I’m one of those people who believes that if it is British, it must be better. By and large, British people are smarter than the general population. Just listen to how they speak; so pretty. There’s an old joke about Jesus being British, because after all, the Bible is written in English. British dominance continues in TV. If television were an Olympic event, the Brits would dominate like the Canadians do in trampoline or the Hungarians in water polo. They are held to a different standard.
In some cases the British have produced warhorses of broadcast TV with endless amounts of episodes such as Coronation Street, East Enders and Dr. Who. But the shows with the best reception in North America are the shows with a limited run. We never had to face Gareth leaving to be a Bond villain in Season 6 of The Office or Polly’s precocious nephew coming to rouse rabble at Fawlty Towers in season 7.
My first introduction to British fare came from PBS, which offered it on a pretty much nightly basis. Are You Being Served? was show about a stuffy department store in which hijinks would ensue. (It had a hint of 90’s American TV ensemble stuff – think Newsradio or Just Shoot Me.) But the show fell to perils of the long run. What was a scathing satire of British class system unraveled into a lumbering stereotyped farce. Then they got desperate. A monkey got trapped in the lift, a Japanese firm plotted a hostile takeover bid, gay underpants salesman Mr. Humphries got lost at 10 Downing street but not before meeting Maggie Thatcher, and a tart of a secretary got a caught up in blow heater for a titillating bit of comic business. And this was just one episode.
Today’s best of Britain does not come in sitcom form (or a term I’m coining “britcom.”) The good stuff comes from QI (Quite Interesting), a kind of panel quiz show. Hosted by the charming and brilliant Stephen Fry, it may be the greatest thing the English language has done since Hamlet (and I say this with no sense of hyperbole.) Panelists include British comedians, writers, etc. The only American has been Rich Hall. There was once a ventriloquist for an…experiment. Anyway – Stephen asks a group of panelists very difficult questions with a wide variety of topics. Sure, they goal is to answer them correctly, but if you can’t – provide an answer that is interesting. Points are given for being correct and/or interesting. Points are taken off for being obvious. This is really how society should operate. Yes, Tom Brady can throw a ball hard and straight, but the Super Bowl should be given to the team that is the most interesting. Barack Obama may have received the most votes but the President should be the most interesting American (Hernry Rollins? David Lynch? Alison Brie?)
Episodes of QI are floating around the internet and after watching a bunch, you learn how gentle it is. It does not use humour as an angry weapon. There are very few barbs or put downs. It’s like the opposite of a roast. Each episode is filled with such a wide range of laughs based on such eclectic topics as old Columbo episodes, the kinds of lettuce on the Titanic (not iceberg by the by), and darts. Jeopardy gets to be a little “oh look at the all the stuff we know” but QI is a rare celebration of knowledge.
The other “best of Britain” show is TV Burp, which is an ostensibly British version of The Soup. It’s a clip show skewering programming of lesser quality, using humour and putdowns as a weapon. TV Burp is written and hosted by Harry Hill, a humpty-dumpty look-a-like who speaks in a quick carnival-barker like manner. Unlike the Soup, this show is a big deal. It’s prime time network television. Proof: it’s the lead in for the original X-Factor. (It even has it’s own X Factor spoof, the K Factor, where instead of singing, the competition involves knitting.)
TV Burp also serves as a gateway as to what’s on British TV (and what will no doubt be repackaged soon for North American consumption.) The Brits don’t have celebrities competing for the approval of Donald Trump but rather a British billionaire who critiques preteens in Kids Apprentice; they have Jeordie Shore where oversexed yet undereducated British twentysomethings party down in seaside resort communities. True, all this is low hanging fruit, but it needs to be done.
That’s my favorite of what’s across the pond (not to mention excellent long form documentaries, shows about other shows and programmes where Gordon Ramsay isn’t belligerent.)
You’ve earned it; please enjoy the secretary and blow heater bit. It’s safe for work, unless you’re a surgeon. In which case stop reading blogs and resect that bowel.
Raphael Saray in an uncle to a cute three year old named Ilyana. She knows three quarters of the happy birthday song and when she grows up she wants to be a princess and/or backup goalie for the Winnipeg Jets.