Growing up in the United States, I never quite understood British TV, not from a language angle, but from a choice of subject matter angle. Long before BBC America, the only real exposure for decades was public television, which limited you to made-for-television Agatha Christie and Poirot or shows about priests or wacky but hard to decipher comedies. To this day I still don’t see what’s so funny about Monty Python. Don’t get me wrong, I know there are tons of folks that see this as classic material. But I won’t just dismiss any genre of comedy. I keep coming back for more.
“A wise man changes his mind. A fool never does.”
In light of the above maxim, I’ve re-tried Monty Python from time to time. I just must not be ready for it yet. I keep re-trying British shows, too—especially those that others view as classics.
Late night programming over the past few decades often exposed Americans to The Benny Hill Show. Benny Hill is bawdy and crude but he is funny at an LOL level. There’s something Chaplin-like about Benny Hill’s antics. So maybe Benny Hill is as good as any an introduction to British TV for newbies.
For some 40 years Americans have also been exposed to Doctor Who, in his numerous incarnations, again mainly thanks to public television. For years I would flip on an episode to give it a try. I just never figured it out. I think the strange fashions on the show, particularly as worn by the Doctors, kept me away. The rare friend liked a particular Doctor and would latch on for a while. So for some, Doctor Who was a gateway to British TV. My own getting to like Doctor Who is only incredibly recent, and a subject for a later date, maybe British TV 304: Why you should watch the Doctor.
I have tried A Bit of Fry and Laurie as I started to like Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry after seeing the movie Peter’s Friends, when Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson were the then-next big British invasion. Fry and Laurie’s old show may make you feel like the guy in the room that doesn’t get any of the jokes. (These guys are both funny in other shows).
Then there was Masterpiece Theatre. Alistair Cooke. Beyond the great trumpet fanfare theme music, what followed were melodramas and mysteries that for me just crawled. I know a lot of other folks that weren’t so slow to gravitate toward British TV, so some people have gotten hooked this way.
If you like animals, All Creatures Great and Small is a good series that is quaint and still holds up after all these years. It’s the true adventures of a small town British veterinarian. These shows, based on a series of good books by James Herriot, are a great introduction to British TV.
Another series worth checking out is Monarch of the Glen, a more recent series that takes place in Scotland and has a bit of humor and light drama, but, more than that, it serves as a great travelogue for Scotland. The cast for this series was great, and the stories not complicated but fun.
So what’s the best introduction for someone who hasn’t quite gotten the bug for British TV yet? My recommendation is that 30-minute sitcom with the two James Bond actors, that has aired live or in reruns since 1992. Know which one I mean?
Before the details, I have to say that I think Judi Dench is the best thing that ever happened to British TV. She is an actress who, at 77 years old now, is as in prime form as any actress in any country. She was an actress known in England for years but seemed to catapult into the international limelight beginning with her appearance in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V in 1989. At least none of us on this side of the pond saw her before that. Judi Dench, now Dame Judi Dench, should be credited with popularizing British TV outside of Great Britain.
If you only know Judi Dench as M in the current run of brilliant James Bond movies (she’s been both Pierce Brosnan’s and Daniel Craig’s icy and savvy boss), then you should check out her 1992-2005 ground-breaking series As Time Goes By. Of all the programs ostensibly “about nothing,” there is no funnier show than the polite but determined banter of Dench’s Jean Pargetter and long lost but newly found mate Lionel, played by Geoffrey Palmer. It is a show that is elegant in its simplicity, about characters who are plain folk. As the action genre is concerned, you should recognize Palmer from the new Doctor Who, Ashes to Ashes, and as Admiral Roebuck in another James Bond flick, Tomorrow Never Dies.
Both Dench and Palmer have a stunningly long resume of roles going back decades. Yet both hit their prime when Palmer was 65 and Dench was 58. By then, their experience, including a lot of professional stage work, allowed them to come across the airwaves and the Atlantic Ocean as relaxed and as down to Earth as any friend in your living room no matter what you do, where you live, and who you are.
What’s As Time Goes By About? Before we meet the main characters later in life at the beginning of the series, Lionel and Jean were lovers during the Korean War. They are separated by a misunderstanding—a letter that was sent but did not arrive—and they moved on in their lives marrying others and raising families. Flash forward. Lionel is looking for a secretary in Jean’s office. He meets Jean’s daughter, then Lionel discovers Jean again from this encounter and they reunite. In short, each episode is about the baggage they both bring to the relationship. And it is not a lot. But these little niggling things are always subtlely introduced and before you know it, and in the face of good intentions, almost always result in a major catastrophe, or more aptly, much ado about nothing.
The supporting cast is equally enjoyable—daughter Judy (Moira Brooker) and friend Sandy (Jenny Funnell) are real and accessible to viewers, British or not. And then there is Alistair (Philip Bretherton), Lionel’s editor and Judy’s on-again/off-again love interest, a breath of fresh air in every episode. You can’t not like the guy who is always happy, always a glass half full kind of guy.
The ensemble is great not only for being a leading series with senior actors in the lead roles. Every episode is funny with a type of humor that is light-hearted, never malicious, never about putting anyone down. Dench’s Jean makes us laugh through her feigned naivete. Palmer’s Lionel has a dry, deadpan wit. It’s just about the funny things that happen to everyone. And no matter what your age, despite flatly believing all humans are pretty much the same, if you ask yourself whether you really believe that, it’s still worth challenging the thought a bit. The British and Americans have a common language, a common national history. Yet we branched off a few hundred years ago. Like someone was playing a game, maybe God: Let’s see what happend if we split them up… You can just hear the voice of God like a TV show announcer: What happens when you take these two countries, pull them a part and bring them back together 200 years later?
In many ways we are very, very different. But instead of looking at the differences, it is more fun to check out how we are alike. To some, you might as well be watching British TV as watching the Spanish Univision channel. It’s Greek to me. Then you watch that one show, see that one response, or phrase, or reaction, and slowly get sucked in—we live in different places, our accents are different, but we all have bedrooms and living rooms. We all have to get along with the guy next door, or even closer, the person in the next room. Everything we watch and see helps us understand others better and that helps us understand ourselves. This accessibility, this commonality of the human experience, is why As Time Goes By is a great program for anyone interested in sampling what this British TV thing is all about–to go give it the old college try. And at some point you might find yourself proclaiming a British TV series as the best series, in any country, ever made.