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8 classic British shows America couldn't do


The Brits may not have the budgets, but they're bringing other things to the table...

8 classic British shows America couldn't do

US TV may have more money to spend on TV and big budget shows – think Lost (the pilot alone is said to have cost $12 million) and Spielberg’s latest show Terra Nova (reportedly it cost $50 million to make) - but there are just some British shows that American TV could never do as well as British TV, regardless of the budget. The reason? Because they are quintessentially British. The fact they are based in Britain is as vital to their watchability as the actors who bring the characters to life. Read on and please feel free to leave comments.

1. Doctor Who

It’s not only the iconic blue telephone box that makes this time travel treat a very British show; it’s the gentlemanly behavior of the Doctor. The Doctor abhors guns and violence. If the Time Lord were an American he’d be brash and all shock and awe, win at all cost. And, he’d probably be carrying a gun too. No matter his incarnation, the Doctor is an eccentric too. He has to be, to have that otherworldly aura about him. Only in Fringe does Dr. Walter Bishop come close to matching it.

Then there’s the way the Doctor’s dressed, which reflects his character – always in classic British attire, usually with a long coat or jacket. Matt Smith has his Harris Tweed jacket (do any Americans under 50 wear such a thing?) and bowtie. David Tennant had his long overcoat and tie and looked every inch the London commuter. Christopher Eccleston wore a leather jacket and black t-shirt (if he’d been American he’d surely have worn a white t-shirt, James Dean style). Sylvester McCoy was dressed for a day of boating down the Thames; Peter Davidson wore a cricket shirt. Tom Baker had that iconic long scarf. The first three Doctors William Hartnell (mad professor look), Patrick Troughton (bank manager who’d slept in his suit look), Jon Pertwee (purple velvet smoking jacket) wore typical British attire of the time.

The Doctor has an ageless quality about him that wouldn’t come across if he spoke in an American accent. This is a man with two hearts who has seen things no mere mortal has ever seen. As Christopher Eccleston’s incarnation said, ‘I saw the Fall of Troy, World War Five; I was pushing boxes at the Boston Tea Party…’ Note - I’ve missed Peter Cushing out because although he starred in two movies (Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D (1966)), the official Doctor Who site doesn’t consider him to be a Doctor. Go figure.

2. The Office

I love the US version, I really do - but it’s not even the same show as the British version and it could never be. When in the first series they tried to copy the scripts of the British original and even had Michael Scott doing a David Brent thing with his hair (it looked like he’d greased it back with cooking oil to get the Brent-going-bald effect), the show wasn’t even funny. The same (ish) scripts that had us howling with laughter one minute and hiding behind the couch the next in the UK Office, left us cold in the US one. How could that be?

Maybe because there’s an air of total desperation about the UK show that’s as much a social commentary on how rubbish your life can be working a 9-to-5 under an obnoxious boss, as it is a situation comedy. American shows tend to have a more positive outlook: a feeling that you can achieve the American dream. No one wants to work at Wernham Hogg. This is the place where all dreams you ever have are crushed by the drudgery and grinding reality of real life working in an office for a company no one’s ever heard of, with a moron of a boss. You get the feeling Brent only got the job because he was the longest-serving employee (a very British thing). Tim wishes he was at university, studying psychology, but we know he’ll never do it because nice guy as he is, he’s a loser. Over in the US Office, Jim is where he is because he’s lazy and doesn’t apply himself and despite that he still progresses in the company. Dawn wants to be an artist, but unlike Pam she does little about it because in Britain not many people chase their dreams – we don’t have our 'American dream.' Reality crushes dreams.
Downtrodden Dawn’s going to marry surly lad Lee, who makes a caveman look modern, but despite him treating her like garbage she doesn’t seem to realize she can do better until they end up in America where she ends up a general dogsbody as Lee loafs around. Would any young American woman put up with someone like Lee? Pam certainly didn’t and kicked her Lee (Roy) to the kerb.

