British are ready to rule U.S. TV sets this summer
Paul Revere said they were coming, but he probably didn’t think they would keep coming and coming. Yet another British invasion, this time of the TV order, is setting in on America this summer.
Between the dreamy royal wedding, the glory of the royal baby and the frustration of waiting six more months for another season of “Downton Abbey,” the U.K. is hot in the United States, where television doesn’t seem to be content to keep calm and carry on. A host of summer shows are reveling in British aristocracy and social structure.
Fox was first out of the gate with its spoof dating competition series “I Wanna Marry ‘Harry,’” then came the rollout of Bravo’s newest reality fishbowl, “Ladies of London,” earlier this month. And in less than two weeks, BBC America will launch its fish-out-of-water satire “Almost Royal.”
“I think America has British fever right now,” said Kathleen French, who oversees production at Bravo. “We had the royal wedding and then the royal baby. They’re so fabulous and the baby is so cute. The interest is at optimum levels.”
Once upon a time — circa April 2011 — America (and the world) was consumed with wall-to-wall coverage of the nuptials between Prince William and Kate Middleton. Nearly 23 million U.S. viewers across 11 networks tuned in to gawk over the fairy tale spectacle. One need only shuffle through the weekly glossies to see that interest in the couple — and William’s eligible brother, Harry — hasn’t waned.
Between America’s enduring soft spot for the monarchy and its continued lavish turnouts for “Downton Abbey” — as well as the success of other successful British fare on PBS, such as “Sherlock” — the networks are eager to piggyback off the country’s robust popularity, executives said.
This is hardly a new phenomenon. Before American audiences celebrated the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana in 1981 — and later wept over Princess Diana’s death — the former colonies have always carried a torch for the British, said Arianne Chernock, associate professor of history at Boston University.
“There is a long history and we sometimes have cultural amnesia about it,” Chernock said, pointing to Queen Victoria as an example. “Americans have always had this strange fascination with the British monarchy. Even though America severed ties with Britain, that was one aspect we marveled at from afar …and with our distance from it, we can have a less complicated relationship to it. It becomes a fantasy.”
And women, largely the target demo for these shows, make up the bulk of those captivated by the British lifestyle.
“The monarchy is a feminized institution in that its core base is female,” said Chernock. “It has a particular appeal for women for a range of reasons. It’s not just about becoming a princess, but also, for much of the modern period, women have sat on the throne so there’s the potential emancipatory aspect to it as well.”
Danny Fenton, the British creator of “I Wanna Marry ‘Harry,’” said it was the ongoing curiosity with the incumbent royal family that gave birth to the idea for the series. The reality show centers on a dozen unsuspecting American women trying to woo a Prince Harry look-alike.
“I wanted to show America’s fascination with royalty,” Fenton said. “It was an interesting social experiment in how [the women] convinced themselves that it was Prince Harry — and how they enjoyed the experience of living like a princess for a month.”
But Bravo has taken an approach more in line with its successful “Real Housewives” franchise with “Ladies of London.” The London-set reality series follows six women — four of whom are American ex-pats — with big personalities and bigger thoughts on the British class system.
Faster than one can order a tea and biscuits, mentions of the royal family are made. One cast member boasts, “I do know the royals and I would consider them all very good friends”; another, in revealing what she knows about the sport of polo, says “Prince William and Prince Harry play it.”
Meanwhile, “Almost Royal,” premiering on BBC America on June 21, has fun with America’s infatuation. The quasi-reality series follows the lives of two siblings, who are 50th and 51st in line to the royal throne, as they embark on a faux royal tour of America. The siblings are played by two actors who interact with ordinary Americans.
“There’s no doubt that there’s an appetite for royal programming,” said Perry Simon, general manager of the network. “And we wanted to play that up — but in an affectionate way. The challenge for us was how do you do that in a really clever, fresh way? We wanted something that felt cheeky and irreverent.”
The summer entrants lay a foundation for next year’s more salacious contender from E! network, “The Royals.” As the network’s first original scripted series, the soapy jaunt, from Mark Schwahn (“One Tree Hill”) gives a look behind the palace gates of a fictional royal family, with Elizabeth Hurley playing the matriarch.
“What compels me is how history and tradition collides with life in contemporary London,” Schwahn said by email. “Old meets new. What does it mean to be a royal family with a responsibility to the past, but the demands of a contemporary world, and in the age of paparazzi and social media and constant global scrutiny?”
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