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Just What Is It About British TV?, Or, Saturday Morning at 9:05am

Just what is it about English television?

While I do believe that today’s best fictional experience can be found in American TV series, I enjoy the English stuff in an entirely different way. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Orange Is The New Black, Transparent – all brilliant, but also challenging.

Downton Abbey, Call The Midwife, Doc Martin? A night with these casts of characters and I sleep like a baby. Why? Because these are comedy/dramas of manners?


But I think it’s something else. For example, I have loved watching Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley. It’s a crime drama, complete with mayhem. Why then does it give me the same sense of peace?

I think it comes back to the American fixation on beauty. Beauty and teeth, perhaps.

American TV shows tend to require a uniform physicality of their casts. I mean, hello Jesse on Breaking Bad. Best-looking methhead I ever met! The Sopranos, with James Gandolfini sadly ballooning to his death and Steve Buscemi honing those teeth for Empire Boardwalk, makes do with the fewest possible pretty people. But I find the actors, while not beautiful per se, still physically larger than life. Exaggerated.

My theory, wholly unproven and surely unprovable, is that Americans need the people we see on screen to be larger than someone we might meet on the street. We then require suffering and irony in our often inhumanly-beautiful humans, in order for them to feel real to us.

On the other hand, British television embraces the imperfect, the just like you and me. The British shows I happen upon enjoy their slightly schlubby heroes and heroines. With that seems to come sentimentality. Maybe we allow more rose-coloring to the more approachable – pointy teeth, patchy skin, irregular balding, and all?

Who knows? Maybe it’s just the plummy British accents and the voice classes traditional in British training.

In any case, I highly recommend Hidden Valley, which you might not have heard of – yet. And another from the inestimable Ms. Lancashire, sporting the worst hair ever on a leading actress, Last Tango In Halifax. A story of two people in their 70s, childhood almost sweethearts, meeting again and falling in love in their 70s, well, it doesn’t get much more happily sentimental than that.

In a good way.

Have a wonderful weekend everyone, with all the milk of human kindness you deserve, and some rose-colored glasses, if needed.



Amazon links are affiliate. Text corrected to get Ms. Lancashire’s name right, thanks to Shefaly Yogendra for the heads up.


79 Responses

  1. Sometimes you scare me as in I just had exact same thoughts. Happy Valley – if you go to any Midlands’ pub you WILL find these people. They are real. And how about the sister? isn’t she such a SISTER?

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I feel the same. I think your observation about to a large extent British actors don’t meet American criteria of ‘beauty” on. That very fact has occurred to me. Does this offer us the viewers a better look at a real person we can relate to? I know I do but sometimes I just think the Brits have a lot of damn good actors. Maybe they work harder at the craft than the look. Anyway. Thank you for your insights. always appreciated.

    1. @Mary DuLude, Thank you very much. And, you are perhaps right about the craft vs. the look, and perhaps the tradition of training and stage work that creates so many talented actors who haven’t come through the school of All Beautiful All The Time.

    1. @Linda Pakravan, Or the drive in the US to make each series consumable by the widest possible set of consumers? I agree on the language, so much fun. Of course, the British slang is TOTALLY fun. Pillock? I mean, pillock?

  3. I totally agree with you, Lisa. My husband and I have this discussion all the time, being inveterate PBS watchers. (We don’t have cable, so I miss out on the GOOD American TV!) im a huge fan of “Last Tango in Halifax,” “Call the Midwife,”(I cry every week, probably because I wanted to be a midwife…unfulfilled dream…), “Scott and Bailey”(My latest detective show obsession, along with “Endeavor”…talk about a cliffhanger!) we think that Americans demand perfection in their stars which is why domestic TV is full of botoxed, six-pack ab, glowing white teeth “stars.” It’s too bad, because we miss out on a lot of talent.
    Oh, and I miss “Prime Suspect” terribly!

