Since the Seventies there have been only a few venues where one could see British television shows in the United States. Over the years the vast majority of British shows aired in the United States have been on PBS or on individual PBS stations, either as segments of Masterpiece Theatre (Upstairs, Downstairs; Downton Abbey) or on their own (Are You Being Served?; Call the Midwife). The advent of BBC America in 1998 created another avenue for British shows on American television. Over the years BBC America has aired everything from Doctor Who to Ripper Street. Since 1972 a few British shows have even been syndicated to local stations in the United States, including The Protectors, Space: 1999, and Blake's 7. Since the 1970s the one place in American television where one generally has not seen British television shows has been the broadcast networks. In fact, the number of British shows that have aired on the American broadcast networks since 1972 can probably be counted on one hand.
This was not always in the case. In the Fifties and Sixties it was not unusual for the American broadcast networks to air shows that had originated in the United Kingdom. In fact, some of the most popular shows to air on the American networks in the Sixties were actually British in origin. While it has been almost unknown for the American broadcast networks to air British shows in the decades since the Seventies, in the Fifties and Sixties it was hardly a rare concurrence.
While Colonel March of Scotland Yard was produced in the United Kingdom by Fountain Films, it first aired on American television. In either 1953 or 1954 Colonel March of Scotland Yard, starring Boris Karloff in the title role, was syndicated to local stations in the Untied States by Official Films. Colonel March of Scotland Yard would air in the United Kingdom, where it became one of the earliest shows to air on the brand new commercial network ITV. It made its debut there on February 1 1956. Not only is Colonel March of Scotland Yard notable for being one of the earliest (if not the earliest) TV show produced in Britain to air in the United States, but also for the fact that it used writers who had been blacklisted in the Untied States due to alleged Communist sympathies. Both Abraham Polonsky and Walter Bernstein wrote episodes of the series under pseudonyms.The practice of using writers blacklisted in Hollywood would be one that Hannah Weinstein would continue on her next television series.
Of course, Colonel March of Scotland Yard never aired on an American broadcast network. What might have been the first show produced in Britain to air on an American broadcast network was The Vise. Like Colonel March of Scotland Yard it was also the product of expatriate Americans. Brothers Edward and Harry Danziger (known collectively as the Danzigers) were born in New York City. Elder brother Edward J. Danziger was an attorney who served as one of the prosecuting counsels on the Nuremberg Trials. Younger brother Harry Danziger was a violinist, trumpeter, and orchestral conductor. Together they ran a sound studio in New York City that specialised in dubbing foreign language films into English. It was in 1949 that the Danzigers entered into film production with the film noir Jigsaw. The two of them produced two more films in the United States, So Young So Bad (1950) and St. Benny the Dip (1951), before moving to the United Kingdom in early 1952. In the United Kingdom the Danzigers would become well known for both their television shows and their many second features.
The Danzigers' first television series was the anthology Calling Scotland Yard. While it was produced in 1953, Calling Scotland Yard would not air in the United States until much later. The honour of the first of the Danzigers' television shows to air in the United States would then go to their anthology show The Vise. Indeed, not only was The Vise the first of the Danzigers' television shows to air in the United States, but it might well have been the first show made in Britain to air on an American broadcast network.
It was late in 1955 that The Vise shifted from an anthology format to that of an episodic format with a continuing character. The show now starred Donald Gray as one armed detective Mark Saber. Mark Saber worked primarily in London, although he also worked cases in such locales as Paris and the Riviera. It was with the episode "A Lady Is Missing" (which aired on ABC on December 23 1955) that The Vise became Mark Saber's show. Here it must be noted that this was not the first television show to feature detective Mark Saber. Tom Conway had previously played the character from 1951 to 1954 on the series Mark Saber. In this series Mark Saber was a British Detective Inspector working in a large American city.
The Vise, starring Donald Gray as Mark Saber, ran on ABC until the end of the 1956/1957 season. It then moved to NBC where it debuted with a new title, Saber of London, on September 13 1957. Saber of London ran on NBC until 1960, ending its run after six seasons.
While The Vise is now largely forgotten on both sides of the Pond, the next British show to air on an American broadcast network is remembered to this day. What is more, it would become the first British show to become a hit in the United States. That show was The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Richard Greene in the title role. Of course, while The Adventures of Robin Hood was produced in the United Kingdom, its executive producer was an American. In fact, she was none other than Hannah Weinstein, who had produced Colonel March of Scotland Yard only a few years earlier.
It was following the production of Colonel March of Scotland Yard that Hannah Weinstein set up the production company Sapphire Films with the goal of producing television shows for Britain's first commercial network, ITV. Mrs. Weinstein had noted that British history had become very popular in both literature and film in the United States. It occurred to her that Sapphire Films could produce shows based in British history and considered a show about either King Arthur or Robin Hood. She settled upon a show about Robin Hood.
