Tag Archives: Morgan Spurlock

Which is better, British TV or American TV? Part Two: Britain

7 Apr

In the last couple of weeks Sky Atlantic have launched the latest HBO series of Game of Thrones and Mad Men, both of which have been extremely popular with their British fanbases. Morgan Spurlock (of Supersize Me fame) also launched his new show, New Britania, on the channel, which as you may have guessed is an exploration of the cultural differences between Britain and The United States of America. And this got us thinking… Often the question is asked “Which is better, British TV or American TV” and it is an argument that has never really been settled. Well, armed with passion, arrogance, and  brains full of loosely formed argument, Jack, the Tellybrain editor, and his mate David (of Den of Geek) hope to settle this once and for all. Flying the flag for America yesterday was David, and now here is Jack with his pro-Britain argument. Enjoy! 


I’m going to stay away from the ‘Britain invented TV’ argument because, as everybody already knows a Scotsman, John Logie Baird, demonstrated the first fully operational television set at London’s Selfridges, in March 1925. Attempts had of course been made before, some as early as 1876 by Nipkow in Germany, who invented a disc based system that captured images using electricity. But Baird was the first to make it work well. You don’t need me to tell you that.

The reason I’m shying away from that argument is that it is irrelevant. Just because the British invented TV, it doesn’t automatically make them best at content. Nevertheless, they are.

Okay. Fine! There are certain things that America do better. I’ll admit that. One thing is budget. The mighty US drama studios are undoubtedly major world players. With budgets as high as $60 million for a ten parter (Game of Thrones, HBO – broadcast in the UK on Monday nights at 9pm on Sky Atlantic) they are capable of blowing our minds with spectacular visuals, terrific scores, and 22+ episode seasons. But do bags of cash, great visuals, scores, and long seasons make for better TV?

My answer is no, not necessarily. Take the later seasons of Heroes; they looked expensive, the atmospheric music was sensational, and the seasons were between 18 and 25 parts long. But… and this is crucial… it was dross. Even with Zachary Quinto, Hayden Panettiere, and Masi Oka onboard the show fell flat and viewers fled in droves. You can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter, and Heroes was steaming pile of glittery excrement. By contrast, Being Human is televisual bullion, and is made on a tight BBC Three budget.

I believe in the mantra ‘writer is king’. While the USA has some gobsmackingly good writers, such as Aaron Sorkin, Joss Whedon, and David Simon, I believe Britain has more. I see your Sorkin and I raise you McGovern (Cracker, Hillsborough, Needles). I see your Whedon and I raise you Russell T Davies (The Second Coming, Queer as Folk, Torchwood: Children of Earth). And I see your Simon and I raise you Paul Abbott (State of Play, Clocking Off, Shameless).Then there are Whithouse, Machin, Bleasdale, Bennett, Moffat (Peter), Moffat (Steven), and Curtis. Britain’s best are better than America’s, and if you really want proof then it is worth remembering that the master of direction Spielberg himself chose Steven Moffat to write the Tintin Movie for Hollywood. And then when he dropped out part way through the process (to Executive Produce a British TV series!), who did Spielberg replace him with? Oh yes, two Brits – Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish! If the most successful director in Hollywood thinks British is best, then who am I to argue?

The beauty of British drama is its everydayness. Take Being Human. Toby Whithouse, the writer, creates terrifying scenes with vampires and werewolves, but he can also turn episodes on their head, ground them both in a greasy spoon, and have them competing for the affections of a lady.

This everydayness is also true of British comedy. Take Steptoe, Only Fools, The Office, Gavin and Stacey, The Likely Lads, Dads Army, Porridge, The Royle Family, The Vicar of Dibley,  Men Behaving Badly… they’re all united by profoundly mundane settings, but also by cuttingly brilliant and well-crafted characters. Britain is great at the kitchen sink approach.

I believe that the difference between the British ‘kitchen sink’ approach to writing and American ‘crash, bang, wallop’ approach is due to the way television developed in each country. Britain has a theatrical history; with stories on a stage, minimal sets, and small casts. These traditions flowed into radio, and then TV. Some early television dramas here were in fact called ‘Play for Today’, which wears its theatrical heritage on its sleeves. In America, I believe that dramatic television styles were born out of the film industry, which boomed and never looked back. Action sequences in shows like Starsky and Hutch were commonplace, and this reflected the action crazy medium of cinema. I believe the British way is better as it leads to more character based series with players you can relate to.

David’s arguments were about drama and comedy, so that’s where I felt compelled to pitch my half to. I have just enough space to mention that Britain’s best when it comes to factual programming too. The term documentary is said to have been coined by Scotsman, John Grierson, who later defined the principles of the genre. Nowadays our National History Unit in Bristol produces hours of documentary footage that push the very boundaries of natural science. These documentaries cover all life as we understand it, from the oceans (Blue Planet), to the ice plains of the utmost North and South (The Frozen Planet), and even delve into the human condition (The Human Planet). British factual TV also covers physics in minute detail (The Sky at Night, Wonders of the Solar System/Universe, Bang goes the theory), geography and agriculture (Coast, and Countryfile), fine and popular arts on Sky Arts and BBC Four, and in John Pilger Britain has one of the best investigative documentary makers in the world.

Britain is best. You know it.