  4. Yes, yes, yes, and more yes. My teenage daughter openly derides me for watching my assortment of BBC shows as she doesn’t yet get the attraction Her older brother, on the other hand, got sucked into an episode of Endeavour when he was trying to talk to me and I could not be disturbed and then he later succumbed to some recent Inspector Lewis shows when he started picking up on all the literary allusions. I don’t think he thought there was an alternative to the junk he knows is on every night.

    I watched Doc Martin for years and could move to Port Wenn tomorrow. The quirkiness of well-drawn characters, settings, plots, and, yes, the real-folks-look of the actors on all these shows keeps me coming back even to re-runs. I started watching a show about female detectives just because it was on after Doc Martin. Love Last Tango as well.The list of worthwhile programs is long.

    1. @M, OK, here’s the thing. I watch all of these shows, so I’m not one to talk, but Doc Martin is pretty crappy television. We all watch it because that place is gorgeous, but the characters are wooden cut-outs and the plot is stupid. Just to play devil’s advocate…

    2. @M, I just reread my comment response and, so sorry, it sounds mean! That wasn’t my intention. Of course, that’s just my opinion as a dedicated watcher. But every week I wonder why I’m watching. Then I remember it’s cuz of that stunning location.

  5. Scott and Baily is on my local PBS on sat.(Las Vegas)great show.A lot of Masterpiece
    Classic and Mysteries shows.

  6. We discuss this all the time in our home. I think we in the states miss out on a lot of talent because we seem to demand a sort of uniformity in our “stars'” appearance — thin, pretty, straight white teeth, young etc. Is it because TV (and live theater) are totally commercial, unsubsidized ventures that as businesses must above all turn a profit? That would certainly make producers/directors seek to limit risk by finding what seems to have the broadest appeal and keep repeating it. After all, the UK has historically had a subsidized National Theatre and state-controlled television (not quite anymore, but that still has built a certain culture). Not to forget, of course, that the UK also produces some stunningly terrible television, which doesn’t make it onto PBS or American cable.

    1. @Kristina, What do you think about the hypothesis that the comfort with talented, non-perfect looking actors gives British writer/producers more room for sentiment and heroes?

  7. Oh yes!!!! They are real!!! Reporting from North England Lake District Area and the whereabouts!!!! Also, I think you made your point. American TV projects PERFECTION in everything, whereas British TV is REAL, well not the Downton Abbey stuff, but the faces, the wrinkles!!!!!

  8. Off to watch some sentimental imperfect English TV this Saturday evening and can’t wait for another episode of Downtown tomorrow evening. The one thing I miss when in France is the English TV.

  9. Scott & Bailey is from the same writer as Last Tango in Halifax *and* Happy Valley: Sally Wainwright. It’s brilliant. She’s brilliant. S&B is both my and my husband’s fav show.

    We often discuss the same thing after an evening’s viewing: how we feel we could walk into a pub in Manchester and the characters from the show would be there.

    As a British-American, I’ve watched Brit TV forever and converted my American husband to a dedicated fan. Until the recent spate of really great shows being done by US cable networks and Netflix (True Detective, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Homeland, The Newsroom) , we have never watched American programming. For the exact reasons you bring up in this post.

    For those who like – er, LOVE – Doc Martin, check out his earlier series William and Mary – adorable. And co-starring Julie Graham, who was also amazing in The Bletchley Circle.

  10. What great observations, I hadn’t thought about any of them before but agree with all of them!

    I must watch “Happy Valley”, I have heard lots of great things about it.

  11. I definitely sleep better with British TV, but I’ve always attributed it to the slower, easier pace, and “peaceful” camera work, rather than the looks of the actors.
    Something to think about.

    1. @kathy, Yes, I think it’s slower, easier, peaceful too. SEP for short? My theory about the looks of the actors is that their very imperfection allows for more kindness and sentiment in the plots themselves. But as I said, I really don’t know:).

  12. I’m into Season 7 of MI-5. It’s fun to see cameos by actors who’ve later hit it big. Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) and Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the actress who is now the housekeeper on DowntonAbbey, playing a psychologist!