Curiously for a show that was produced in the United Kingdom by an American with some of its financing coming from an American distribution company (Official Films), The Adventures of Robin Hood was first aired in neither the United Kingdom nor United States. The Adventures of Robin Hood made its world debut in Canada at 6:00 PM Central Time on September 22 1955 on Toronto's CBC station, CBLT. The Adventures of Robin Hood debuted three days later in the United Kingdom on September 25 1955. Given ITV was only three days old at the time (it launched on September 22 1955), The Adventures of Robin Hood was then one of the first shows to ever air on the network. The next day, September 23 1955, The Adventures of Robin Hood debuted on CBS.
The Adventures of Robin Hood proved very successful in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and yet other countries around the world. The show generated a large number of merchandise on both sides of the Atlantic, everything from playsets to jigsaw puzzles to books. The theme song was recorded as a single by Dick James and went to #14 on the UK singles chart. A version by Gary Miller went to #10 on the UK singles chart. Yet other versions were recorded by Frankie Laine, Nelson Riddle and his Orchestra, and yet other artists.
The success of The Adventures of Robin Hood would see several more swashbuckling television shows produced in the United Kingdom, many of which found their way to the United States. Sapphire Films would follow the success of The Adventures of Robin Hood with the swashbucklers The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, The Buccaneers, and Sword of Freedom. Like The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Adventures of Sir Lancelot and The Buccaneers would air on American broadcast networks (more on that later). While Sapphire Films' Sword of Freedom would not be aired on a broadcast network, it was syndicated in the United States, as were swashbuckler shows from other production companies, such as The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel and The Adventures of William Tell.
The Adventures of Robin Hood would not be the only TV show produced in Britain to air on an American network in the 1955-1956 season. As mentioned earlier, the Danzigers' very first television show was the crime anthology series Calling Scotland Yard. The series never aired on British television, although two feature films compiled from three episodes each from the show, Gilbert Harding Speaking of Murder (1953) and A Tale of Three Women (1954), were released to British cinemas. Episodes of Calling Scotland Yard were also released to both British and American cinemas by Paramount as short subjects or "featurettes" in 1954 and 1955. Calling Scotland Yard finally found its way to television screens as a summer replacement show on NBC in 1956 under the title Adventure Theatre. As Adventure Theatre the series was hosted by American actor Paul Douglas. Adventure Theatre debuted on NBC on June 16 1956 and ran throughout that summer. NBC reran Adventure Theatre during the summer of 1957.
Like The Adventures of Robin Hood before it, The Adventures of Sir Lancelot utilised writers who had been victims of the Hollywood blacklist. Both Ian McLellan Hunter and Ring Lardner Jr. wrote for the show using pseudonyms. While The Adventures of Sir Lancelot would not be as successful as The Adventures of Robin Hood, it would occupy a singular place in British television history. The last fourteen of its thirty episodes were shot in colour, making it the first British TV show ever filmed in colour. Despite this, the episodes would only be aired in colour in the United States, as neither ITV nor the BBC would broadcast in colour until the mid-Sixties.
The Adventures of Sir Lancelot debuted in the United Kingdom on ITV on September 15 1956. It debuted in the United States on NBC on September 24 1956. Unfortunately The Adventures of Sir Lancelot would not prove to be a hit in the United States. It was scheduled on Monday night at 8:00 Eastern time, opposite the high rated George Burns and Gracie Allen Show on CBS and Make Room for Daddy on ABC. NBC then cancelled it after one season. ABC reran The Adventures of Sir Lancelot on Tuesday afternoons during the 1957-1958 season.
Today The Buccaneers is perhaps most notable for giving Robert Shaw his first starring role. On The Buccaneers Mr. Shaw played Captain Dan Tempest, a former pirate who protected British interests in the Bahamas circa 1722. Of course, Robert Shaw would go onto a highly successful career in film, appearing in such movies as From Russia with Love (1963), A Man for All Seasons (1966), The Sting (1973), and Jaws (1975). Like The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, The Buccaneers was also notable in using writers who were victims of the Hollywood blacklist. Ring Lardner Jr., Ian McLellan Hunter, and Waldo Salt all wrote for the show.
While The Buccaneers would develop a cult following that it maintains to this day, it did not prove particularly successful in its first run on American television. It had the misfortune of being scheduled against the high rated Art Linkletter game show People Are Funny and the first movie anthology series on American network television, Famous Film Festival, on ABC. Ironically Famous Film Festival exclusively showed British films, ABC having struck a deal with J. Arthur Rank Film Distributors. It was on Famous Film Festival that such classic British films as The Man in Grey (1943), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Red Shows (1948), and Hungry Hill (1947) all made their American network television debuts. Regardless, CBS cancelled The Buccaneers after a single season and 39 episodes.
