Sorry box-set lovers, but British television is the best in the world

The head of TV at the BBC has come out fighting on behalf on British drama, and I'm with him

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The Independent Online

So it looks like we’re all a bunch of drama Queens. Or Kings. Well, Danny Cohen, head of BBC television, thinks so. According to him, British drama is the best in the world – but it’s not the impression that you get from the media.

“A trope has developed, a cultural meme that asserts that American drama is far superior to drama produced in the UK and at the BBC,” he said. “It's an argument driven by box-set consumers who have a louder voice in Britain's cultural dialogue than the average family who sit down at night in Britain's towns and villages to decide which drama they want to watch.”

You can almost hear the wailing and gnashing of Netflix subscribers, HBO addicts, and dodgy online streamers. “Nothing’s better than The Wire! Although, have you been watching Breaking Bad? We think it’s the best thing we’ve seen since The Wire. Have you seen The Wire?”

Shut up. Literally everyone in the world who wants to see The Wire has seen it. No-one’s still umm-ing and aah-ing. We’ve all made our choice. And now we just one to flub down in front of BBC One and watch some well-spoken (well, mostly) actors deliver complex storylines with great lighting and scathing social commentary. Because you know what? British TV is better.

In the last year alone we’ve had the fandom-busting Sherlock, Doctor Who’s 50th burning a trail across the globe, harrowing dramas like Happy Valley, twisty thrillers like Line of Duty, and poignant allegories like In the Flesh.

British TV is understated, novelistic rather than episodic and makes decisions for creative rather than financial reasons.

Yes, the US have got Game of Thrones, but they basically nicked that off us anyway (our actors, our historical basis, even Victor Meldrew’s voice for Tyrion). And yes it gets a million viewers, but a much lower-budget show like Doctor Who can easily get ten times that many (and to be fair once you take away all the actors watching Game of Thrones because they’re in it, that number would halve).

In fact, despite a media bias in their favour, the viewing figures of overseas shows as a whole are considerably lower than home-grown efforts. And though some might denounce the millions watching British shows as philistines or uncultured, they’re not - The Killing peaked at 599,000 viewers here, while Broadchurch drew in 10 million. Broadchurch isn’t a trashy show, playing to the lowest common denominator, and it’s not worse than The Killing, or any other bleak European shows.

The Bridge is great and everything, but it only seems sophisticated because Scandinavia is grey, which makes it seem like noir, and everyone has nice furniture. If you actually look at the plotline it’s batshit crazy, weirder than an episode of Bonekickers (remember Bonekickers?) and the characterisation is actually a little backward.

The way that the show plays (supposedly) autistic cop Saga’s condition mainly for laughs is a little unsettling, and it’s hard to believe that anyone would get away with it over here. It’s not better – it’s just fresh. And freshness fades, whereas solid quality does not.

When it comes down to it, we get a warped view of overseas shows in the UK. Unless something is pretty successful in the first place, we’re unlikely to get wind of it, and unless it comes highly recommended we’re not going to bother checking it out.

So by the time Breaking Bad was on everyone’s lips, it had been through a dual screening process. Helped along by all the hype from America and online, this not only makes us all want to see what the fuss is about, but also makes it much harder for the show not to be good. When was the last time we heard endless rave reviews about a BBC show before we had got round to seeing it?

Of course, great TV can and should come from anywhere. It adds depth and variety to our viewing, and inspires new creative trends that enrich the medium as a whole.

But if suddenly all overseas TV were to disappear without a trace, it’d be less of a tragedy than somebody taking a blowtorch to the BBC archive. We shouldn’t just be proud, like Danny Cohen says – we should be evangelical.