which other middlebrow celebrity a house belonged to. It was easy-going, bland and offended no-one. To my horror, it’s been revived as a platform for crass Yorkshire-born comic Leigh Francis to showcase his abhorrent character Keith Lemon and brand of vulgar anarchy. Imagine if the cast of Jackass suddenly took over from the current hosts of 60 Minutes and you’ll have some idea of how inappropriate a mix of star and format this is. Tabloidization of classic British television standards has been and gone, but this is a new stage of perversion and travesty that befits a dystopian satire!

The Fall (BBC 2)

The Fall Of British Television

The Fall Of British Television

Belfast is a bleak yet glamorous backdrop for the most unremittingly downbeat police drama in TV history. Not even sexy elf Gillian Anderson can bring much more than the odd dry moment of wit to proceedings, as Christian Grey-in-waiting Jamie Dornan stalks the city’s streets and homes as a sexual serial killer and freelance social worker. Authentically Northern Irish, it also tops the genre for storytelling innovation. Dornan’s Paul Spector is as much the hero as the detective would be in any other cop show, making for deeply uncomfortable viewing. But, like the North, it remains gruesomely compelling.

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Downton Empire or Boardwalk Abbey?

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2012 by Tom Steward

 

Downton or Boardwalk?

 

Mr. Bojangles (formerly ‘Managing Director Boris Manjangles’)

SYNERGIES (formerly ‘SYNERGY INDUSTRIES’)

No. 2

Blind Alley

Londonshire (formerly ‘Great Britain’)

LOL BFF

 

Dear HBITVO,

 

I am addressing you using your synergy name-an amalgamation of HBO and ITV-which despite sounding like a new strain of a sexually transmitted virus will undoubtedly become your company acronym once I have informed you of the synergistic possibilities between two of your flagship programmes. A scan by our patented synergy-finding computer application-or SY-FI CRAP for short-has detected a 110% probability (the machine was the creation of retired football managers) of synergy between HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and ITV’s Downton Abbey. SYNERGIES believes that although the former is an obscene and offbeat historical crime drama and the latter a gentle and safe period soap opera, their worlds are colliding in ways that can only be described as ‘pointless’, a synergy word meaning both ‘poised’ and ‘relentless’.

 

Both programmes have featured scenes in Ireland in the 1920s during the ‘troubles’ (Idea for Programme: ‘Aving a Bit of The Troubles/Frank Spencer travels back in time on magic roller-skates to Bloody Sunday). But rather than having such scenes to make it look like these programmes give a damn about the country and its history, the results of our scan show that they are prime opportunities for synergy. SY-FI CRAP has projected a scenario in which Downton’s chauffeur-turned-in-law-turned-resident Uncle Seamus Tom Branson discovers his long-lost brother-from-another-overrated-show, the IRA soldier-turned-slutty bodyguard Owen Slater, has been killed by gangsters in New York and delivered in a crate to his employers (further offence was caused by listing him as ‘UK Cargo’) and leaves for the U.S.A. to exact his revenge.

 

At SYNERGIES we understand that the process of synergisation should attempt as much as possible to preserve the unique identity of the synergees. Hence SY-FI CRAP recommends that Tom recruit the help of several doughy white middle-aged character actors in exacting his revenge and that they should be introduced as they are sweatily entering much younger women. It is further suggested that when the perpetrator Joe Massereti is found by Tom he is taking tea with an elderly British film star who camply disparages him for his race and class and makes facial movements that looks like she is being buffered on iplayer.

 

SYNERGIES applaud previous efforts by ITV to synergise Downton Abbey with other HBO series. It has not gone unnoticed by our researchers that the producers had been planning a crossover with prison drama Oz. Why else would the valet Bates have been kept in jail for so long unless it was for him to eventually volunteer for a cryogenic freezing experiment offered to prisoners by an American scientist (Triangular Synergy Prospect: The scientist is Norm from Cheers reprising his role as an unconvincing 1940s inventor in Forever Young) and be defrosted in a 1990s Baltimore high-security prison? SYNERGIES appreciates that it was only Ofcom’s enforced removal of a scene in which Bates was raped with a potato-masher by Noel Coward that prevented this merger.

 

The SYNERGIES family (the cloned specimens that power SY-FI CRAP’s artificial intelligence are technically relatives) know that Downton Abbey depends on the American market and that, thanks to the efforts of the Prime Minister of Synergy (‘Synister’) conglomerate media mogul Rupert Murdoch, Boardwalk Empire is a hit on British TV…at least for those who have sold their souls for Mad Men. These audiences must be synergised as soon as possible. Our survey says that this could be achieved by Boardwalk Empire having dancing chimney-sweeps become bootleggers rather than WWI veterans as well as posh Englishmen who don’t understand things not understanding flapjacks. Downton Abbey would need to re-cast Lady Grantham’s mother with Kathy Bates shouting raucously in a Southern drawl while her boobs hang loose in a t-shirt.

 

Those who resist the synergy movement, which at time of writing our statisticians rounded up to ‘the population of the earth’, may consider such a crossover detrimental to the integrity of each individual programme. To those who defy progress, I say remember those pioneers of TV synergy (or ‘TV-Gy’ not to be confused with the rating or the budget-conscious gay channel) who boldly cross-fertilised Inspector Morse and Masterchef to produce the policious hit series Pie in the Sky and economised by re-using cooking show credits sequences. Who could forget the genius producer who decided that CBS should try to sell CSI to the audience demographic for The Golden Girls and call it NCIS, a title which innovatively uses ‘anagriarism’ (a cross between ‘anagram’ and ‘plagiarism’) with the N standing for ‘nodding off’.

 

SYNERGIES awaits your response in all possible forms of media (including pigeon) simultaneously. We offer consultancy on a pro bono basis, which is a synergy word combining ‘prostitution’ and ‘bonus’.

 

Yours disingenuously,

 

Mr. Bojangles

 

(Synergy Date/Time Conversion: 2for1/1score/dozen)

 

Boardwalk or Downton?

 

 

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.

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?’.

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