A British Television Invasion Or Implosion?

It’s time to stop typecasting and cast the net wider.

Away from all the controversy surrounding the departure of the ‘Great British Bake Off’ from the BBC, in a parallel universe young online television viewers in the UK, have been caught up in the unfolding storylines of breakout series in the US ‘Atlanta’ and ‘Power‘. British autumn television schedules may be leaving much to be desired for younger viewers, and so instead they’re patiently waiting for the return of US TV hit shows like ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Empire’.

While there’s something altogether American about both ‘Power’ and ‘Empire’ with their majority American cast and crew, the same can’t entirely be said for a host of other recent hit series shows: ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Preacher’, ‘Walking Dead’, ‘Stranger Things’ and ‘The Night Of‘ all feature British actors in the lead roles albeit playing Americans. This observation may not be particularly radical, we’ve got pretty accustomed to the exodus of many British actors to the ‘promised land’ and there’s even a slew of lists out there talking about the numbers of Brits being cast in American shows.

Recently, Sky Atlantic in the UK have teamed up with Showtime in the US to begin production on a new mini-series ‘Guerrilla‘ set to air in 2017. A political drama starring Idris Elba, ‘Guerilla’ tells the story of a 1970s London couple who liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell. Elba is also serving as an executive producer on the British drama alongside writer/director John Ridley, an American, acclaimed for the Oscar wining ‘12 Years A Slave.’ Zai Bennett, director of Sky Atlantic says about the series “Once we’d put the packet together, US cable channel Showtime were immediately interested in airing it. They said, we want this and we want to keep it British – and I think that’s because it was an unmined period of history with a great cast and an amazing script that felt particularly interesting because of its setting.”

Jane Tranter, the former BBC executive who took the idea of a ‘Criminal Justice’ remake and remade it into ‘The Night Of’ for HBO starring British actor Riz Ahmed, highlighted why there’s such an appeal for British television in the US, “When I moved to the US, the main thing I wanted to take from British television was the kind of storytelling we do – intelligent, thought-provoking and with something to say.”

Intelligent and compelling may not be far off the mark, but diverse is still a word often put alongside the questionable track record of British television commissioners in recent times. Riz’s own move into the spotlight following the success of ‘The Night Of’ has led to a new level of interest in his ‘overnight’ rise to prominence. In an essay featured in Nikesh Shukla’s book the ‘The Good Immigrant’ out today, Riz writes about traversing the terrain, “It turned out that there was no clear pathway for an actor of colour in the UK to go to stage three – to play “just a bloke”. Producers all said they wanted to work with me, but they had nothing I could feasibly act in. The stories that needed to be told in the multicultural mid-2000s were about the all-white mid-1700s, it seemed. I heard rumours that the Promised Land was not in Britain at all, but in Hollywood.”

Naturally, not everyone is seeing the latest ‘the British Invasion’ as a good thing. Many have asked, why should all these theatre trained British and Irish actors get roles ahead of American actors? More importantly for us, what does this apparent exodus say about the state of British Drama? If you believe in meritocracy, the answer is simple: these British and Irish actors were the best ones that auditioned for the parts. So where does that leave us with the state of British drama? Well, you can take your pick from the BBC’s ‘Poldark’, ‘War and Peace’ or ITV’s ‘Victoria’.

If you sense a pattern, it’s because these dowdy variations on period drama are all that seem to be commissioned these days. To be fair, the BBC does at least occasionally swivel between Period drama and Police drama (see ‘Undercover’, ‘The Fall’ and ‘Happy Valley’). Yet Elsewhere, it’s ‘Coastal Walks With My Dog’, or Channel 5’s “hard hitting” documentary Gangland if you’re feeling edgy in that type of way. Channel 4’s ‘Humans’ was made in conjunction with an American production company in a bid to enter the Netflix market while others like ‘Utopia’ and ‘Top Boy’ were swiftly cancelled altogether.

Years of austerity have meant cutbacks across the board, leaving only those who are truly tenacious to get on with it. But, as the success of Kayode ‘Roll Safe’ Ewumi has shown, the appetite for original comedy is still strong. As ever, it’s often the level of opportunity that is lacking, but in the case of his ‘Hood Documentary’, the BBC saw a ready made deal and had to act fast. With the imminent move of the BBC Three channel to an online platform the appeal to commission new episodes of ‘Hood Documentary’ represented the missing link to original comedy complete with its own responsive, built in audience. Ewumi had already appeared as his character R.S in one of the most viewed ‘Fire in The Booths’ to date; and conveniently also happened to fit the bill for the BBC Three target demographic: it was a no brainer.