3. Sherlock

In my opinion, when Benedict Cumberbatch blazed onto the screen with his portrayal of the most famous of all detectives, he eclipsed Doctor Who. When the show was made the BBC knew it would be open to criticism that Sherlock and Doctor Watson could never be brought into the modern era. Brilliant Cumberbatch has proven them wrong and Martin Freeman makes a more than able sidekick (although there are the occasional traces of Tim, his Office personae). But, would the show have worked if it’d carried a ‘Made in the US’ stamp? I think not. For one thing, London is more than just a location in the Arthur Conan Doyle novels. It’s a character. It’s alive: it lives and breathes and you can feel its history wafting through the screen and into your living room. The diverse characters that populate the city make Sherlock what it is: unmissable TV. You only have to see what the Americans made of Sherlock when they made the movie version, featuring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law. Entertaining enough as the movies were, they didn’t even come close to capturing the brooding mercurial genius that is Sherlock Holmes. A US TV series would probably feature a hunky, the ladies all love me star instead of a Sherlock who comes across as being completely detached from the rest of the world and the people in it. And, Baker Street would probably be replaced with a loft apartment.

There are plenty more shows that would be ruined if they were made in America with the same scripts. Shows like -

4. Being Human

The magic of the show featuring a werewolf, a ghost and a vampire is that it’s set in an ordinary British street. Set it stateside and it’s not even the same show and is more like Twilight.

5. Spooks

The British spy drama would turn into a cross between 24 and The Bourne Identity if a US version was made. Whilst life in the British secret services seems to be about diplomacy and not stepping on anyone’s toes, life in the US version would be more all guns blazing and lack the subtlety.

6. Peep Show

If the Americans did this, it would be more like Friends: too glossy, too bright and the flat Jeremy and Mark share would be switched to a city centre penthouse with an assortment of glamorous people pretending to be ordinary parading in and out with their perfect hair and make up (and that’s just the men).

7. Drop The Dead Donkey

I love my American friends, I truly do, but one thing I’ve noticed about Americans is that they don’t do sarcasm. They simply don’t understand it. The reason this sitcom had us roaring with laughter is because we got the sarcasm. Heck, we’d say thing like that ourselves about politicians and their not-so-private lives. Americans genuinely don’t have the same level of distrust towards their politicians – if George W. Bush had been running Britain he’d have been a laughing stock in the media.

8. Only Fools and Horses

Does America have its own David Jason? We doubt it.

One of the most loved British shows of all time, the beauty of OFH is the simplicity of it all. Two brothers and granddad/uncle live in a flat in Peckham (hardly the most salubrious of places in London) and try to make a living ducking and driving, selling stuff no one wants to buy on a market. The comedy comes from the scrapes they get into. The majority of the show is based around just three characters. If this show was made in the US there’d be a bigger ensemble. More sets would be needed. They’d struggle to base the show just in two locations – Nelson Mandela Place where the Trotters live and their local pub. As for the market, would they even set it there? It’s doubtful. No one does markets like Londoners.

See also:

Is the UK trying too hard for America’s love?

Sherlock Makes Television Worth Watching Again


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#1 RE: 8 classic British shows America couldn't do LenaR 2011-10-21 23:36
I am American, and although I've only seen three of the above mentioned shows, I have to mostly agree with you. I don't care for Robert Downey's Sherlock (although directed by Guy Ritchie, British), it was still done in American style. My family have just discovered many of the British shows via Netflix, and we are hooked. More than just the incredibly charming British accents and slang, the stories are character driven rather than plot driven. We have all fallen madly in love with BBC's Sherlock.. I expected to hate it; I don't like when they modernize classics. But it is such a mixture of old and new, without wandering too far. The actors are superb (not just Cumberbatch and Freeman). And I'm afraid we're terribly hooked on Dr. Who. I can't even imagine it being done in USA. I just with we could get hold of more of BBC's programming.
#2 But... Ecchi 2011-10-22 09:56
Spooks originally started as Britain's answer to 24, and in the first few seasons stole a lot of concepts from 24.