    Although the bodies do pile I think it’s more suspenseful than violent.

  13. What an interesting post. Some thoughts I share too from this side of the Atlantic. Scott and Bailey has just ended…brilliant writing by one of the main actresses. Watch out for The Fall with Gillian Anderson. I love American dramas too for so many different reasons…the glamour…etc. my favourite is The Good Wife.

    Thanks Lisa for these observations

    1. @Jeni, I just finished season 5 of “The Good Wife.” My big complaint about that show is that the writer has obviously never been to Chicago or he would never have people walking in Chicago winter streets without a coat. Or with just Alicia’s light winter coat and pretty shoes. NOBODY can wear pretty shoes outside in the winter in the upper midwest.

      I also laughed when Eli said he could get 7,000 signatures on a nominating petition for Finn Polmar in an hour. My husband is running for Congress (and I have been blogging about it) and it took him weeks and weeks of Saturday and Sunday slogging up and down the streets to get the 400 (I think) he needed for the congressional papers. Oh, to be part of a machine.

  14. We LOVE British TV. So many good programs, the like of which you can’t get here. Maybe it’s because the Brits have such great wit and are very no nonsense! We now have Apple TV, which allows us to watch all of the old episodes of so many British programs…and American programs too. I especially like Foyle’s War. So happy when we have our British shows to watch on the telly!

  15. I think you’re right. I have watched a lot of old BBC costume dramas (like the 1972 version of Emma and the 1980’s version of Sense & Sensibility) and the ordinary appearance of the actors, compared to American films is striking. As for TV, it seems that British TV shows expect the audience to be a little bit more on the ball–they’re not dumbed down like some American shows. I can’t stand it when a show includes asides that explain the jokes to those who might not have gotten them. If some people don’t get the joke, that’s just the way it is; don’t ruin it for the rest of the audience with irritating explanations.

  16. We have been watching “Death comes to Pemberely”, “Inspector Morse”, “Endeavor”, and “Sherlock” when there are episodes on PBS. Can it be that these programs are so good because they are more character driven, rather than plot driven, like a good book?

    …and, the actors and actresses tend to look different from each other…making it easier to follow the storyline. I will look out for “Happy Valley”.

  17. In the last ten days, I binge-watched the two seasons of Last Tango in Halifax. Cannot wait to see the third. Thought along similar lines as I watched it – not only worst hair – but actors with bad – no, “REAL” teeth, i.e. no flourescent white glow, the occasional overlap, etc.

    1. @Loretta, I do confess, however, that I liked the first season of Last Tango much more than the second. The surprise and forgiveness of them re-falling in love was so wonderful. Based on the writer’s mother, by the way.

  18. Don’t forget Foyle’s War or Orphan Black (although the women on OB are Hollywood beautiful – but the musings on the nature of self and identity are great).

    And Bletchley Circle.

    I just finished Last Tango. Loved it and can’t wait for the next season.

  19. Hi Lisa, another thumbs up here for ‘Scott and Bailey’. I swear I have watched the reruns at least 3 or 4 times, maybe more – the acting is THAT enjoyable. I also love ‘Last Tango’, I’ve liked Sarah Lancashire since her days on Coronation Street (a few of the actors from S and B have been on there too).

  20. May I add to your list of must watch British TV? “Broadchurch” is brilliant. But watch the British version not the new one they are making for America. Also, “The Fall” and “Bletchley Circle.” Now if you really want to get into this. Get your own VPN and make your computer think you are in Britain and watch all the British shows. We just saw “The Driver,” “Our Girl,” “Great Gardens” and on and on it goes. Cheers!

    1. @Sandra Sallin,

      Another 2nd for Broadchurch. It’s a short series – a murder mystery set in a small town on the Dorset coast (I’ve been to where it’s filmed and it’s lovely). David Tennant (he of Doctor Who fame) is one of the leads. Top notch acting and a really engaging story where you can’t guess the end.