Since airing the new episodes of ‘Hood Documentary’ on BBC Three – albeit to mixed reviews – Ewumi continues to carve out his role as an actor, he recently earned a part in the BBC remake of ‘Are You Being Served?‘. Both ‘Porridge and ‘Are You Being Served’ have been staple BBC oldies, remade for new audiences, but it’s really not clear exactly who for? These sitcoms may represent two British comedy giants, but why remake them with a younger cast, when those who loved and remember the originals will be as disinterested as the young people they’re presumably aimed at. Predictably, the ‘Are you Being Served’ remake was branded an ‘awful rehash’. Funk and Soul DJ and star of ‘Red Dwarf’, Craig Charles recently told Radio Times that the show would struggle to be commissioned today – reiterating what is already clear – there’s a lack of appetite for adventure in today’s commissioners.

In 2005, we got the first ‘Dubplate Drama from Channel 4, created by Luke Hyams and starring Shystie, Tim Westwood, Noel Clarke and Adam Deacon among others, it was a heady mix of music, drama and a viewer vote with the end of each episode giving audiences the chance to decide what came next. Between 2005 and 2011 we had a seemingly unstoppable stream of underground British stories ‘Dubplate Drama’ paved the way for ‘Kidulthood, ‘Adulthood, ‘Attack The Block, ‘Sket and ‘Bullet Boy while on TV the likes of ‘Skins and ‘Misfits kept many of us going during the week. Fast forward 11 years and the landscape looks quite bleak, on any given day you can find ‘Ex On The beach’ or ‘Love Island’ parading as entertainment alongside ‘Geordie Shore’ and ‘TOWIE’.

But there is talk of a resurgence, last week’s ‘Rated awards were a celebration of all the underground talent on offer at present in the music scene. It was also a reminder of what can be achieved when the scene stands together. In only its second year the Rated awards and GRM Daily have shown their level of ambition, it won’t be long until they, alongside SBTV, may start to turn their attention to other areas of entertainment.

If nothing else, the renaissance of the Grime scene has shown that discontent is a constant presence beneath the mainstream surface. We may be chronically underrepresented in conventional avenues on TV but we’re continually doing the numbers at the Box Office. Bafta award winning, actor, writer and director, Noel Clarke’s final instalment of the British ‘Hood’ trilogy, film BrOTHERHOOD opened in cinemas to £1.979m on 220 cinemas screens, marking it as the biggest opening of a British Independent trilogy and securing its place at the no. 2 spot in the UK Box Office.

Writers, actors, artists and musicians are capable of creating viable commercial products regardless of whether there is mainstream support from the traditional ‘majors’. There are a myriad of stories, films and  documentaries that are just waiting to be told and, plot twist: they’re not about boys in the hood. Screened Nights has long been working to redress the imbalance, with providing yet another underground outlet that aims to nurture and inspire new creators.

When it comes to TV however, we’re still wondering what is actually going on. In the meantime, September 19th will see the launch of Viceland on Sky TV in the UK. The new channel created by VICE already has a proven track record of programming in the US documenting counterculture. The promise here is to “[show] domestically-produced programmes too, featuring some familiar faces from Britain and Ireland to make you feel at home”. While BBC Three’s premature departure from our television screens to online may yet become Vice’s gain, here’s to hoping maybe some truly forward thinking commissioners have a different way of thinking.

Whether the decision to spend millions broadcasting on TV is the right one or not for Vice – the key still remains in the actual content. Analysis continually shows young people are abandoning conventional television in the U.S for online video streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and HBO GO. But British made TV drama’s whether for the television screens or online video streaming platforms still aren’t telling many stories that a vast audience are ready to view.

Why? Riz Ahmed hits the nail on the head in his essay, “The reason for this is simple. America uses its stories to export a myth of itself, just like the UK. The reality of Britain is vibrant multiculturalism, but the myth we export is an all-white world of lords and ladies. Conversely, American society is pretty segregated, but the myth it exports is of a racial melting-pot, everyone solving crimes and fighting aliens side by side.”

So are we pushing myths or telling stories? Thankfully ratings aren’t a thing of myth, the US film and television industry may have been slow to acknowledge the commercial gains it could reap when catering to the changing appetites of its audiences, but they’re quickly playing catch up. While a string of record breaking ratings or recent Box Office successes may have commissioners clamouring to secure the next cycle of ‘hood’ drama’s in the UK for the foreseeable future, it’s time to stop typecasting and cast the net wider.