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Culture Watch

Entertainment Industry News by Christopher Gildemeister

For the Week of 5/29/06

Part 1 of 2

From the time of American independence, the United States and Great Britain have shared a peculiar relationship in matters of public entertainment and popular culture. This relationship has been characterized by both a guarded mutual admiration (at times mixed with the most virulent skepticism), and a policy of "borrowing" or copying each others' most popular creations. Such "borrowings" rarely remain precisely true to form, each nation "tweaking" or adapting certain facets to reflect their own local culture; but the concepts are borrowed nevertheless.

In its earliest years following the American Revolution, such "borrowing" or even open admiration of British culture was frowned upon, a natural enough result of the passions which had been stirred by the events of the War of Independence. In the first decades following independence, which in American culture were characterized by a fierce pride and desire to escape from British influence, literati in the U.S. lamented the lack of a purely "American" form of literature. Writers such as James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne struggled with the desire to create something different and clearly "American" it its identity and ideals. By the end of the American Civil War, writers such as Stephen Crane and particularly Mark Twain succeeded beyond any doubt in creating voices which reflected uniquely American concerns in purely American voices. But even then, American writers such as Henry James continued to be influenced by British styles and events.

Rarely, America has brought forth a truly new and distinctive art form. On such occasions Britain has frequently "borrowed" the new art, reshaped it, and then sold it back to America in a changed form which has reenergized the art and given it a new direction. Rock and roll, as popularized by Americans such as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly (and which was in itself in many ways a "borrowing" from earlier forms of black music), was transformed into a different and ultimately more ideologically countercultural form by the "British Invasion" after its appropriation by the Beatles and other British rockers. Another indigenous American artform, the superhero comic book, underwent much the same transformation. Originally exemplifying America's moral certainty and gung-ho optimism, since the 1980s and the increasing influence of British writers American comics, even as they have become more literate, have also become darker, grimmer and morally ambiguous.

In contrast to this general trend of trans-oceanic "borrowing," television programming has consistently followed a single pattern. Britain imports and views much American programming, but imitates little of it. This is due in no small part to the fact that America unfortunately tends to export more of its lowbrow comedies and insipid game shows while Britain does not, with the result that while Americans tend to see the best of British programming (particularly on PBS), the British tend to see the worst of America's. This, understandably, does not serve to inspire British programmers to imitation. 

The imitation of British television is far greater among American programmers, who have tended to look to Britain for inspiration. From the 1970s, when Britain's Til Death Do Us Part inspired Norman Lear to create All in the Family, and lower-class workingman Alfred Steptoe on Steptoe and Son was reincarnated in America as Redd Foxx's junkman Fred Sanford on Sanford and Son, British television has served as a source of ideas for American programmers. The trend has continued from the 80s, when the British Man About the House became the American Three's Company, to the present day, which has seen game shows such as Whose Line Is It Anyway and The Weakest Link imported to America. The most recent example is  the tremendous impact of Simon Cowell, formerly a judge on Britain's Pop Idol, who brought the idea across the ocean to become the smash hit American Idol

(Such imitative "reimaginings" do not always come off. When the program is of an especially "British" character or relies on a particular individual's presence, such imitations often fail dismally. American television has tried no less than twice to produce an "American" version of Fawlty Towers, only to fail dismally each time. An attempted American adaptation of the hit British comedy Are You Being Served? also failed. And no American programmer has been so unwise as to attempt an "American" reproduction of the surreal anarchy of Monty Python's Flying Circus.)

On the whole, however, an American seeking to predict the "next big thing" in American television could do worse than observe trends in British programming which makes one recent tendency on British TV, that of "religious reality TV," all the more disturbing. It is a trend which will be more fully explored in the next Culture Watch.

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