America's got our talent!
This year, the biggest hits on US television have one thing in common: the creative talent that brought them to the screen is British. Guy Adams reports from Los Angeles
Monday 30 June 2008
The easiest way to find out what really makes America tick is to turn on the television. Then you should pour an ice cold Diet Coke – or Budweiser, if you're feeling particularly daring – and settle down to watch the nation's five highest-rated TV programmes. According to last season's network TV chart, which is as good a guide as any, you'll start with an episode of American Idol, which boasts nearly 30 million viewers. Then you'll sit through the rival talent show, Dancing With The Stars (20 million) before finishing-up with a trio of dramas: Desperate Housewives, House, and CSI. (16-18 million respectively).
This line-up may not provide the discerning viewer with much intellectual stimulation (what country's prime-time TV does?). But it does at least offer a hotline straight into the hearts, minds and wallets of the most powerful nation on earth. And right now, the extraordinary fact is that those hearts, minds and wallets are almost entirely British.
Consider the evidence. American Idol is a UK format, produced by Simon Fuller's 19 Entertainment, which stars his fellow Brit, Simon Cowell. Dancing With The Stars, a local version of the Strictly Come Dancing franchise down to its Cockney judge Len Goodman, is actually made for ABC by a BBC Worldwide production team. The success of Desperate Housewives, meanwhile, can be traced to British director Charles McDougall, who was at the helm of the pilot episode and 2004's first series. House stars Hugh Laurie. And CSI, which is officially the biggest TV franchise ever, was largely created by director and executive producer Danny Cannon, who grew up in Luton. In other words, the UK can claim bragging rights for the five biggest US shows of the 2007-8 season.
It doesn't stop there, either. Last week, Hollywood saluted the $40m (£20m) opening of Get Smart starring Steve Carell, who achieved fame through the American version of The Office. Billie Piper's Secret Diary of a Call Girl launched on Showtime, and ABC prepared to premiere a US remake of Life on Mars. In the current TV season, the three highest-rated shows so far are also Brits. Top of the hit parade is So You Think You Can Dance? (another 19 Entertainment talent contest, starring our own Nigel Lythgoe), followed by Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen, and the aforementioned House. And later this year, stand by for the comic landmark of Little Britain USA. Somehow, then, in an example of cultural imperialism virtually-unseen since Victorian times, the UK television industry has managed to conquer America. Unseen by many, a vibrant "Brit pack" of talent has crept across the Atlantic and raised the Union Jack triumphantly over Hollywood.
On the ground, the invasion has been joined by a small army of cameramen, production staff, and behind-the-scenes galley slaves. The British Consul in Los Angeles, which organised an official "Brit Week" here in May, estimates that half a million UK citizens now live in Southern California, of which roughly half work in entertainment, or related industries. "Every third person in the TV industry here is now British," reports Paul Telegdy, who runs BBC Worldwide's LA operation. "Half the technicians and crew in studios are wearing Arsenal or Chelsea shirts. And US crews have actually started using the English word 'autocue' rather than 'teleprompter'."
Telegdy, whose LA office is currently employing 40 people – up from a dozen when he moved there four years ago – is currently working on the project that will perhaps symbolise the completion of Britain's take-over of Uncle Sam's TV screens: a US version of Top Gear, made by the BBC, with all-American versions of Jeremy Clarkson in the presenters' roles. It launches in the autumn. So how did so many Brits manage (as LA's home-grown TV talent might very well moan) to end up over-paid, over-exposed, and over here? A flick through the broadcasting industry's history books suggests the transatlantic invasion can be traced to two key landmark dates. The first was 11 June 2002, when Fox launched its first UK import, American Idol. It was an instant smash hit. Made by 19 Entertainment, the show debuted with 20 million viewers, and by 2005 was the best watched show in the country, peaking with an astonishing audience of 35 million.
