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An image from the BBC hit drama <i>Parade's End</i>
Courtesy photo
An image from the BBC hit drama Parade's End

The second British Invasion

Television | Television from the U.K. has taken American living rooms, and computer screens, by storm

Good news for fans of the wildly popular television series Downton Abbey—according to critics, the next big British period drama is now stateside. HBO’s five-part miniseries Parade’s End, set in WWI-era Britain and Europe, should console fans mourning the end of Downton’s third series. 

Parade’s End, playwright Tom Stoppard's adaption of Ford Madox Ford's novels, features stars Benedict Cumberbatch (BBC hit Sherlock and the upcoming Star Trek movie) and Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) in the lead roles. Similar to Downton Abbey, Parade’s End is set in the early 20th century, and follows aristocrats through World War I’s upending of tradition and social order. It aired on HBO this week in the US to overwhelmingly positive reviews. 

And Parade’s End is only the latest series to join the ranks of hit shows making up what some are calling the Second British Invasion. Replace The Beatles and The Rolling Stones with witty sitcoms, epic dramas, and classic sci-fi and you have a repeat of the British cultural coup of the 1960s. 

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Thanks to technology not available when Paul McCartney ruled the radio, American fans can easily watch all the shows their friends across the pond enjoy. And they are. American’s are tuning their tellys and laptops to British TV shows like never before—looking for quality and realism that American programs lack.  

January’s premier of Downton Abbey third season attracted 7.9 million viewers, outdoing network giants ABC and NBC for the night, according to the New York Times. Website TV By the Numbers reports that this season's premiere of the long-running, sci-fi drama Dr. Who grabbed about 2.5 million viewers in the US. In October 2012, BBC America reported viewers broke the network’s ratings record for all its shows combined.

“All in all, it's a great time at BBC America," Perry Simon, general manager of BBC Worldwide America, told TV By the Numbers

Laura Byrne-Cristiano, a writer with the entertainment news site Hypable, attributes the recent success of British TV to the overall quality of the programs, especially when compared to American shows. 

“There is a lot of depth and honesty to the scripts coming out of the UK,” she said. “They're modern and witty and funny. American writing can get glitzy and Hollywood sanitized. The actors in those shows are so much more real, not stereotypical Hollywood types. People relate to that.” 

British producers are more likely to cast strong actors over attractive ones, unlike their American counterparts, Cristiano said. And with networks stuck in the rut of reality TV, American audiences are anxious to fill the emptiness.

Television shows coming out of the UK appeal to a broad audience. Cristiano noted shows like BBC’s Merlin or Being Human appeal to the teen’s and twenty-somethings, while Downton Abbey features compelling, relatable characters from their twenties to their eighties. 

Cristiano also gives technology credit for the British invasion phenomenon.

“Like never before, shows like Ripper Street and Being Human are really getting exposure,” she said. “Twenty years ago, you might get the show on PBS two years after the UK. Now there is instant gratification through Netflix and other online sites. You can get into a series and catch up really quickly with streaming back episodes.”

The Associated Press reported that Hulu and Netflix both work to keep up a strong relationship with British TV producers and network executives because both streaming sites notice strong responses to British programming. 

Andy Forssell, senior vice president of content acquisition and distribution for Hulu, told the AP that internet tools like social media are helpful to seeking out what he calls "the secret band concept," where fans feel they've found something obscure and want to tell their friends about it. He calls it a "self-organizing audience."

"That leads us to content in a number of different areas, but one of them, interestingly, has been content from the U.K.," Forssell said. “Foreign content, if you can find something that's really passionate to an audience, whether it's small, medium or large, it will find a way to get there in today's world."

Given the buzz newcomer Parade’s End is already generating, the invasion doesn’t seem to be scaling back. And American producers may want to take a lesson from their competition across the pond.

“They should ask themselves why Americans are looking to this,” Cristiano said. “Figure out what they are latching on to and then make something of that quality, where the writing comes first.”

Whitney Davis
Whitney Davis

Whitney Davis is a native of Asheville, N.C. She is taking a semester off from Covenant College, where she plans to graduate next year.

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