On a side note, it should be acknowledged that this article has not made reference to Boys from the Black Stuff, Z Cars, Cathy Come Home, Grange Hill, Doctor Who, Brookside, Coronation Street, EastEnders, Hustle, Call the Midwife, Downton Abbey, Curse of Steptoe, Hancock’s Half Hour, Sherlock, Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, Prime Suspect, Taggart, Silent Witness, Midsomer Murders, Casualty, Press Gang, BlackAdder, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Pride and Prejudice, Our Friends in the North, I Claudius, Spooks, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy even once.

Which is better, British TV or American TV? Part One: America

6 Apr

In the last couple of weeks Sky Atlantic have launched the latest HBO series of Game of Thrones and Mad Men, both of which have been extremely popular with their British fanbases. Morgan Spurlock (of Supersize Me fame) also launched his new show, New Britania, on the channel, which as you may have guessed is an exploration of the cultural differences between Britain and The United States of America. And this got us thinking… Often the question is asked “Which is better, British TV or American TV” and it is an argument that has never really been settled. Well, armed with passion, arrogance, and  brains full of loosely formed argument, Jack, the Tellybrain editor, and his mate David (of Den of Geek) hope to settle this once and for all. Flying the flag for Britain tomorrow will be Jack, but first here is David with his pro-USA argument. Enjoy!  

Why American TV is better than British TV by David Pallant

From watching The West Wing I know that any important debate can be won in one of two ways. The first is the positive campaign strategy where you focus on the issues at hand, and demonstrate the excellence of your point of view. Then there is the negative campaign. This debate strategy is based on the mantra “it doesn’t matter how bad you think we are; the other side is worse.”

The opinions I am going to express will be from the latter category, not because I don’t have confidence that American TV is better than British TV, but because I reckon it will infuriate Jack! I’m going to try and guess what he thinks the best things about British TV, and then explain why America still do it better.

I should add, as a disclaimer, I do not dislike British TV. There are some very fine examples out there of great British TV. However, I believe that for every one example of great British TV there are three examples of equally great American TV.

Jack would say that British TV is filled with talent…

He would be right. When you see Helen Mirren, Stephen Fry and Ricky Gervais light up the little box in the corner of the room you know that the tiny island in the Atlantic is doing something right. Heck, when Monty Python went transatlantic decades ago, American TV was rife with cheaply-put-together imitations.

But right across the American TV networks at the moment you have over a dozen Oscar-winners working in-front and behind the camera. At this point the argument that British TV has talent becomes a little bit conceited. Martin Scorsese, Dustin Hoffman and Anna Paquin are just three I could name. The BAFTAs versus Oscars debate will rage eternal but it cannot be denied that when you line up the talent of the UK against the talent of the US it looks like Rotherham United versus Manchester United.

Jack would try and point out that British TV makes stories that are relevant to us…

Again, to some extent Jack would be right. Currently Titanic is beached on our TV screens receiving some praise (though not on this site!) and spinning a story that is relevant because of the ship’s centenary. Then you can look at shows like Hollyoaks and Casualty – the latter Jack worked on – that weave plotlines which are accurate commentaries on the UK’s social and economic climate.

Across the Atlantic, American TV also has socially-relevant programming. But they don’t work as well even in the USA; this is mainly because America is nearly twenty-times the size of Britain (give or take). What may make sense to a New Yorker could completely baffle a Californian.

Instead, America specialises in churning out (and in this scenario, the word is not meant negatively) dozens of viewer-friendly TV shows each month. Each one may sit nicely into a niche or genre, but they are designed and written to be accessible by every American. As a result they are accessible for us Brits too.

And when Jack says Doctor Who, I would answer Buffy, Lost and Fringe (Like I said it is a 1:3 ratio).

Finally Jack might try and land the knockout punch by talking about the unique brilliance of British comedy…

He would be absolutely correct. British comedy, when done well, is a feast for the ears, eyes and funny bone. However, the eagle-eyed readers may have noticed the clause in that previous sentence: when done well. We can all remember a side-splitting gag from BlackAdder, The Office or Only Fools and Horses. In fact, there are many creative minds out there that when you see them attached to a production you know it will be a guaranteed laughter-fest (I’m looking at you Steven Moffat). But how many comedies have fallen down at the first-series hurdle? Do The Royal Bodyguard, According to Bex and Sir Yellow sound familiar?

Then we look at the massive writer’s rooms of American Sitcoms. Britain has writing teams ranging from one all the way up to three or four. Any more than that and individual talent is stifled. That might be a fair point. But isn’t the bigger picture more important (or as Spock would say, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” – Star Trek, another American show) because as individuality dies, doesn’t the fruit of collaboration grows? Just think of Frasier, the most decorated sitcom ever. The more people involved, the more a comedy moment can potentially grow. That only benefits one person, you the viewer.

American TV is better. You can’t disagree with Jack’s logic.

On a side note, it should be acknowledged that this article has not made reference to Friends, Family Guy, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Angels of New York, Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Will and Grace, Saved By The Bell, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, The X Files, Gilmore Girls, 24, 30 Rock, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Dallas, Dukes of Hazard or Futurama, The OC, The Vampire Diaries, Battlestar Galactica, Cheers, Happy Days House M.D and Doogie Howser M.D. even once.

David Pallant loves film and TV almost as much as his pet tortoise, Monty. If you want to read some more of his opinions on TV, films, food and fine-living feel free to follow him on Twitter, @Twit_Pallant.

And you can check out Jack’s Pro-Britain argument tomorrow on tellybrain.com!


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