Wednesday, 18 June 2008

When British stuff breaks into America

As a British expat in America, I am intrigued by the British things that break through in America. There is an unpredictability about the things that make it and the things that don't. Sometimes one forgets which British things Americans like and which they don't, or, more accurately, which they have heard of and which they have not. What is curious is that most Americans are Anglophiles. They love Britain, the British, our history, our castles and especially our accents. Yet when it comes to British imports, it is never that easy to work out what the criteria for admiration are. The really big things -- the Beatles, Monty Python, Tolkien, Harry Potter, James Bond -- are loved with a passion by many Americans. They are all bigger here than they are in the UK. There is no question of Americans having heard of them. Other things attain a kind of cult status here -- British stuff for Americans in the know. One of my favourite TV series, The Prisoner, is like that. I was shopping in Kroger the other day (a supermarket on the scale of smaller Sainsburys and Tescos) and I was stopped by a bloke who was delighted to see my Prisoner t-shirt and wondered where I had bought it from. He gave a kind of knowing chuckle when he heard my English accent .

There are other things that have a kind of cult status, an underground fan base, that encourages the big cheeses to try to turn them into something truly large and American, sometimes with disastrous results. The Office is a superb exception to this rule -- it is remarkable to see how successful the American version of the sublime British original has been. It is never as funny as the original, but it is always worth watching, and after several years it has a life of its own. The attempt a few years ago to transform Steven Moffat's brilliant Coupling into an American sitcom was a disaster, and the forthcoming attempt to Americanize Life on Mars looks so bad that I was really hoping it was a parody. We saw a short trailer for it on the telly just the other day, and there was no improvement on the earlier one.

American television at its best is wonderful. Anyone in the UK who enjoys television also enjoys American television. I love the best American TV. A British channel's success is as much about its ability to find the best American shows to broadcast in primetime as it is about its ability to commission new programmes of its own. But there is an unnecessary reluctance on the part of the big cheeses in the States to do the same, and to buy top British programmes and put them in key slots alongside the homegrown programmes. It wasn't always like this. Back in the late 60s, with more imaginative programme schedulers, The Avengers was broadcast primetime. Not so recently. BBC America gets respectable viewing figures, but it is the tiniest section of the overall audience.

I wonder what the next big British thing here will be? I doubt that it will be Doctor Who but I love to imagine that it could happen. "New Who", i.e. the revival of the series after a sixteen year hiatus, stands up above anything on American TV at the moment, and it is just beginning to impinge on American media consciousness, growing out of the kind of "cult" status it has enjoyed here for years. Each of the four new series of Who (read "seasons" in the US), from 2005 to the present, has been broadcast first on SciFi, then on BBC America, and then on PBS and associated channels in syndication. The current series (the fourth) is almost up to speed on SciFi, lagging behind by less than three weeks. Mind you, it is infuriating to see SciFi still cutting content in order to squeeze the show into an American hour with advertisements.

A sign of the growing awareness of new Who comes in its appearance in a political cartoon recently, This Modern World by Tom Tomorrow (HT: Outpost Gallifrey). And still more importantly, there was a lengthy discussion of Russell T. Davies, the person responsible for the resurrection of Doctor Who, in the New York Times (HT: Loren Rosson), which is unprecedented:

Who Altered British TV? ‘Who’ Indeed

It's a nice piece, if a shame that its author feels obliged to go on and on about Captain Jack's sexuality. There are several perhaps insurmountable problems with the programme becoming anything more than cult viewing here, though:

(1) Many of the episodes are too long. As soon as they push beyond 42 minutes, it doesn't fit into the American TV hour. The Sci-Fi style edits are pretty awful.

(2) These thirteen episode series don't stretch across an American-style 22-24 episode series.

(3) The revival is already so well underway that it seems unlikely that any big channel would be inclined to dip into the series at this stage.

(4) Many Americans can't understand the dialogue. David Tennant speaks very fast and BBC America offers subtitles for those who can't understand British English.

And actually, come to think of it, there is something quite nice about being one of those in the know.


joy said...

As a NC expat in NYC, I am intrigued by your experience as a Brit expat in NC. :-)

I'm not gonna lie - I'm one of those Americans totally hooked on all things UK right now. My fave channel's BBC-A, my fave show's Doctor Who, and I'm trying to figure out if my fave accent is Scottish or Welsh or Manchester or John Barrowman. *snerk*

I completely agree that the SciFi edits to DW are just terrible. Not to mention the use of that crazy different DW logo - way to diffuse the brand, guys.

And, you're also right about the not-quite-catching every single word out of the Doctor's mouth. I've gotten used to the David Tennant pace, but still, that's the one good thing about the SciFi schedule. After weeks of watching the S4 eppys online, I can finally turn on the close caps.

I do think one other thing that will keep DW as cult-status stateside: it's too much trouble to catch up. Mind you, they're technically half seasons, and really only three (and a half, at this point) of them, but between SciFi, BBC-A and PBS, it's fairly hard on a newbie to figure out what number episode in which series they're watching. So, without relying on Netflix, it's incredibly disjointed viewing.

Anyway, thanks for the great post - it was nice to see a Kroger mention, makes me miss home.

Anonymous said...

The Yanks have bought an actual British TV series for one of their main networks - the BBC's "Merlin" will be on NBC next year.

Anonymous said...

I grew up on The Prisoner. If I had seen you in Krogers' I might have sidled up to you and said, sotto voce, "six of one..."

selwyn42 said...

'When American stuff breaks into England'

Quite by chance, as it is on channel 4 at 7 am when I am cooking breakfast, J and I came across 'Everybody Loves Raymond' - surprisingly funny. I love the old parents - we saw an episode where he was taking herbal tablets to encourage his 'manhood' - and it ruined his sense of taste - leading to wonderful complications.

An odd son who has a strange plummy voice features.

7.30 of course - and it's Big Brother - but it has been so noisy this year, that I have hardly watched it - until today when one was thrown out on account of threatening fellow housemates with her gangster friends when the 3 months was up. Scintilating episode.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for your comments, Joy; good point re. the spread of Who across different channels.

Selwyn42: I first discovered Everyone Loves Raymond on a flight to America -- watched six episodes back to back and loved it. Also enjoying current series of BB -- I always enjoy the early stages.