The Brits* Talk Back
Most of the time, you get to listen to me ramble about how I, an American, feel about British television. This week I wanted to bring you something different, so this is when the Brits get their say. On Wednesday, you heard from my best friend Michelle as she filled you in on Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day.
Today, I asked a few United Kingdom natives to give me some feedback about their own television. The responses are from Charlie of Nottingham, Michelle of Hartfordshire, and Rebecca of Northern Ireland.
When you think of British television, what’s the first thing that springs to mind and why?
Comedy. It’s the most unique aspect of British television’s identity and is very ‘silly’, just watch Monty Python, or Blackadder, which, despite its wit and sharpness still falls back on over the top characters or silly situations. There is also an almost obscurity to some of the humour that I imagine would be tricky to transfer to other cultures as it is a small island, so jokes from Doctor Who at ITV1’s expense may be lost on those in America, yet in an American sitcom a joke about Walmart would still be laughed at over here, despite the fact that there are no Walmarts in the UK, because American culture is well known. The goofy, almost in-jokes, of British humour is what makes British television unique.
Doctor Who. It’s a practically a British institution! I don’t believe there’s a British person in the world that wouldn’t recognise the TARDIS call and be scared of a dalek! I was really too young for it first time round, but I watched a lot of reruns and mostly I remember being scared to death by the daleks! It being brought back and doing so well is just really exciting and shows how timeless and awesome british television can be.
The thing I think of immediately is Doctor Who, because it’s so iconic and tied to British history. In more general terms I think of the detail paid to British television, the intricacy and the amount of work put in to things most people (unless they’re super observant tumblr users) wouldn’t see. For example, in an episode of Sherlock, Cumberbatch is holding a newspaper and the article starts with the phrase ‘a tale worthy of Conan Doyle himself’. I accept the many flaws in Sherlock but that really stood out to me, it shows how much work gets put into television that relies solely on the public for funding - the BBC gets its revenue from us paying our tv licence, not from adverts or faceless companies.
What is your opinion about American Television?
I think it is widely accepted in British culture as a large part of our television and in a way it makes it harder to identify it by itself. I think that American TV takes more risks and when it pays off, just like British television, it really pays off; however, when it doesn’t you are more likely to get something bad to watch, whereas I think that when British television fails it is because it has created something boring with very few risks involves (with a few notable exceptions when it becomes laughably painful). American television is very notable for its larger scale which means that it takes more commitment to sit down and watch a series every week, especially when a lot of American drama has ongoing plot arcs. I think this is why box set culture has started over here, as of the people I know, and myself included, our DVD boxsets would contain many more American series such as Dexter, House or X Files than Doctor Whos, Torchwoods or Red Dwarfs. British tv with shorter series and often shorter episodes makes it easier for casual viewing. While a lot of American tv shows with long episodes and long series runs are really high quality, I sometimes feel that the short series and episode length gives some British tv shows a better quality and makes them snappy and memorable.
The gap between series airing in America and those airing in Britain is often insanely large so I will sometimes follow American series as they are released in America and it very different to how shows are aired here. Once a series starts it will be on every week unless an important sporting event clashes with it, and this is very rare, whereas in America series gaps of a week or two appear to be fairly common. Finally as much as I hate to generalise I find American reality tv shows a little too hard to watch. I think the drama is exaggerated far beyond that of similar British reality tv shows and that the video log footage that is cut in with the ongoing action is done very poorly and comes across as cheesy.
On the most part, I like it. I’m much more of a fan of American scripted television than unscripted as sometimes American reality TV shows tend to use the term “unscripted” very loosely (which you don’t get so much of on UK reality shows). I’m not always a fan of American comedy, but there are a few very good shows that appeal to my sense of humour (Scrubs being a big one). My all time favourite TV show (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is American, so I’m definitely a fan! It’s pretty cliche to say that America doesn’t get Britain’s sense of humour, but I think America at least attacks comedy different to the brits so very different shows come from each side of the pond.
There are quite a few American shows I watch and I enjoy them for different reasons to British television. New Girl, The Big Bang Theory, 2 Broke Girls…. they’re all funny and heart warming, not to mention how sucked into Suits and Hawaii Five-0 for the drama and excellent characters. I enjoy those and use them to switch off after a long day at uni, to veg out in front of my laptop and just have a laugh. That’s not to say American television is dumbed down, you only have to watch Elementary to realise that is definitely not the case, but I’m aware of the different reasons and circumstances in which I watch British and American television.
If you were only allowed to recommend one programme to an American interested in British TV, which programme would it be?
Doctor Who. It is such a large part of British Culture, has a very British feel to it but doesn’t exclude those of other cultures too much. It’s a high quality show and covers a lot of genres and, as it began back in 1963, it covers many different eras of British television and goes through many different styles.
It would depend what genre really, but overall I’d probably recommend Doctor Who, it’s a great drama with lots of twists and heartstring pulls so it’ll definitely get you hooked. And it’ll also give you a bit of an insight into our silly sense of humour (stick with the terrible effects and costumes, it’s part of the charm!)
I think I would like to recommend Outnumbered because it’s such a brilliant portrayal of family life and there are parts of that show I think I’ve broken ribs laughing at. The problem is it’s so dependent on British culture that I think a lot of the humour might be missed, the subtlety of Hugh Dennis might get overlooked and that would be a shame, so unless the American had previous knowledge of British humour and context, I would have to go with Mr Selfridge, my personal favourite at the moment. It’s full of drama and even centred around an American family, but does British 1900’s excellently. Period dramas done well are always pleasing (Gregory Fitoussi doesn’t hurt either, especially that French accent…) and when I’m not paying attention the multi layered storyline or clapping in delight at Lady Mae’s wit, I’m absorbed in the beauty of the set. The costumes, the insight into British culture/history, and the way each episode leaves you wanting more is nothing short of, well, as Nine would say, ‘fantastic!’.
So there you have it! Thank you so much to the Charlie, Rebecca, and Michelle. Especially thanks to all of you for recommending two of my favorite shows!
What are your favorite British television shows? Is there one you just plain don’t get? Let me know in the comments!
*I’m using “Brits” here a bit liberally as one of the responders is from Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom but not Great Britain. It is, however, part of the British Isles. So… close, I guess?