While both The Adventures of Sir Lancelot and The Buccaneers would no longer be on American network primetime schedules in the 1957-1958 season, that is not to say The Adventures of Robin Hood (then in its third season) would be the only British show on American networks in primetime during the season. Two more shows of British origin debuted on an American broadcast network in the 1957-1958 season, although strictly speaking the first to debut did not originate as a TV series. Beginning in 1953 Anglo-Amalgamated produced a series of short subjects, each of which were introduced by crime writer Edgar Lustgarte and centred on a real life criminal case (with names changed to protect the innocent, of course). The Scotland Yard shorts were shown in British cinemas during the Fifties as support for feature films.
Here in the United States the Scotland Yard shorts were shown on ABC as the TV show Scotland Yard. The series debuted on that network on November 17 1956. Unfortunately it would be scheduled against some very strong competition on the other two networks: The $64,000 Challenge on CBS and The Loretta Young Show on NBC. ABC then cancelled Scotland Yard at the end of the season. Anglo-Amalgamated would continue to produce the Scotland Yard shorts until 1961, and these shorts would later appear on British television.
The other British show to debut on American television in the 1957-1958 season would also be on ABC. O.S.S. centred on Captain Frank Hawthorne, an agent of the Office of Strategic Services assigned behind enemy lines in occupied France during World War II. O.S.S. debuted in the United Kingdom on ITV September 14 1957. It debuted in the United States on ABC on September 24 1957. Unfortunately in the United States it was scheduled against the high rated Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford on NBC and Playhouse 90 on CBS. It ended after only one series and 26 episodes.
During the Fifties British television shows that aired in the Untied States generally fell into one of two categories. One category was that of crime shows typified by Colonel March of Scotland Yard and The Vise. The other category was that of the swashbuckling shows, typified by such network entries as The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Buccaneers and such syndicated shows as The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel and The Adventures of the William Tell. It was in 1958 that a British show debuted on American television that belonged to neither of these categories. What is more, it foreshadowed the sort of British shows that would air in the United States in the Sixties.
Quite simply, The Invisible Man was a spy show with elements of science fiction. It was very loosely based on H. G. Wells's novel of the same name and created by Ralph Smart, who would go onto create Danger Man (which would also find its way to the United States). The show centred on Dr. Peter Brady, a scientist trying to develop invisibility. Unfortunately he does succeed after a fashion--the only problem is that he is permanently, irrevocably invisible. Afterwards Dr. Brady used his invisibility to help both British Intelligence and ordinary people in trouble.
To generate publicity for The Invisible Man on both sides of the Atlantic, the identities of the actors playing Dr. Peter Brady were kept secret. It is now known that in the unaired pilot Canadian actor Robert Beatty provided the voice of Dr. Brady. Afterwards Canadian actor Lee Patterson and then Canadian actor Paul Carpenter voiced Dr. Brady for the first few episodes. Starting with the episode "Picnic with Death" British actor Tim Turner provided the voice of "the Invisible Man" for the remainder of the show. It is also known that Johnny Scripps played Dr. Brady when he did not have bandages covering his head, but was wearing clothes (Mr. Scripps was a little person and could see through the button holes in Dr. Brady's shirts). To this day, however, the actors who portrayed Dr. Brady's body when he was either wearing his bandages or was totally invisible remain a mystery.
Beyond its status as the first British spy show to air on an American broadcast network, The Invisible Man is also significant due to the talent who worked on the show. Both Brian Clemens, who would go on to produce The Avengers and write many of its episodes, and Philip Levene, who contributed frequently to The Avengers, wrote episodes of The Invisible Man. Playwright and screenwriter Michael Pertwee, who would go onto write episodes of Danger Man, Man of the World, and The Saint, would also write episodes of the show. Two veterans of Gainsborough Pictures also wrote episodes of The Invisible Man. Leslie Arliss directed such classic films as The Man in Grey and The Wicked Lady, while Doreen Montgomery wrote the screenplay for The Man in Grey. The Invisible Man also featured guest appearances by Ian Hendry (soon to be Dr. David Keel on The Avengers), Honor Blackman (soon to be Mrs. Cathy Gale on The Avengers), Desmond Llwellyn (soon to be Q in the James Bond movies), Charles Gray (who would play Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever), Patrick Troughton (who would play The Second Doctor on Doctor Who), and other notable actors.
The Invisible Man debuted in the United Kingdom on ITV on September 14 1958. Nearly two months later it debuted in the United States on CBS on November 4 1958. Two series of thirteen episodes each were made, and all 26 episodes were aired during the 1958-1959 season on CBS. Unfortunately in the United States The Invisible Man was scheduled against popular Westerns Cheyenne, Bronco, and Sugarfoot on ABC (they rotated from week to week) and The George Gobel Show and The Eddie Fisher Show on NBC (they also rotated from week to week). In the end, then, The Invisible Man did not receive particularly high ratings in the United States. CBS cancelled it at the end of the 1958-1959 season.
While The Invisible Man had ended its run, it had a set a precedent for British shows on both sides of the Atlantic. British television producers began to move away from the crime shows and swashbuckler shows that had aired in the Fifties in favour of spies and high adventure. With a spy craze overtaking both sides of the Atlantic, the Sixties would see more British television shows air on the American networks than ever had before or since.