That all depends on what you class as ‘British TV’ and what does that even mean? Is there a bad connotation attached to the word ‘underrated?’
America has given us a long list of greats when it comes to TV, covering a wide array of genre and form, from The X Files to Dallas, Cheers to Charmed and Twin Peaks to Seinfeld. And we cannot argue that the profundity of Hollywood has sent the film industry straight into our hearts, minds, and, of course, our pockets. In the face of film, TV always tended to drop and play around in the shadows, with a crossover between the two, in terms of story, cast and crew, just not being feasible and/or desirable. But now, TV has risen out of those shadows and made its own majestic mark in the showbiz, entertainment world, striding alongside film, shoulder to shoulder, stealing its actors, actresses, directors and producers, re-building film’s failed attempts into shows followed so intently by audiences it becomes part of their daily life to catch the latest episode. Now lets not diminish the power of the movies just yet, everyone wants to be a big-time, a-lister movie star, but what will they always remember? Where they got their start. For most of the latest crop, and even some from the past who always found their way back, that start was in TV! Just look at Julia Louis-Dreyfus; found fame on Seinfeld, went on to star in her own sitcom, The New Adventures of Old Christine which was cancelled after a very successful five seasons and once again rose to undeniable, unbeaten fame with the still going strong, Veep. She had film roles in between her TV, but always came back, that’s true loyalty to an industry still trying to flourish in the background of Hollywood. There are many more actors and actresses like Louis-Dreyfus, and because of them, the incredible talent in the writer’s rooms, and most notably in this era, the different viewing platforms, TV has risen to become one of the biggest, baddest industries across the world.
But, is it all because of American TV? Not a chance.
Some would believe it to be so, especially with most of Britain’s talent jumping ship and finding work across the pond, but that’s their prerogative, a person has to build their career somehow. Even writers, directors and producers have to join forces with their American counterparts in order to make their dreams a reality. It’s all part of the big rat race that is showbiz, and, to put it simply, life. This article isn’t predicated on picking at America’s successful TV industry and all the people behind it like a ratty child throwing their toys out the pram. No, it’s about the other successful TV industry and the many other people responsible for doing it – British TV. It is transcending boundaries and pushing past limits to create and present great stories, characters and messages to its viewers. Some examples are; Midsomer Murders, Peaky Blinders, Prime Suspect and Spooks, Goodness Gracious Me, Cold Feet, Only Fools and Horses and Absolutely Fabulous. These shows all represent Britishness – a way of life Britons can identify with, stories that most can discuss with friends or at parties and say; ‘did you see the latest Cold Feet? That reminded me of the time I…’ or even ‘just re-watched the first series of Spooks, it puts things into perspective…’ They are all still talked about, watched and enjoyed, but if you were to mention one of these names to someone abroad, would they know them straight off the bat? Maybe not these examples, but I can bet any money that if a person dropped these show titles, they would know: Downtown Abbey, The Night Manager, The Crown, Doctor Who, Sherlock, The Office, and why is that? Two words. US backing. So the moral of this article is that British TV has become lost to the power of the American dollar, and the solely British TV of today, like Mrs. Browns Boys, Citizen Khan, Mount Pleasant, Victoria, Death in Paradise and Vera, are going unnoticed by most of the world despite being brilliant in their own right. Thus, wouldn’t you say British TV is underrated?
We can’t fault those British TV shows that are backed by the States because they are brimming with all the good things TV has to offer; immersive storylines, identifiable characters, socio-political and cultural messages the world needs to have thrown in their faces. And a bonus perk is that these American-backed British shows are winning in the critical acclaim race, with The Golden Globes, SAGs and Emmy’s opening their doors to these British actors/actresses and creators by awarding them with the highest honours. Claire Foy is a recent Golden Globe winner for her work in The Crown, as is Tom Hiddleston for The Night Manager, and in the past years we have seen Wolf Hall win best Mini-series. We know it’s not all about accolades and critics and ratings play a big role in the success of a show, and from pulling in a viewership of 1.6 million, The Night Manager brought a surge of 70% since its premiere. So there work is obviously good as its applauded by the bigwigs and the people tune in to watch. But it’s not completely British, and the ones that are just seem to be hovering in and out of the shadows. Whether they want to come out of the shadows or not, whether they want America to shuttle them towards the limelight or not, they are definitely deserving of worldwide recognition, slots that are being filled up by other shows, and all because they have a foot in its success. Does that sound slightly nepotistic?
This may sound like an ‘axe to grind’ article against America and its TV industry but it is actually a call for the hidden gems of British TV to be understood and recognised as primetime players in the big game that is entertainment. And one way that it has already happened is through the art of streaming, where Netflix UK & Ireland stream a wide array of inherently British TV shows, for instance, The Thick of It, Top Boy, Skins, Benidorm, Outnumbered, Blackadder, Whitechapel, the list is endless. It is a big step, but it makes you wonder if all these shows are on the US Netflix, or the European version, and the people who get to watch need to have a subscription, so is it a big step after all?
To counter my own point, is it better for these shows to remain as they are, because if they were to lose their underrated status, would they still be those very British TV shows they started out as? If the whole world knew about them, and they became high-ranking entertainment shows, would the market of British TV cease to exist as just that, British? A market of its own? These conversations tend to strike a chord, but they are also a double-edged sword. So what is the right answer? Is there a right answer? No, there is just an opinion, a POV, and this article is mine. I believe the un-Americanised British TV is underrated, but I also don’t have a solution that won’t taint its reputation as good, solid entertainment, so maybe being underrated is its power, its tool to be a constant in the industry even after its airtime has concluded, because they are the ‘indies’ of TV, the hidden gems that just need to unearthed by the lovers of Television. I mean, even America must have its own version of this; it can’t all be surplus ratings, prestigious honours and huge fan-followings.
There has got to a balance.