Friday, November 26, 2004

British Imports

Today I read that the British Broadcast magazine selected the best and worst American imports to British television. It got me to thinking how much of my time has been spent watching British TV shows imported to America. British television has a reputation for being of a higher quality than American television here in the States, although I am not absolutely sure that is true. I am sure that they have had their share of bad shows--it's just unlike the U. S. they don't insist on sending them abroad...

Anyhow, I am fairly certain that the first British show I ever saw was The Avengers. I can remember watching it at a very young age. The show centred on John Steed (Patrick Macnee), a spy in service of the British government, and his various partners over the years. When the show debuted in the United States, Steed's current partner was Emma Peel (played by Diana Rigg). I was captivated by Emma Peel, as well as the various strange adventures Steed and Mrs. Peel had. It is one of my fondest childhood memories and still one of my favourite shows.

The Avengers was just one of many British TV shows imported to America in the Sixties. Two of my other favourites were Danger Man (renamed Secret Agent here in the States) and The Prisoner. Danger Man featured Patrick McGoohan as secret agent John Drake, a decidedly different sort of spy. He never carried a gun. He never kissed the girl. And he sometimes wondered about the morality of his profession. The Prisoner also featured Patrick McGoohan, this time as a spy who is abducted and taken to a mysterious place known only as the Village. There his name was taken away and he was give a number--Number Six. The series concerned Number Six's various efforts to escape the Village and foil the plans of his captors. There has always been some debate as to whether Number Six is actually John Drake. I always thought that he was.

With the end of the Sixties the American networks stopped importing British shows. From that time forward British shows only appeared on PBS or local stations. And, for the most part, they were comedies. In fact, Monty Python's Flying Circus may have been one of the earliest British shows I saw. It was also perhaps the funniest sketch comedy show ever made. Indeed, it has had a lasting impact on American pop culture--from "The Lumberjack Song" to the use of the word "spam" for junk email (taken from a skit in which Vikings drown everything out by singing a song about spam...).

The other huge British comedy to come to America in the Seventies was Are You Being Served?. The series centred on the employess of the Ladies' Intimate Apparel and the Gentlemen's Ready-Made departments of Grace Brothers department store. It debuted in 1972 and ran for a total of ten seasons (an amazing run for any show). It is still being rerun to this day. I am guessing that it may well have been the most successful British show of all time. I know KETC reran it for years and I watched it faithfully.

Of my two other favourite British comedies (or Britcoms, as they are called), one is a period piece and one is a sci-fi show. Black Adder followed the various members of that family, through the days of Richard II to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I to the Regnecy period to World War I. In each Black Adder, the protagonist was Edmund Blackadder, a generally conniving and cowardly fellow, who was aided by his none to bright partner Baldrick. I always thought Black Adder was absolutely hilarious, with some very good pokes at history (and rewriting it).

The sci-fi show of which I spoke is Red Dwarf. Red Dwarf centred on Dave Lister, the last human alive. He was an employee aboard the mining vessel Red Dwarf before waking from stasis to learn the rest of the crew was dead and he had been in stasis for three million years. His only companions are Cat, a felinoid being who evolved from the cat he had brought onboard centuries ago, a hologram of his wicked roommate Rimmer, and the android Kryten. Red Dwarf is enjoyable on two levels. First, it can be enjoyed as one of the most outrageously funny comedies ever made. Second, it is actually quite good as science fiction, with some very original episodes. The series is still very popular on both sides of the Atlantic. It ran eight seasons and there is supposed to be a Red Dwarf movie at some point.

There are many more Britcoms that I have enjoyed. Keeping Up Appearances, Coupling (forget that horrible American version ever happened...), The Office. In some ways I think the British may just be better at comedy than we Americans. At any rate, I have always loved British TV shows. I just wish they would import more to the States. It would sure beat more episodes of some reality show...

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