Crucially, the programme's success served to create a new reality TV genre: the talent show. And as luck would have it, this was a type of programme that only British producers and directors really knew how to pull off. "These shows brought a lot of things to the table that America didn't actually have," says Conrad Green, the British executive producer of Dancing With the Stars. "In the US, shiny-floor, Saturday night entertainment went out with Lawrence Welk in the 1980s; fortunately, we still had it through shows like Blind Date. British producers were also multi-skilled. We could do the cutting, tell a documentary narrative, and put on a big show. You need all those skills to carry something like Idol off. But in the US, producers tended to be more specialised, so there were only a handful of local guys with the right skill-set."
Green has been in Los Angeles for roughly five years in which time he has noticed a "steady influx" of the best UK producers from his field. "Brits come because, in its rawest sense, it pays well and LA is a great place to live," he says. "But a bigger factor is that in the UK producers are considered dispensable. In the US, there is a culture of the 'star producer', and you get far greater respect from the networks." The second push forward for British TV talent began on 26 January 2004, when Ricky Gervais – who was then all-but unknown in the US – scooped not one, but two Golden Globes for The Office, which was running on the cable service, BBC America. "I'm from a little place called England," went his acceptance speech. "We used to run the world before you." A couple of years later, America decided to make its own version of The Office.
But crucially, they also stuck closely to the spirit of the British show, using a part-British team of writers and production staff to create it. The show's subsequent success, coupled with the surprise appeal of Gervais' other series Extras (which ran un-adapted) has since convinced American channels that there was serious money to be made from adapting UK hits. "They've actually been trying to put British comedy on TV here for years, but until The Office, it never worked," says British PR guru Nikki Parker, the Executive Vice President of talent agency Rogers and Cowan. "Coupling lost massive amounts of money. So did Ab-Fab. With The Office, they finally realised that if you totally change the show to make it American, then you will lose the integrity of the original."
Many UK actors who may have thought their best years were behind them also suddenly found a new lease of life in America. The Lovejoy star Ian McShane won film-star status (and a Golden Globe) playing Al Swearengen in Deadwood. Hugh Laurie, of Bertie Wooster fame, has lately become the most bankable star on American telly. Today, with the help – it must be said – of significant investment from the UK Film Council, the market value of British actors has never been higher. "With talent, there's a definite perception that all UK actors are properly trained, and have done years of theatre," adds Parker. "People assume they've been to drama school, because nine times out of 10 that's what has happened. In the US, lots of the TV actors are just people from the mid-west who want to be a star." Even American actors agree. When I bumped into Hugh Laurie's co-star Greg Grunberg at the launch of the Ford Flex last week, he expressed high regard for the British work ethic.
"Ricky Gervais is a friend of mine, and the one thing I've noticed from working with both him and Hugh is their amazing work rate," he said. "They just try harder than everyone else. When we are filming Heroes, Hugh has always prepared properly, like a theatre actor, and done background research. He actually speaks in an American accent on set all day, and that sort of dedication extends to all areas. From the technicians to cameramen, Brits seem to do their homework more."
Of course, the million (or billion) dollar question will be whether British dominance of Hollywood's TV industry can now be extended into the world of film. Although, from the days of Charlie Chaplin, the best UK talent has ended up passing through Hollywood at some stage in their careers, few have set up shop there for good. Today, only a handful of UK firms (Working Title being the most prominent) hold much sway there.
"People tend not to stay permanently," says British import Colin Vaines, who is co-President of Production at Graham King's GK Films in LA. "Lots of British talent floats in and out of town. For example at the Chateau Marmot this week I saw Edgar Wright, who is setting up a film. But I would be astounded if he moved to LA full time. The same goes for Jo Wright, who is working here now on The Soloist." To really conquer America, then, Britain will have to persuade movie stars and film-makers to follow their colleagues in television and put down roots in Hollywood – and ambition that, if history is anything to go by, bears only a small chance of ever being realised. For now, though Britannia can find some comfort in managing to at least rule America's airwaves.
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