In your run down of the people who played the Doctor you missed out one actor - Paul McGann. This is a shame because he proved your point. Even though the show was helmed by a British producer, it was made in America, for the American audience, and it was not good.
#3 Spot on, Jennifer! Caleb Leland 2011-10-22 17:36
Absolutely! While American studios are constantly borrowing shows from the Brits for reimagining, they rarely translate well. Awesome examples here. Excellent list!
#4 RE: 8 classic British shows America couldn't do Lauren 2011-10-23 10:50
I totally agree with this - and I'm an American! Every time they announce that they're going to make an "American version" I can't help but groan in horror. There's rarely a thoughtful show on American television, and when there is it usually gets cancelled quickly.

I don't understand why they can't just air the shows they want to "remake" as they are - and then at the same time I do understand. Because while I will say that there are some pretty offensive stereotypes about Americans that, as a part of several British television show fandoms (Doctor Who, Sherlock, etc.) I've had to defend myself from, I can't deny that there isn't some reason behind them - a lot of the more vocal Americans don't do much for other country's images of what it is to be American.

So at the same time that I'll say British television is much better, that there are a lot of Americans who wouldn't "get " it, and that remakes of these shows are rarely (if ever) as good as the original, I'd also like to point out that there are plenty of Americans who prefer British television, who get the humor, etc. And if you come across someone in fandom who is an American, try not to jump to the assumption that they're a stereotype and get to know them - because a lot of us are really nice and appreciate the culture.

Also, it's really late and I haven't slept yet, so please ignore any rambling that may have occurred during this post :P
#5 Mr David Dowsett 2011-10-24 12:53
Though it was funny in the Dr Who section that was talking about the clothes of the doctor and pointed out that he missed Peter Cushing out because blar blar blar. Where infact he missed Colin Baker out, no surprise there, that has the be the worst fashion ever dreamt up, felt bad for the bloke as he had no choice in the selection.
#6 An American Sherlock Eric F 2011-10-24 18:01
"House MD" is essentially the American version of Sherlock. I'm pretty sure Hugh Laurie (while British) isn't considered a "hunk", though I think he and Wilson may yet have a loft (I haven't watched the last two seasons). Their address was 221B.

As an American, I'll say I find Steven Moffat's works imaginative, but too ADHD and convenient -- as if inspired by the very American "24".
#7 RE: 8 classic British shows America couldn't do Alex 2011-10-24 23:39
Ms Thomson, thanks for your article. Please, never, ever have an American Dr. Who. Urgh. Although I'd love to see an episode set in, say, San Francisco.

Re: No. 7 -- It may not seem like we understand sarcasm, but we do in pockets. It's almost like you have to do sarcasm underground. If you go around making pertinent observations, or even with a sense of what we know as black humor, you're branded "smart", "mouthy", "brainwashed", "deluded", "stupid" and so on. So you tend to hunker down and keep it to yourself, or only use sarcasm in the company of like-minded people who will understand when you call Pres. Bush brilliant because he's figured out how to make time go backwards.

You'd probably not notice sarcasm via the usual media. It survives on the Web, thank heaven. What may pass as sarcasm in America is usually the more juvenile humor a la "South Park", or just plain mean-spirited voyeurism. There are truths stated in the comedic efforts, but you're hit over the head with them. It's either/or with no alternative. No discussion needed or wanted, thank you! Faux-news shows like "The Daily Show" or "Colbert Report" are like manna when you want wit, humor and appropriate sarcasm, and at least the beginnings of intelligent discussion.

I grew up on a steady diet of books, Monty Python's Flying Circus, the rare chance to see Dr Who (Tom Baker) and then later British imports that ranged from thoughtful to side-splitting funny. Now it's Dr. Who and Torchwood as I can watch. I get more out of the ostensibly children-oriented "Dr. Who" than I do out of most so-called adult shows over here.

