Is the Sun Setting On British TV?


Is the Sun Setting On British TV?

Marvin Kitman

10 July 1986


THERE IS NO TRUTH to the rumour that I defected to the U.K., my mind unduly influ- enced by watching too much public TV. I only went to London on my summer vacation to play polo with Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, and whilst there managed to win the Queen's Award for Industry, for shopping.

I also looked at TV a little in the hotel room. It was quite a shock.

First of all, they only have four channels. Talk about culturally backward nations.

This summer they had such American fare as "Masterpiece Theater," "Reginald Perrin" and the film classic "The Bitch," starring that great American actress Joan Collins - the best thing she's done since "The Stud."

In the winter they also have snooker and darts. They don't even have real trash sports.

For excitement this summer they had World Cup football. But so did everybody else.

And I noticed they still don't know how to pronounce "Dynasty." They still call the big hit show of last year "Deenasty."

Yes, it's time to write my usual scathing review of British TV.

The major weaknesses observed this time are only in three areas - sitcoms, drama and variety shows, although I did see a lovely documentary about raising your own falcons for fun and profit on Ch. 4 last week.

The hottest show this summer in the U.K. has been the weather. It hit 92. Was that Celsius or Fahrenheit, I kept asking the BBC weathermen?

The hottest show besides the weather report this year seems to be "The Colbys."

Michael Palin told me his 12-year-old daughter is addicted to the show. And not as a comedy. "She thinks it's very educational, a documentary about America, like `Dallas' and `Deenasty.' "

You see a lot of shows like ABC's "Streethawk" on the shedule. "Streethawk," the story of a man and a motorcycle, which lasted here for 10 minutes, was a big hit in the U.K. ABC should release its fall shedule in the U.K. directly. Then the show could come back on public TV in America.

The commercial channel, ITV, had such hits last week as "Little Gloria - Happy at Last," the classic American mini-series. Also "Rip Tide." "Tucker's Witch," a sitcom that bombed on CBS, started on June 24. The artsy Ch. 4 has "Bewitched," "Alice" and "Car 54, Where Are You?" - as good a reason to emigrate as heard recently.

The BBC had "Dukes of Hazzard" and "Foley Square" and "Laramie." "What's Happening?" is Mark Twain to the Brits.

Soon the snooker championship will be starting again. It runs about 18 hours a day. Fascinating. And they do celebrity darts. It's bowling for pounds, next.

American TV is very big there. If not for the quota systems limiting imports, American TV would blow British shows away. They like American things. It's cultural imperialism at its finest. But it's also a weakness on the part of the British. They are closet Americans.

The most widely discussed and watched original British show this season is a prime-time soap opera, "The East Enders," on BBC-1. It's about a bunch of people called Den and Angie, who do "Dallas," only in London, with the usual sex and scandal, steamy smooching and debauchery.

I watched it one night and found it less enthralling than paint drying. Even cricket was more exciting. Especially cricket. Those Indians in the test match on BBC-2 were making chicken tandoori out of the all-England squad. "My word," the announcer kept saying. My sentiments exactly.

All the latest American trends, like salacious soaps, have been hitting Britain the last five or six years. The latest gimmick to hit them is mediocrity. British TV is knee-deep in middle American shlock, either in the originals or copies.

Especially in sitcoms. If I see another domestic sitcom - they have had every variation of living room comedy we've seen, and some we've not seen - I'll scream. In an English accent.

"Allo, Allo" on the BBC-1 seemed to be the brightest, most refreshing comedy this season. It's a World War II sitcom about an English character running a bar in France during the Nazi occupation. It's a Gestapo-French Resistance school of comedy, a notch above "Hogan's Heroes." But it won't come to the United States. It's too English, they'll say. Or too French. I liked it, I bet, more than Herbie Schmertz of Mobil.

Also in the hard-sell category, zany comedy is making a comeback. Zany, young, off-the-wall stuff. Like "The Young Ones," "Comic Strip," "Spitting Image."

They still do some brilliant stuff, although it's not as good as they keep telling us. Remember "Bleak House" last year? Coming down the tubes are such don't-miss shows and series as "A Peculiar Practice," a doctor series based on a college campus, and the big show due this fall that everybody is waiting for on BBC-1, "The Singing Detective," by Dennis ("Pennies From Heaven") Potter.

All in all, as John Cleese puts it, "British TV today is in a state of mild crisis." It's always been that way, perhaps.

But there is a smell of decline and defeat in British TV that is unmistakable as they battle the problems of financing and diversity and competition. A sure sign of the terminal nature of the disease occurred the week I was there.

There was a row in the papers about the BBC-1's running the World Cup football games (semifinals) from Mexico, even though ITV had already scheduled them. Michael Grade, the new chief operative for BBC-1 and BBC-2, said the event was "newsworthy." To heck with a gentlemen's agreement!

So two of the four channels had the same thing. A New High in diversity for England.

The new gimmick of duplication was bad enough. But Michael Grade was bragging in the papers the next day that more people watched their duplicate coverage of the World Cup game than the other network's. Dirty snooker!

Michael Grade is remembered as the Brit who came to work for Norman Lear in L.A. in the early 1980s. And then, after an undistinguished career as head of Embassy, he jumped or flung himself out of the door to the BBC - at half pay. His contributions at BBC since arriving from L.A. include such programmes as "East Enders" (Tuesdays), "East Enders" (Thursdays) and "East Enders Omnibus" (Sundays).

"The British are not coming, the British are not coming," are the call words of the future. Our public TV people are going to have to start making their own mini-series based on novels, and comedy series, or set like the sun and the British Empire.

last updated october 2014