Solving the Puzzle of British TV’s Success in the U.S.
Outside my dormitory room’s window in Exeter, lay a grassy hill with sheep grazing. I was at a conference a few hours’ drive southwest of London and yet the pastoral scene reminded me of my boyhood home in western Pennsylvania.
The view in Exeter was the same exact scene I saw every day growing up. Near my high school, sheep grazed on a hill, thick with green grass in the western Pennsylvania town of Ligonier, which had its origin as a pivotal fort for the British — back in 1758.
Yet it was different. Just like British television.
My week-long trip to Exeter with a stay in London showed me just how similar Britain is to the northeast U.S. Lots of green hills, plenty of rain, and farm animals in their smelly glory make for a culturally close connection. The differences, though, were obvious like a dorm room that had tap for beer, towns with narrow streets, and shops selling gear to play cricket instead of baseball.
Compared to previous trips I had made to Japan, Thailand, and Taiwan, I found that England was comfortable and familiar. The differences between British English and American chatter are funny. Bonnet, for example, sounds the same in either country but refers to the hood of a car in the U.K. and a hat in the U.S. We can joke about it.
Trying to communicate in Asia was a monumental task.
Britain is the birthplace for many stories that have endured in American culture. Legendary outlaw Robin Hood and The Christmas Carol come to mind while a cultural closeness stemming from colonial times still links both audiences today. And yet the differences let us peek into a world that we don’t know.
Masterpiece Theater on PBS brought U.K.-based productions to American small screens starting in 1971. The very name of the series elevated British productions above the U.S. sitcom fare written to evoke laughs on every page of a script.
The mission of Masterpiece as stated on the PBS website is “Bringing you the best in classic adaptations, mysteries filled with eclectic characters, and provocative contemporary works.”
Notice that it doesn’t specifically say the shows are British, but they are.
In the ’70s, the intelligent ones tuned in to Masterpiece Theater while every Friday night us grade-schoolers watched simplistic shows like The Brady Bunch.
In high school, British TV became cool with the off-color (colour) humor of Benny Hill and the faux intelligence of Monty Python. We loved it. During track practice in high school, we’d imitate the silly walk of the Python gang or mimic lines from skits like Dead Parrot, “pining for the fjords,” seeing who could hit the highest octave.
I don’t know if the skit would have worked as well with U.S. actors. A comic like the late Red Skelton could likely have pulled it off, but an intangible “something” drew us in, whether it was the accents or the absurdity of struggling to return a dead parrot to a pet shop.
A cultural connection between the U.S. and U.K. is undeniable and has led to careers for actors skipping between Los Angeles, New York, and London. During my stay in London, I sat in the upper balcony for Death of a Salesman in the West End starring Brian Dennehy with a billboard outside showing David Schwimmer of Friends fame in his play Some Girls. It was like Broadway, but different. I was a bit stunned to see theater-goers making their way to the seats clutching pints of beer — an act that would get you reprimanded in the States.
Today, U.S. audiences are binging on British shows thanks to Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube while PBS continues airing Masterpiece. This summer, it’s Endeavour Series 5 (translation — its 5th season) and the mysteries surrounding deaths in Oxford.
The titles have become common to many Americans.
Downtown Abbey and Call of the Midwife attracted its loyal followers while The Crown reveals a deeply personal look at the Royal family struggling to stay relevant. And it keeps Americans talking about what they’ve watched.
I believe that I’ve uncovered the reasons that these productions have struck a chord with American audiences, notably, those who aren’t big fans of TV.
For my investigation, I need look no further than an American I know, one who has absolutely no interest in television and takes pride in knowing little to nothing about pop culture. She’s good-natured, red-haired, and she’s my wife.
Cindy is a nurse practitioner and a good example of an American who truly has to find something that pulls her in; otherwise, the television remains as ignored and shunned as an unwanted relative.
So why is she tuned in to British shows?
Clue #1. She values entertainment, especially the theater where the stories come alive — real life, in front of her. The productions that she’s enjoyed recently give her a real-life experience.
The last American TV show, and perhaps only show, she watched faithfully was House, the medical drama on Fox that ran from 2004 to 2012 starring Hugh Laurie, a Brit.
She was once a nurse in the intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles so the drama caught her eye for about five years. She understood what was happening and enjoyed seeing how the characters responded to the drama just like she would have enjoyed seeing it staged live. But she lost all interest during its last few years as the storylines weakened and she ignored television once again.