  21. Another interesting discussion Lisa . I wonder if it has to do with the roots of TV . Traditionally our UK actors developed in the theater via the small theater repertory companies in cities & some towns . Where they honed their skills along with the directors etc & in time this expertise transferred to TV . In contrast the U.S. system related more to Hollywood with all its attendant glamour & big screen drama . Just an idea . I have to say we have plenty of dross too & our comedy is in the doldrums rather . I still miss Frasier Crane .

    1. @Wendy, British comedy in doldrums?! It depends what you like, I guess. There are masses of excellent comedians in all sorts of formats from stand up to quiz shows and sketch shows. I’ve recently discovered The Mitchell and Webb show – sketch comedy and quite well done.

      I agree there isn’t so much of the comedy drama series like the good old Father Ted, BlackAdder, Absolutely Fabulous (or maybe there are and I haven’t come across them yet…)

      Also, another comment about the whole idea of British TV: I used to live in New Zealand and watch a lot of British TV. I found it had a lot more glamour and charm from across the other side of the world. For example, I don’t watch Midsomer Murders anymore ‘cos it’s too realistic. I could step outside and meet people like that saying and doing things like that (usually excepting murder!) so it’s not so much fun to watch for escapism. I still love Downton though, ‘cos it’s still very different to ordinary life.

    2. @Wendy, Agreed on the theater component, and the dross:). I know there’s lots of bad British TV, and was just struck by how the good British TV is so different than the good American TV.

  22. Although I love the British series I watch, I have to admit I think the US version of “House of Cards” is better than the British version. It’s not just the production values, which are a million times better for the US version, it’s that there is more depth to the plot. For example, in the British version, FU’s wife is just ancillary. In the US version, she is very much part of the plot and has her own schemes.

    However, both series are excellent. And if you watch the British version first, you can feel smug knowing what is going to happen with the US one.

  23. @Lisa No, of course you are not done! Every region is different but the sweetest of all is North England, not proud Scotland, and certainly NOT South England. London is a category of its own. And so, the other places you visited. But there is so much more ……

  24. i’d be hesitant to paint british television with such a broad brush; there are spray tans and veneers aplenty once one ventures beyond state-sponsored channels. what registers here with us in the states is a percent of a percent.

    While I do believe that today’s best fictional experience can be found in American TV series, I enjoy the English stuff in an entirely different way. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Orange Is The New Black, Transparent – all brilliant, but also challenging.

    i’ve finally caught up on OITNB, and while it’s certainly entertaining, some of the writing is just execrable; i think novelty and quality are too readily conflated when it’s discussed. there’s some devastating fiction on the shelves these days; i do wish you’d give it another chance.

    1. @lauren, I tried to make clear here,

      >>The British shows I happen upon enjoy their slightly schlubby heroes and heroines.<< that I know not all British TV is great. "Happen upon" being the operative but perhaps insufficiently declarative term. As for OINTB, I just love the characters. Agree the writing isn't always very good. My primary question here isn't," Why is British TV better than American?" but rather, "Why is good British TV different from good American TV in the way that I believe I am observing?" I'd love to read some good fiction. Sock it to me.

  25. Like Lauren, I’d avoid the broad brush, but I do enjoy a number of British shows. Second the hurrahs for The Bletchley Circle, and I’m currently enjoying Inspector Gently, having sadly finished Sherlock. Luther would challenge your hypothesis rather forcefully, but I love it too and can’t wait for the next season, crossing my fingers that there will be one. . .

    1. @Frances/Materfamilias, Oh, Luther is an absolute outlier, and I thought about that as I wrote. I also found myself thinking as I watched that show, “Wow this is so American!” That is, when I wasn’t thinking, “Damn Idris Elba is hot.”

  26. This is an excellent point I’d never considered before!

    I was thinking that British humor has an exceedingly wry quality that can transition into ridiculous situations so beautifully. I think that’s why my favorite comedies are British- Chef!, Red Dwarf, or the car show Top Gear.

