Five Bizarre Things About British Television

Coronation Street

British TV is just like American TV, except the accents are different. And there are fewer shows about animals doing funny things. And our idea of a strong plot doesn’t involve a normal teenage girl also being a secret rock star. Oh and our newsreaders are legally required to be as impartial as possible, rather than calling the Prime Minister names. And we don’t make a big fuss over Thursday night, we do Saturday instead…

Come to think of it, British TV isn’t remotely like American TV, and here are five more reasons why:

No Adverts During Shows
This one is a bit of a BBC brag, but it’s worth mentioning. The most popular channel in British broadcasting is BBC One, on which there are no adverts during the shows. And even after they’ve finished, there may be trailers for future shows, or maybe a message about one of the BBC’s charity campaigns, but no commercials and no sponsors. This means all the shows which fill a half-hour slot are approximately 25-27 minutes long, as opposed to 20-23 minutes for those programs with a commercial break on other channels. And there doesn’t need to be a cliff-hanger in the middle to keep the audience from flipping channels. It alters the structure of television, if only because that extra five minutes can make all the difference in terms of fleshing out a compelling narrative, or drag on like a saggy underwear elastic when all the ideas have been used up. Speaking of which…

The Six Episode Season
Most British drama or comedy shows have a very short season. The classic amount for comedies is just six episodes per series – The Office being a prime example – and there’s one very good reason for this. American comedy is a producer’s medium, in which an idea is worked up, characters developed and early scripts written, and then the show is handed over to a larger group of writers to flesh out into actual scripts. British comedy is a writer’s medium. The scripts are almost always written and developed by one or two people, then taken to production. Graham Linehan, the writer of Father Ted and The IT Crowd, even directs his own scripts, which is a LOT of work. And once they’ve written six episodes, they need a rest. That’s how we end up with only twelve episodes of Fawlty Towers (spread over TWO seasons, mind you) compared to the usual thrimpty-twelve of, say, Friends.

Wall-To-Wall Comedy Panel Shows
It’s not unheard of for the TV stations of Nations Which Are Not Britain to commission a TV show in which comedians get to sit in a line behind a desk and do battle with only their barbed wits to protect them. However, the Brits have taken to this idea with a vengeance: Have I Got News For You?, Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Eight Out Of Ten Cats, QI, Would I Lie To You?, Mock The Week, Room 101, Argumental…the list is practically endless. And at some point, David Mitchell will have made an appearance on one of them. Apart, oddly enough, from Never Mind The Buzzcocks, as he doesn’t like music. Here he is displaying what Stephen Fry calls his “angry logic”:

Soap Opera = High Drama
As I understand it, American soaps are on during the day, and they’re always a little cheesy. It doesn’t mean the people involved don’t act as hard as they possibly can, or that there’s anything wrong with them per se, but as productions, they know their place, and they know their time, and everyone respects this. Over here, soaps (or to give them their more respectful title, continuing dramas) are the most popular shows on TV, and given a far more respectful time of it, chiefly because they depict the extraordinarily eventful lives of salt-of-the-earth Brits from working class backgrounds. EastEnders is the jewel in the BBC’s crown, while Coronation Street is the longest-running drama serial in the world (now that As The World Turns has finished), and still regularly beats all comers in the ratings.

British Science Fiction
There is a paradigm shift between British and American science fiction. If you take the view that science fiction holds a robotic mirror up to a society’s current fears and amplifies them (yes, it’s an amplifying robotic mirror, they have those in the future), the other thing that gets sucked up into the mix is that society’s self image. So, Star Trek, which was filmed in the ’60s, is about putting aside racial and political tensions and thrusting forward into space as one united race. The contemporaneous Doctor Who, on the other hand, showed an eccentric old man, slightly past his prime, pottering around time and space in a device which is a little careworn, and yet utterly charming. In Star Trek, the ship works perfectly, because it is attended to by a huge maintenance crew (albeit one run by a Scot, which also says a lot). In Red Dwarf, there’s the huge ship, but only one person (and a hologram, and a strange being, evolved from the ship’s cat), and the central computer has gone a bit doolally. Even Star Wars is blessed with an Imperial Empire and a Rebel Alliance. Americans rally troops together for the big push, while the Brits are sneaking around the back, looking for the off-button.

Fraser McAlpine is British, this explains a lot.

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 13 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Music.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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