Clue #2. Then she came across the convenience of Netflix, available on her phone and laptop any time she wanted. Call the Midwife called out to her. She watched episodes a few times per week and made it through the first few seasons.
Switching back to an American production on the referral of her clinic partner, also a nurse practitioner, she used her phone to watch ABC’s Good Doctor starring Freddie Highmore for several episodes, but found the autism that he displayed both unrealistic and bothersome.
She caught Britain’s Doc Martin based on a recommendation from another friend and liked the depth of medical knowledge shared, but could never warm up to the main character. She found him too odd. Perhaps this was one instance of a British perspective not sitting well with her. But she still talks about it and I think there’s a good chance she’ll tune in to additional seasons.
Clue #3. When she watches a show, discovery and an intellectual challenge outweighs simple entertainment. She came across The Crown in an unusual way.
Cindy has bronchiectasis, a chronic condition, and her pulmonologist told her to watch a specific episode of The Crown, when an unusually thick fog covers London and wreaks havoc with respiratory systems of young and old alike.
She could relate to the characters, and she was hooked.
During a recent flare up in her right lung that kept her down longer than she would care to admit, she watched the first two seasons of The Crown, appreciating Claire Foy’s interpretation of a young Queen Elizabeth, and Matt Smith of Doctor Who fame embodying the royal struggles of Philip.
The show led her to dig more into the royal family and wonder why Elizabeth has stuck it out so long as Queen, and why she didn’t step aside so Charles could become king during the prime of his life. For someone who has no time for TV, certain shows have made their way into her thinking.
Cindy likes historical fiction and believes that British productions are better than Americans in producing this genre, using the details to reveal the struggles and needs of the characters. And though Doc Martin’s character turned her off, the depth of medical knowledge that was shared kept her interest for a season.
Which is why Endeavour Series 5 will be a test to see if she, a non-casual TV viewer, takes to the British mystery set in 1968 in the midst of global change.
The production that airs on ITV in the U.K. and is offered in the U.S. on PBS’ Masterpiece brings investigations of deaths that include themes of a horror film to deaths that are politically motivated.
Shaun Evans and Roger Allam star as Inspector Morse and Detective Thursday and they welcome numerous guest stars whose careers have led them back and forth across the Atlantic.
Episode 2, “Cartouche,” brings in Linette Beaumont, as Paulette, the sister-in-law of Detective Thursday.
The veteran of British shows including Eastenders and Coronation Street is a classically trained actress who’s performed several of the most sought-after theatrical roles in London. Beaumont’s Lady Macbeth, considered to be the most challenging role in the Shakespearean classic, was hailed as “vividly portrayed and compelling” (U.K. Theatre Review).
Showing her versatility, she gave a “delicious” performance as Lady Teazle in the restoration comedy, The School for Scandal (The Stage Review).
She successfully transitioned from stage and TV into film. In 2017, a lead role in a thriller won her awards and nominations on the international film circuit. Beaumont is also one of many British and U.S. actors who have built a trans-Atlantic fan base with film projects in the works in both the U.K. and the States.
Guest stars for this season of Endeavour include Anton Lesser who also played Harold MacMillan in The Crown and Phil Daniels who had the role of Jimmy in 1979’s Quadrophinia and is on stage in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
On IMDB, Endeavour is ranked 14th out of 100 shows that have the U.K. as their “country of origin.”
Having shows that are talked about on both continents is really a natural evolution from change that rocked our worlds starting decades ago.
Encroaching global trends brought the royal family to a place that some of its members didn’t want to accept, as we see in The Crown. Queen Elizabeth was apparently the right woman for the job, shepherding the Commonwealth into a modern era while keeping the monarchy intact.
On a local level, all of us can identify with Inspectors Morse and Thursday in Oxford as immigration, personal experiences, and organizational upheaval transform their lives.
Entertainment is now fully global. There’s no question that Americans will tune in to British shows — whether wacky sketch comedy or with the historical accuracies and context of The Crown and Endeavour.
We recognize what we see in the universal struggles and needs of the characters much like the grassy hill in Exeter reminded me of my hometown in Pennsylvania. And yet, we discover an enticing new world filled with fun accents and depth of character.
British TV isn’t the same as American productions. It’s different. And we like that.