  27. I would say that there is good and not so good television on both sides of the pond. I loved ER and the West Wing and, when it comes to humour, there was Frasier, as already mentioned, and Parks and Recreation which I cannot get enough of. While all of these programmes are slickly produced, I wouldn’t say that all of the actors are carbon copy cuties. (Yes, I know that I am citing some old shows here but Parks features a whole range of looks). That said, I did try to get into a very popular US series in which it turns out that a family friend’s British grandson has a leading part. Sorry, but such was the wall to wall pulchritude that all the men looked the same and I kept forgetting which one he was, who anyone was, who was doing what and why and when, and I gave up on it.
    Basically a good show, like a good novel or a good film, needs a good well plotted script and a good cast of believable characters, wherever in the world it is made. And apologies but, as a Brit, I have to say that, in my opinion, Downton Abbey, although interesting in the early series, has descended into a preposterous soap opera. I suspect that Matthew saw the scripts that were coming his way and took evasive action. The frocks are its only redeeming feature. I expect this to be a minority view…

    1. @Ceri, I have come back to agree with you on Downton . It has become a soap opera , though a very superior one . The characterisation is excellent , as is the acting by all concerned & the sets , frocks jewellrey etc are exquisite. However , the plots have me squirming at times . Having some knowledge of life ‘ downstairs ‘ too , I know the life servants had bore no resemblance to cosy Downton . It is total TV escapism , but having said all that , I would never miss an episode . A word of warning – if any of you plan to visit York , my home town , it looks nothing like the Downton York (ours is much better :-)

    2. @Ceri, I also love some of the American comedies. These days, Big Bang Theory. In previous years, the classics, Seinfeld, for example. To say nothing of I Love Lucy. And York is at the moment the top candidate for my next trip to the UK.

  28. Yes, you are spot on here, Wendy. Downton is perfect Sunday evening viewing, the visual equivalent of a box of chocolates. Nothing wrong with a bit of indulgence from time but not an every day regime.

    And York is most definitely a lovely city to visit

  29. It’s been a LONG time since I watched anything on TV, but your description of
    Happy Valley intrigued me, and I am streaming to my iPad while I camp out in the guest house during renovations.

    Great post, Lisa, and interesting comparisons between British and American TV…

    1. @Margy Houtz, I watch on my laptop almost always. I only call it TV because that’s the legacy term. I’m trying to switch to Digital Narrative, but old habits die hard.

  30. This is a great list of all the shows I will watch when I have time. Because of a very late surprise pregnancy, I am about to turn 65 and my son has just turned 16. I dread the day when he leaves for college and I will have to have some entertainment lined up. I’m also still working full-time and hope to continue forever, but I may not be so fortunate. So no time for TV now but I may have too much time on my hands in a couple of years.

  31. I just finished watching season 6 of Monarch of the Glenn on Netflix. I binge watched many episodes until it was just too late to be up. I find British television intelligent and highly entertaining.
    American TV is too sensational for my liking lately.

  32. LOVE Last Tango in Halifax! I’m a BBC fan myself. Lately I have been falling asleep to As Time Goes By. I’ll look for Happy Valley. Thank you for the recommendation.

  33. Both my father (long retired) and my sister sold/sell American television to the UK. You’re welcome – lol!

  34. Late to comment, but am also hooked on Brit TV. Gave up cable a year ago, got a Roku3 hooked up to my TV (Apple TV has a similar device) and the only streaming TV service I have is Acorn (and Hulu+) which is chock full of Brit TV.

    Am currently obsessing over a now discontinued BBC series called Time Team about archeology in Great Britian. It’s like reality TV English style. A great ensemble cast of regular, if slightly nutty, Brits.

  35. In British tv there is also a different pace, a different rythm, a slow motion kind of development, and more suggestion than show. You notice this more in crime shows, you rarely if ever find brains scattered in pavements in British productions. Take Poirot for example. Or even war stories.

    The above on top of what you and the readers have already mentioned, obviously.

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