British television’s superiority complex

The notion that ol’ Blighty is a hotbed of quality TV is as wrongheaded as the idea that Americans are all philistines.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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We know of no spectacle so ridiculous, said Thomas Macaulay, than the British media in one of its periodic fits of nationalism. Well, he would’ve said it, had he been a TV columnist. Watch out America, the Brits are coming!

Once more there is a crisis abroad, and Blighty dispatches the cream of fair-skinned, rose-cheeked culture to bring order, unity and civilisation to savage backwaters. Fear no more, Yanks – no longer shall ye grow bloated on a supersize diet of Boardwalk Empire, feast on a dramatic gruel as thin as Breaking Bad and Mad Men, or giggle like zombies on the dumbed-down, irony-free minds who dreamt up Arrested Development and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Leaving aside for a moment my parody of British self-aggrandisement, we Brits do have the odd artistic highpoint to offer. Colin Firth may well be the sandal-wearing, guitar-strumming thespian radical Rupert Everett wickedly paints him as in his autobiography, and there’s every chance The King’s Speech is yet another misty-eyed, post-Diana revisionist view of the monarchy, but after missing out for his performance in A Single Man you can’t begrudge him his Golden Globe this year.

And for what it’s worth, I thought Ricky Gervais’ intro to the whole shindig was one of the funniest things he’s done in a long time. It was an oddly refreshing sight to see a celebrity audience at an awards bash laugh awkwardly like normal people do at off-colour gags rather than titter to pre-rehearsed smarm. Who knew that Halle Berry was capable of guffawing at a dirty joke? I bet Natalie Portman doesn’t guffaw at anything. Who’d have guessed that resolutely down-to-Earth bohemian Johnny Depp is so fantastically thin-skinned about those enormously well-paid blockbusters he does to fund the incessant boring on about Hunter S Thompson and Native Americans? Gervais may have committed career suicide by forgetting the golden rule that comperes are never meant to be the funniest guys in the room but, unlike with most of his recent projects, at least he got ‘em laughing.

Still, for every Colin Firth and Ricky Gervais we send west, there’s a Piers Morgan. Describing Morgan’s debut on CNN this week, interviewing Oprah Winfrey, the Hollywood Reporter commented that, ‘it did, for all the world, seem like two self-important rich people talking to each other’. Funny that.

Of course, I’ve cheated a bit: I’ve cherry-picked a few outstanding examples from an enormous amount of dross which litters the vast expanse of US telly, and a few shows that have struggled to stay on-the-air in the face of meddling executives and low audience figures. Yet the wilderness that will soon be facing satellite-dish deficient British television viewers when Sky Atlantic launches later this year – including pilfering Mad Men from BBC4 – offers yet another stark reminder of the perilous state of British broadcasting.

Perhaps this explains the sniffy high-mindedness that has gripped my fellow TV reviewers recently over remakes of British shows. You know, like MTV’s remake of Skins. Or Syfy redoing BBC3’s supernatural hit Being Human. Or, er, did I mention MTV are remaking Skins? Bloody typical it is, too: those puritanical, pearly-white Yanks have ripped the heart out of this gritty, gloves-off portrayal of British working-class teenage life.

Dwell on this thought for a moment. Run your fingers over it. Putting a bunch of pretty teen actors on screen and showing them having lots of drug-fuelled sex with each other, coupled with some melodramatic and pretentious storylines about taking drugs and having lots of sex, is now being claimed as the face of innovative, British creativity. If this is the creative economy, we better start thinking about re-opening those coal mines. Then again, the reviewer the Guardian brought in to slate the US version is American, so perhaps they are all gullible suckers.

In the midst of this British-is-best mood comes Episodes, another one of those self-reflexive sitcoms where stars play exaggerated versions of themselves and every line is delivered with so many knowing winks you don’t know whether you’re meant to laugh or follow it into a public toilet. It’s about two up-and-coming British scriptwriters who come to the US to remake their hit British show, only to discover plastic executives want to turn every interesting aspect of it into a crass version of Friends. It even has Friends’ Matt LeBlanc sending himself up as a stroppy A-list star.

An interesting twist, though, is that Episodes was co-created by David Crane, who made the super-slick Friends. It’s a useful reminder, alongside the excellent David Cross’ dreadful Anglo-American sitcom, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, that it’s not just us Brits who have an inflated sense of our creative abilities. The message – that big American corporations can be utterly philistine – doesn’t seem exactly original, either. Such philistinism is not unique to Americans, though. After all, the story of talented people selling out their principles to the lowest common denominator required by broadcasting executives is also the plot of Extras – and that was about our beloved BBC!

At the very least this dearth of good drama is fuelling a bit of innovation elsewhere. BBC4 is swiftly turning into broadcasting’s answer to Arsene Wenger: scouring far-and-wide for cheap foreign talent and moving it on to bigger leagues when it starts to get all cocky. Following on from successes with French and Swedish cop dramas The Spiral and Wallander, it’s now bringing the Danish show The Killing to these shores.

As I’ve noted here before, the British-is-rubbish viewpoint is as one-sided as the British-is-best one; there have been some homegrown successes in the shape of The Inbetweeners and Misfits. But it really is time for British TV to lose the superiority complex and, rather than blaming Evil Rupert for snaffling all the good imports, start asking serious questions about where broadcasting in the UK is heading.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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Topics Culture


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