I'm of British heritage, so maybe it's genetic, but I'm much more comfortable with British programming by and large, even now. There's a rhythm to the writing that doesn't exist over here in the States. And I've noticed something else -- even on shows such as Graham Norton, American guests seem much more relaxed and open to the banter and back-and-forth that helps to support a relevant sarcasm as it comes. You can't do that here in America. Our questions and programming are much more shallow and the hosts often try to outshout each other while the guest looks on with a worried look.

And in America, if you step on someone's inner child and hurt their feelings, they'll sue you!

Never fear, I promise I will be making comments about our last president until the day I die. And there are tons of us who don't trust our politicians and are furious over what's been going on in Washington for the last ten years. Problem is, outside of a few rare gems like "Daily Show", "Colbert" or the brilliance of someone like comedian Tina Fey, you can't say anything about it without having your character raked over the coals. We've become so partisan now that it will be a long time before subtlety, let alone sarcasm, returns in any great measure.

I wonder if that's part of the reason that our "Britcoms" here in the States are close to twenty years old, if not older now. Perhaps they push the boundaries a little, but are considered safe. I'd gladly give up the endless repeats of "Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares" on BBC America if they would pull over more current programming, along with PBS. I'll have to check out the "Ministry of Laughs" programming. But it could be considered too strong, too controversial for American audiences? I don't know.

I love my British friends too, I really do! You make me laugh, but in a good way, a healthy way, a much-needed way.
#8 Mr Paul Nicholson 2011-10-25 14:58
Yes, I agree with the list and comments. You could add a good few more, such as Blackadder and Rising Damp. However, American shows like The Sopranos and The Wire probably couldn't be made as well here if British versions were tried out.
#9 RACIST POINTS HOlly Do 2011-10-28 00:34
wow, this article comes off vey racist against americans. you describe americans as gun toting cowboys who are apparently stuck with the fashion sense of a 60's era greaser (james dean) the writer of this clearly doesnt care for american TV or americans.
jennifer, your a typical british racist.
Just remember, If it werent for the Americans, youd all be speaking German now!
#10 Really Holly?... L Connolly 2011-10-28 02:37
Quoting HOlly Do:
wow, this article comes off vey racist against americans. you describe americans as gun toting cowboys who are apparently stuck with the fashion sense of a 60's era greaser (james dean) the writer of this clearly doesnt care for american TV or americans.
jennifer, your a typical british racist.
Just remember, If it werent for the Americans, youd all be speaking German now!

Holly, I edit and appraise all comments that make it on this site, and I was debating whether to post yours.

Now, I'm not going to bring up the fact that a number of AMERICAN readers have read and agreed with what Jen says, but rather point towards a couple of shortcomings:

1. First off, I agree with Jen. I am not a racist in the slightest - heck, I'm writing this during a 2.5 month trip around your great country - but the USA has butchered more classic, British programmes than I care to remember.

Need an example? How about the recent Shameless USA - a great, English comedy relevant ONLY to this country, yet America thinks that adding William H Macy and americanising the language a little will solve it? Come on...

2. Knowing Jen personally, I know that she is as far from racist as you can imagine. If you have perceived some of the content to be racial stereotyping, I apologise...but that is YOUR opinion.

3. Your WWII knowledge is ignorant at best. If you actually look closer, the war could have finished almost a year before it actually did; Churchill needed naval support, but Roosevelt refused to send any reinforcements because he was running for election. Furthermore, Churchill had to then sink a number of allied ships, with a number of allied losses, to prevent the Germans seizing control. Now, I don't agree with what he did, but to hail America as the sole reason the Nazi regime failed is ludicrous.

