British TV: some good, some pointedly average on BBC and ITV

Television Critic

It’s still so easy to feel intimidated by the British, with their accents and tales of the Blitz, with their devastating ability to turn out a film every year or so about some troubled but still glorious monarch or another. Around Oscar time especially, the buzz often seems directly lifted from BAFTA (the British Academy of Film and Television Arts), and even the most grouchy TV-denier will concede the merits of the occasional “Masterpiece” or BBC America offering.

The wonders of “Prime Suspect,” “Absolutely Fabulous,” the original “Life on Mars” or “Being Human” notwithstanding, no one who actually watches British TV (not just the stuff cherry-picked for the States) can argue that it’s better than American TV. They may have less bad TV (though surely “Footballers’ Wives” counts for at least three of our bad shows) but only because they have less TV altogether.

What they do have is a better attitude about it.

Here in the U.S., where we have a welter of fine dramas and comedies at our fingertips, it is still not unusual for the average citizen to dismiss all television as crap. Or to say, with a perfectly straight face, that he or she doesn’t watch it. Ever. (They are, one assumes, the same people who always break even or win a little when they visit Las Vegas.)

Part of this is simple mathematics. We have much more television than we did 20 or even 10 years ago. Considering that 80% of just about everything is mediocre or worse, it’s not surprising that there’s much more bad TV. Certainly there are plenty of British citizens who think the programming in the U.K. is rubbish too, but Britain is still a land where 10.4 million people watched the first part of this year’s “Doctor Who” season finale on Christmas Day.

Indeed, for a television critic spending her holiday in London, Christmas programming was a revelation and a neat illustration of how differently the nations view television.

In the U.S., December is more lull than onslaught; most network shows will have an episode that in some way acknowledges the season (often by its characters denying its importance), but these air, with little or no fanfare, in early to mid-December. After that, it’s pretty much all reruns until almost mid-January.

A holiday tradition

Not so in Britain, where TV is just as big a Christmas tradition as mince pies and brandy butter. “Christmas programming” is something the major broadcast companies, BBC and ITV, make a big deal about, planning their lineups and announcing them ahead of time, like sweeps weeks over here. The result is as much spangle and spectacle on the box as there is on Oxford Street.

Not only was there caroling aplenty and a message from the Queen on Christmas, but during the surrounding days every show from “Gavin and Stacey” to “EastEnders” had a Christmas special.

Viewers were also treated to, among other things, John Hurt reprising his role as Quentin Crisp in “An Englishman in New York,” David Tennant as “Hamlet,” a new “Marple” and “Poirot” as well as new remakes of “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Day of the Triffids” (the second of which proved that even the BBC can turn out a movie long on production values and short on script, tension and believability if it tries).

Yes, there were more silly Top 10 lists than the average brain pan could cope with, but there was also the fabulous snake-eating-its-tail image of the “Victoria Wood’s Midlife Christmas” special, featuring a send-up of the popular Victorian drama “Cranford” (and the similarly themed “Lark Rise to Candleford”) mere days after the first part of “Return to Cranford” aired.

(In all fairness, it must be added that on Christmas Day, most businesses, including cinemas, are closed, so TV must suffice for those who are not fully engaged in making plum pudding and pulling Christmas crackers.)

Not all of what aired was good, and little of it was posh because British TV is not all, or even mostly, period dramas or deeply compelling detective series. Although the government-funded and commercial-free BBC still seems to own the “classic adaptations market” (mainly because it possesses the preternaturally prolific Andrew Davies), ITV, the commercially funded public service network, has pulled ahead in the ratings, thanks mostly to reality TV, which is even bigger, if not as diverse, there than it is here.

This year, the only show that came close to the top-rated ITV1’s “Britain’s Got Talent” was ITV1’s “The X-Factor.” The finale of “Britain’s Got Talent” had 18.3 million viewers -- almost a third of the country’s population -- the most of any program since England took on Sweden in the 2006 World Cup.

Not only does the British public endure, and apparently enjoy, hours of cricket matches and darts tournaments, the two longest-running and still most successful scripted shows are a pair of nightly soap operas: “EastEnders” and “Coronation Street.”

Following the adventures of mostly working class characters (Londoners in “EastEnders” and the denizens of a village near Manchester in “Coronation Street”), the shows -- which generally draw between 9 million and 11 million viewers apiece -- are the antithesis of erudite. They are also absolutely impossible to imagine on American TV, and not just because most of us couldn’t understand a word that’s being said.

Starring Everyman

To their credit, each of these shows, and indeed most British television, are full of the sort of characters and actors who rarely get leading roles in American TV -- old people and dumpy people, people who never change or get ahead, people who are flawed and irritating in non-endearing ways, women who are not thin and Botoxed and men who don’t have to brood or twinkle or display some alarming talent every second of their screen time.

The Brits are even more forgiving about accents, which given their history of class hysteria, is rather ironic. On any given night in the U.K., you’ll hear a welter of Irish, Scotch, Welsh and many forms of British, and then you’ll hear the folks on all the various comedy shows making fun of them. In America, actors have been trained to flatten out any regionalism they might have left (except, of course, the Jersey mobster and that California upswing).

But mostly, it’s the let’s-see-what’s-on-the-telly attitude, the expectation that television viewing will and should be part of the holiday experience, that is refreshing to a critic who too often encounters otherwise intelligent Americans who claim that even with 500 stations, there is nothing to watch.

Perhaps those folks will be interested to learn that even amid all the Christmas programming, the television show I heard most talked about in London was “The Wire,” which several Brits of my acquaintance discussed at length and in the reverential tones we usually reserve for . . . British TV.