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!
WHY BRITISH TV IS BETTER THAN AMERICAN TV by JACK GREEN
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.