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From ‘The Great British Bake Off’ to ‘Are You Being Served?’ the English are Different from You and Me
September 5, 2016  | By Alex Strachan

Let me tell you about the English. They are different from you and me. They watch Strictly Come Dancing and Are You Being Served? and The Great British Bake Off has them lining up around the corner.

They’re proud of many of their TV exports to North America, as evidenced in a recent op-ed piece in The Guardian — think the New York Times, but with a more auspicious level of literacy and a stronger lean to the left — but not so proud of others. They’re rightly proud of Broadchurch, for example, but not so proud that it somehow metastasized into Gracepoint. It was all that Scottish actor’s fault. If only he’d been English, like the show’s writer.

A fortnight in the UK makes for some fascinating comparisons. The Great British Bake Off, a kind of MasterChef for pastry enthusiasts, has proven a monster hit, for example, thanks to its mix, as one Guardian headline writer put it, of “blood, innuendo and drizzle cake.”

And then there’s the period drama Victoria, starring recent Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman as the young Queen Victoria (top). Victoria has just premiered to (mostly) strong reviews and stellar ratings, with what criticism there is dwelling on questions of historical accuracy, rather than any failings in the acting or story itself. The complaints are similar and come from many of the same people, who took issue with The Tudors for its alleged liberties with the historical record. More on that later.

Victoria is also the jewel in the Masterpiece crown for the upcoming season. It will premiere on PBS in early 2017, in the time period previously reserved for Downton Abbey. No spoilers, but Victoria’s reign lasted longer than many political pundits expected at the time, so there’s enough material for several more seasons to come, or ‘series’ as the English call TV seasons.

That’s just as well, because Indian Summers (left), another high-profile UK-US co-production for Masterpiece, will end after just two seasons. It was originally projected for five, but lukewarm reviews and tepid ratings in the UK scuppered that plan.

The TV pipeline flows both ways. It was disorienting, for example — jarring, even — to read a glowing review of HBO’s The Night Of in last weekend’s Sunday Observer (the Guardian’s Sunday edition) just days after the finale aired in the US.

The Night Of has only just premiered in the UK, where it is airing Thursdays on Sky Atlantic. (Here’s your chance, if you’re so inclined, to get even with those UK friends and family who ruined Downton Abbey for you by telling them how The Night Of ends, thus sparing them the pain and agitation of having to sit through one of the year’s finest, most tension-filled TV dramas from beginning to end.)

The Guardian review of The Night Of, written by Filipa Jodelka, contained some important life lessons. For example: “If you ever pinch your dad’s taxicab to attend a college party, and a beautiful but troubled woman gets in and demands in insouciant tones to be taken to ‘the beach’ — in New York of all places — forget it. Open the door and kick her pert little derriere out, because no good will come of it.”

(Jodelka, according to the paper’s website, “consumes and regurgitates television for the Guardian Guide,” which sounds a little like writing a weekly column for TV Worth Watching.)

Victoria, from ITV, drew 30% of the audience watching TV at the time across the UK, well ahead of BBC’s remake of the classic 1972-’85 sitcom Are You Being Served? which landed a still-respectable 24% share of the audience.

Victoria peaked at more than 6 million viewers, which might not sound like much by US standards, but represents a huge number for the UK, especially in late August, when even the English would rather be outdoors, celebrating what’s left of the summer before the winter drizzle sets in. The fact that Victoria opens with Coleman playing the future queen as a difficult, impetuous 18-year-old could only help attract younger, hard-to-reach viewers, much as the casting of dashing bad boy Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII worked wonders for The Tudors. As mentioned before, more on that later.

The English are different from you and me. The X Factor — remember The X Factor? — is still going gangbusters in the UK, after 12 seasons.  X Factor’s audience peaked at more than 7 million viewers last weekend, making it one of the UK’s bona fide summer hits (The Great British Bake Off taking top prize, for the moment) and helping Simon Cowell in his quest to rule the TV world.

Cowell also owns and operates the highly rated, widely watched America’s Got Talent, which not only has survived the two-week disruption of the Olympics but is experiencing its strongest season to date, with a finale of genuinely talented contestants that remains too close to call. (Preternaturally gifted child singer Grace VanderWaal (right), who has been likened to a 12-year-old Taylor Swift, and Freddie Mercury-inspired ingénue Brian Justin Crum are the front-runners in a final group that also includes the Chaplinesque silent comedian Tape Face, a surprisingly funny mime who has managed to do a lot with very little.)

English tastes are different from yours and mine, too.

Asked, in a nationwide poll, to choose the best sitcom of all time, UK viewers settled on Mrs. Brown’s Boys, to the horror of English media critics who’ve actually seen it.

