As a forced-into-retirement man approaching senior citizenship, I watch a lot of TV. Actually, I’ve always watched a lot of TV. When I was a kid, when we had just three channels, I knew exactly what was on TV at any time of the evening. If we didn’t have the TV listings, family members could just ask me. I am not proud of this.
In my youth (misspent, as you might have guessed) we had precious little exposure to British TV. There was Dr. Who, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and The Avengers, which starred the recently departed Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, , every teenage boy’s fantasy figure (tied with Julie Newmar’s Catwoman on Batman). Otherwise, that was about it. Today, however, pretty much every Brit TV show available can be found on various channels and/or streaming, from PBS to BBC Canada to BritBox to Acorn. (If you’re not familiar with it, Acorn is a streaming service of all-British TV that you can binge for free with an Edmonton Public Library card.)
I have developed a real affection for British TV, even when the accents are so gumbo-thick I am forced to turn on subtitles. I have learned a lot about life across the pond; although, being television, most of what I’ve learned is probably, as the Brits say, rubbish. What I especially enjoy about British TV is that it is not American TV. Sure, Brit TV may be formulaic, but at least it’s a different formula. Here is some of what I have learned …
• British TV is not afraid to make stars out of men and women who would charitably be called homely, all the way to flat out ugly. Scottish actor David Tenant (above), who appears in every third British TV series, is nobody’s idea of handsome. And perhaps the ugliest man in the history of television anywhere is Martin Clunes (right), who plays the perpetually cranky lead character in Doc Martin. A long-running comedy-drama, Clunes is lusted after by half the female population (that would be about five) of his very small English town. Nobody ever acknowledges that this jug-eared, liver-lipped, fish-faced guy is Halloween-mask ugly. Neither Clunes nor Tenant would get so much as a second glance for a role in American TV, where even the typical fireman looks like Rob Lowe. And this is not a bad thing; I appreciate that Brit TV acknowledges that most people are not especially attractive, whereas in American TV, everybody is at least worth a second look.
• Speaking of actors, for a nation that produces great actors the way we produce great hockey players, every British TV features roughly the same dozen or so actors. Whenever I watch a new British TV, I count the minutes until the first appearance of an actor who appeared in the previous British TV show I watched.
• British TV is not afraid to make low-key, quirky and intentionally short-lived comedies. One of the oddest, and most satisfying, was a strange little show called The Detectorists, which followed the lives of sad sacks who scour fields, looking for treasure, with metal detectors. It’s sweet and sad and funny and as British as the Queen.
• You know that cliche about the British having bad teeth? It’s true! Whereas everyone on American TV has teeth that glow with radioactive intensity, the Brits are still prone to grey-to-yellowish, widely spaced snaggleteeth. However, this is slowly changing, as British actors are realizing that there is money to be made on American TV, and all they have to do is whiten their tea-stained choppers.
• Speaking of tea, you know that cliche that the British love tea? It’s true. Everybody drinks tea, all the time. If the cops break into a house and gun down the bad guy, the villain’s last words will be ‘Fancy a cuppa?’
• Second only to tea is beer. Every British TV show in history features at least one scene where the principals gather in a quaint pub for a pint. And when they get roaring drunk, everybody collectively sings the lyrics to some 1980s British pop tune.
• As I understand it, everyone in Britain lives in either London or Manchester, or failing that, an impossibly quaint, picture postcard, windswept seaside village where the sun never shines. The drawback to living in the quaint village is that someone is going to be murdered every week. My estimate is that in every British village, the murder rate is about one for every 125 people. Why people live there, I don’t know.
• Outside of the big cities, the roads are just wide enough for one car, and run for miles down desolate, windswept nowhere.
• I’ve also learned that all British police stations are run by women. I suspect that this is just the British TV way of showing how progressive Britain is, but women – invariably portrayed as tough, brittle and no nonsense, and preferably black (or Black) – seem to be in the majority of leadership roles in British police. Also, the top cop in every British police precinct is always referred to as ‘boss’. Sadly, all British male cops are brooding over some terrible thing that happened to them years ago that they just can’t let go. Usually, it’s the murder of a spouse, or loss of a child. It’s tough being a bobby.
• The British swear, a lot. Even a lovable granny will spew an f-word at the least provocation, and the British have a peculiar fascination with the c-word, which is pretty much the last frontier of obscenity on American TV. The British also say ‘oi’ a lot, which is an all purpose ways of saying just about anything.
• And finally, the Brits do produce a shocking amount of really good television. Put the kettle on and give it a look.