British Television through Canadian Eyes

Written by Sarah Townsend March 15, 2011


Canadians contribute to and are present in many television shows and movies.  We produce our own shows as well, as can be seen on the CBC and several other channels. Jokes about our fair country appear on shows such as “How I Met Your Mother” (I think they’re funny, others do not).  Despite this, it can’t be ignored that most of what we Canadians watch is American shows from American networks – at least, that’s what we all think right?

American shows: “The Office”, “Life on Mars”, “Skins”, “Being Human”, “Shameless” – the list goes on and on.  Some have been successful, some have not, and some are still new to our screens and are awaiting judgment – All of those mentioned and many more not mentioned are remakes of British television shows.

I am not trying to suggest that remaking a show is wrong.  I quite like “The Office” – both versions – and I have heard good things about the American versions of “Shameless” and “Skins” although I myself have not seen either.

On the whole however upon hearing that a British show that I love is going to be remade, I cringe and worry.  I would like to say up front that I do give these shows a chance, always.  I also realize that, as with many sequels or remakes, even if they are done well, the original or first version seen is what is set in someone’s mind as the favourite and it just cannot be compared to. With that said, I have gone into watching several remakes being cautiously optimistic and been disappointed far too many times to watch more than the first episode or two.

While there is nothing wrong with a good remake, as rare as they are, I thought that with all of the original, top quality, and not credited as much as it should be here across the waters British television out there, that I could present some future viewing possibilities.

If you hadn’t guessed by this point, I love British television.  I know far, far too much about the shows that I watch; some of the trivia I can’t even recall where I obtained the information from – it’s just there in the long-term memory (clearly knowing all there is to know about Doctor Who is helpful during exam season).  Even if the shows make it to Canada eventually I usually find a way to watch within hours of them playing in Britain – we all know how that is, it doesn’t need to be said.  I shy away from saying that it is a passion of mine because that would mean I’d have to admit exactly how much of a geek I am – but I’m pretty sure I’ve already made that part pretty clear, oh well.  Aristotle believed that you should write what you know.  In terms of entertainment this is what I know.

Before I jump in and bombard you with reviews of specific shows, I thought it would be helpful to discuss some differences found within British television.  That way when (Yes I am saying when.  I can be an optimist!) you wish to begin a show there is some background knowledge.  Some things you should know about British television:

1. Different language/terminology

This goes beyond saying “chips” instead of “fries”.  Yes, the language used in British television is different as is the slang.  Most of it can be picked up fairly easily and the slang is usually not horribly important if you do miss it.  In terms of the terminology used when talking about a show there are some differences that are important.  While we call as show as a whole a “series” and one year of a particular show a “season”, one year of a British show is called a “series”.  As far as I can figure, (and this comes from my observations as a viewer, not an actual source) shows as a whole from beginning to end are also called “series”.  If that seems confusing, well it is.  Basically, instead of saying season three, I’ll be saying series three.

2. Shorter Series/Seasons

As I’ve become a fan of Brit television perhaps the only thing that frustrates me is the length of their series (seasons).  A regular season for us usually lands the episode count somewhere into the 20s unless it plays on channels like AMC.  Most British dramas don’t even make it into the double digits. My favourite show, Doctor Who, was my first sustained exposure to British television. I remember being absolutely baffled by the length of the season.   Only 13 episodes? What?! In actuality, Doctor Who, at 13 episodes and a Christmas Special each series, is one of the longest series that the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) has.   A typical series of a British drama is either 6 or 8 episodes long. Even though this means that a series is over far too quickly and that it is a long wait until the following it also means that it is less difficult to fall behind, or that if you do it is rather easy to catch up.  It is also easier to commit to a show (or several) if they only last 6-8 weeks each year.

3. Shorter Series (yes I know the double use of series is confusing)

Ever find that show that you love so much that you never want it to end?  Me too *cough* LOST *cough*…Yes I was a mess. Mascara, all over my face – not pretty.  How about that show that you love but want to end because it is slowly going downhill” How I Met Your Mother anyone?  I love the show dearly but Ted, you’re getting old, please meet your wife soon – Oh wait, there are going to be at least two more seasons…Ah, well. LOST, whether you loved it or hated it, was a great ending – despite the tears – because it was planned in advance and then carried through to the end.  Television shows in the United States tend to go on for as long as possible until the storylines, characters or both become so weak that they have to end in order to maintain some shred of integrity.  While there are television shows in Britain that have lasted for years and years, it is more likely that a shorter storyline will be developed and then carried out to completion.  Miniseries and one-off dramas (TV movies) are also made a lot if a story cannot be made into a full-blown television series.  In short, television maintains a high level of quality because when the story is done, the show ends, and as sad as that is, it is far less tragic than watching a formerly entertaining show die a slow and painful death until someone is kind enough to put it out of its misery.

4. No Commercials During the Show

The only difficulty that this produces is when the show plays on our screens here.  Because there are no clearly defined commercial breaks, networks here have to make their own.  This isn’t anyone’s fault or even really a flaw, just a difference between regions.  It can make the show seem a little choppy, but most networks don’t cut the show so it returns exactly where you left off.  It does however make the DVD, Blu-ray or other forms of viewing (you know what I’m talking about) experience pleasant though because we don’t have to deal with those slightly odd post-commercial repeated lines or awkward camera close-ups right before a break to commercial

5. No Filler Episodes

Fun and frilly episodes are entertaining and sometimes a necessity in a show but it starts to become tedious when this becomes a main part of the show for lack of plot.  If a show is only 6, 8 or at the very most 13 episodes long with a plot just as ambitious as any 20+ episode season, there is no room for filler.  Viewers are forced to get to know the characters intimately far more quickly, the plot knows where it is going without the viewer necessarily knowing, and the dialogue is sharp – it has to be, and I love it.

6. British Humour

Dry, witty, sarcastic, dark, intelligent, unforgiving, subtle.  Enough said.  Experience it. It is amazing.

7. Find an actor you like?  Chances are they’ve been in something else…probably several somethings.

I have a rather large number of British shows and miniseries that I have watched or continue to watch.  What started out as just Doctor Who suddenly grew into a love of British Drama, seemingly out of my control.  I don’t even remember how I got to watching all of the shows anymore, but I do know that it started with an actor.  If there is an actor that I like in a show, I look him or her up to see what other work they have done.  If you find that there is a show that you like, looking up specific actors and trying their other work out is a great way as a Canadian to find new Brit picks because we don’t have access to the advertisements here in the same way. Now when I watch a show or a miniseries it is sad to say that I rarely make it through a viewing from start to finish without recognizing someone.

David Tennant.  One of the many actors that I watch everything they star in. Most of his work is amazing – some…well he needs money just like everyone else right?  Thought this picture should go here because I’ll be mentioning him several times.  Doctor Who?  Nerdy?  Scottish?  – Yeah I’m not biased at all. *Thud*

Well I believe I have rambled on long enough.  I hope this was informative, possibly even helpful, and at the very least not boring!  When I stumbled into the world of British television 6 years ago it was really quite by accident.  Perhaps you will stumble in not so accidentally and enjoy it just as much as I do…well maybe not as much – that probably isn’t healthy.


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About Sarah Townsend

Sarah Townsend

Sarah Townsend: Senior Television Editor of We Eat Films and writer of the Brit Picks column. A fourth year English and History student at UWO, future plans include travelling with the Doctor in his TARDIS whenever he finds me. I'm still waiting...

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