I could go on, but I feel my point has been made. We are in no way a racist site, and I'm sorry you feel that way. Furthermore, we give credit to a number of brilliant American shows - see my Supernatural reviews if you doubt this. Eric Kripke etal are among the most talented writers of all time in my opinion.
#11 Well Put Caleb Leland 2011-10-29 01:34
As an American writer here, I have never felt as though my British co-writers hold any racist feelings toward me or my fellow countrymen. Luke has made some very valid points that you really should take some time to think about, Holly.
#12 Different strokes Eric F 2011-10-29 02:34
Different cultures are going to come up with different things-- no shocker there. The short-lived "Firefly" is one example that could be consided quintessentiall y American, even with the very many fans over the pond.

I disagree with some of the list. As mentioned, the newer "Doctor Who" and "Sherlock" series are basically alternative versions of "24"; very ADHD and deus ex machina (sonic screwdriver, the magically-shrinking TARDIS, etc.).

#7 may be correct in the author's circles, but GWB was mocked in many shows and movies (and killed in one movie), even if he didn't deserve as much. Of course, Mr. Obama does seem to get the easier ride now, but with a fear of a "race card" being played, it's no wonder. It seems the younger generations don't have that innate distrust of politicians that not-so-long-ago was very American too.

Twilight "Being Human"? I don't know. Perhaps they wanted to reach a certain niche market. That niche could be larger than the original's complete audience. I'm not trying to say that for bragging rights; just probably how they were thinking. And yes, we can still all hate it. ;)

As for WWII: America didn't get into the war because we hadn't yet been attacked. A lot of Americans were wounded and died for countries they were not required to defend. We can armchair-quarterback about when the "proper" time would have been to enter, but I think Mr. Connolly's statements are probably about on the same level as he finds HOlly Do's.

As they say in America: Your mileage may vary.
#13 Mr Paul Nicholson 2011-10-29 23:39
HOlly Do? Holly don't - mention the war! Like your apostrophes, America wasn't there. At least not for over 2 years, when they were forced into it by an attack (Japan) and declared against (Germany). Britain declared on a principle (Poland).

Aside from the history lesson, it's worth remembering that there are plenty of Yank comedies that are timeless and which left us way behind. The Phil Silvers Show, Mash, Cheers, Seinfeld, Larry Sanders Show and the incomparable Frasier.

The latter has so much British- type humour I wonder where the writers are from, and I wish we could produce something as good. From the article list of 8 I have to say that I've never liked Dr Who and I think Spooks is very silly. I wonder if Americans watch "Pete Versus Life", as that's very good and typically British.
#14 RE: 8 classic British shows America couldn't do Jennifer Thomson 2011-11-06 19:16
Hi HOlly Do
I wrote the piece and I am in no way a racist. In fact, I have been subject to racism on a number of occasions.

This piece is an opinion piece, nothing more and no racist comments have been made. I love American shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Shield and 24 (which I don't think would be as good if they were set in Britain because just as there's some British shows the Americans can't do there are also American shows Britain couldn't do half as well. Take a show like Breaking Bad about crystal meth which we don't really have in Britain or The Walking Dead, which would be completely different in the UK because we don't have guns.
#15 RE: 8 classic British shows America couldn't do Jane 2011-11-08 08:24
Racist? Nope, don't see any racism here.

As for speaking German if it weren't for the Americans, now I find that VERY offence! You obviously need to re-read the CORRECT history books!
#16 Another UK show that the US tanked in making Bobbi McKenzie 2011-11-14 08:06
I just wanted to add another UK show that the US couldn't pull off....


I think that ABC Network's cancellation of their LIFE ON MARS series says it all...... Their version of the series was an abomination.

I'm an American, but have always believed that we, Americans, end up "raping" original British series by remaking them for American audiences.
#17 Totally Agree Ally S 2011-11-19 08:07
Adding another show to the list: Viva Blackpool. (is that right?)

An awesome show with a great cast. I know there was an attempted remake in America called Viva Laughlin with Hugh Jackman. I don't think it even lasted a couple of episodes.

Great article!

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