The resident reviewer at The Independent, one of the UK’s most respected broadsheet newspapers, remarked, “Once seen, it is rarely forgotten. To love Mrs. Brown, one must be thrilled by a man in a hairnet and dinner-lady tabard saying the F-word roughly once every ten minutes, egged on by a loyal studio audience so whipped to hysteria . . . that one can hear pants being soiled and spleens exploding with mirth.”

In other words, a winner!

In fairness, some of the early reviews of The Big Bang Theory weren’t too complimentary, either. If a similar viewer poll were held today across the US, Big Bang would probably do similarly well — helped, of course, by the fact that it is, in fact, quite funny. At times, anyway.

But wait, there’s more.

The UK production industry is chuffed that noirish, homegrown crime thrillers like Happy Valley, Peaky Blinders, Fortitude and even the set-in-Victorian-times Ripper Street have found an audience with US viewers.

The pipeline really does both directions. John Ridley, writer-creator of American Crime and the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, is co-producing a thriller with Sky Atlantic and Showtime Networks, Guerilla, which stars Idris Elba in a thriller set in the tumultuous milieu of Anglo-African street politics in the 1970s.

As readers of this site are already aware, The Night Of was itself loosely adapted from a British original, Criminal Justice, written by Kavanagh QC creator Peter Moffat, which originally aired on BBC in 2008.

The English have a different sense of stardom from you and me, as well.

The cast of this season’s Strictly Come Dancing — the UK precursor to Dancing with the Stars — includes former Labour parliamentarian Ed Balls, who likens his dance style to that of a not-very-good rugby player; Olympic gold medal-winning long-jumper Greg Rutherford, who told The Guardian he resembles a “drunken spider” on the dance floor; Olympic gymnast Claudia Fragapane; BBC Breakfast host and TV presenter Naga Munchetty; model Daisy Lowe; and singers Anastacia and Will Young.

The newest cast of Dancing with the Stars meanwhile will feature Ryan Lochte — remember him? — Marilu Henner, Kenneth “Babyface” Evans, The Brady Bunch’s Maureen McCormick, former Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, Vanilla Ice and former Texas Gov. (and one-time Republican presidential candidate) Rick Perry.

The new season of Dancing with the Stars bows Sept. 12 — yes, it’s that time of year again — while Victoria will continue airing in the UK, complaints over historical inaccuracy and all.

Historical accuracy is often a question of interpretation, in any event, and no reason to stop watching a show together, as early followers of Victoria know.

In a long, wide-ranging interview a number of years ago, The Tudors creator Michael Hirst — Hirst wrote every word of every episode — admitted he was irked by complaints from academics, historians and self-proclaimed experts, i.e. TV critics, alike. Hirst committed to a vast amount of historical research while penning 38 hour-long scripts between 2007-’10. He was conscious of every decision he made, right down to, as some historians described it, the unfeasibly beautiful actors, dodgy costumes, improbable storylines and even the fact that Jonathan Rhys Meyers (left) was, horror of horrors, Irish.

Hirst is a dramatist, not a documentarian, he said. He noted that, over time, some of The Tudors’ most strident historian critics confessed later that they became “strangely addicted,” despite their initial misgivings.

That group included Heritage Education Trust chief executive Tracy Borman, who admitted to Radio Times at the time that she was “determined to loathe the series,” for all the usual historical reasons, but found herself drawn in, thanks in large part to the way Hirst depicted the drama of Henry VIII’s court, with all its intrigues, scandals, and betrayals.

Noted UK historian David Starkey, who specializes in the Tudor period, said he found The Tudors to be “gratuitously awful,” and criticized BBC for squandering public money on a historical drama he accused of being deliberately dumbed down to appeal to an American audience.

Hirst summoned a colorful English epithet in response and said that what he was proudest of — and what he considers to this day to be The Tudors’ singular achievement — is that it sparked a new, almost obsessive interest in English history among younger viewers and in schools across the UK. Period television drama, when done well, he argued, can inspire an enduring passion for a particular time in history, especially if — as The Tudors did — it inspires younger viewers to find out what really happened.

Hirst has since gone on to other projects — Vikings, now in its fifth season. He confessed, tongue-in-cheek, that he has heard fewer complaints about historical accuracy on his latest series, in part because there are fewer self-proclaimed experts in Viking lore, and the Vikings themselves weren’t too fussy about leaving behind a written historical record of their exploits.

Victoria will keep the debate going for many weeks yet in the UK. And when it debuts on PBS early next year, the debate will begin all over again across the US.

As The Tudors and Victoria both prove, and The Night Of  (above) too, for that matter, although the English may be different from you and me, we still share enough in common — the love of a good story, well told — that the best television can translate across different cultures.

Two nations, as the old saying goes, divided — but also unified — by a common language. The language of television.

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