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What is the secret of AMC's success?

There may be more than one answer to the question "what do advertising executives have in common with drug dealers and the undead", but only one has three letters: AMC.

When the execs in question are those of award- munching series Mad Men, the drug dealers are led by Breaking Bad’s consecutive Emmy winning actor Bryan Cranston, and the undead are shuffling after former This Life star Andrew Lincoln in The Walking Dead, things start to make a little more sense. All of these shows have been - and continue to be - major successes in the UK whether on screen or through DVD sales, and they’re all from the stable of US cable channel AMC.

In a country where we’re used to consuming the latest products of HBO (think Sex and The City, The Sopranos, The Wire and, more recently, Boardwalk Empire or Game of Thrones) and Showtime (Dexter, Weeds, Homeland), while seeing those imports divided between our native channels, it’s easy to ignore where our favourite shows come from. However, the arrival of AMC’s latest original series, Hell On Wheels, illustrates just how far the channel has come in a few short years.

The network started life in 1984 as the American Movie Classics channel, designed to churn out films from the golden age of Hollywood all day long. It’s a bit ironic, then, that epic western series Hell On Wheels is the latest in a long line of original programming from a network that built its success on identikit Wild West movies. Perhaps even more so that it’ll be the first series on Turner Classic Movies who churn out . . . well, you guessed it.

AMC (who have conspicuously dropped the use of their full name) did dip their toe into original programming with Remember WENN in 1996, a series set at a fictional 1940s radio station, but it wasn’t until 2007 that they struck gold with a slow-moving period drama (allegedly rejected by both HBO and Showtime) that we now all know and love as Mad Men.

Charlie Collier, president and general manager of AMC, has overseen the network’s transformation, and has said that it’s precisely this desire to do things differently that has made AMC a success.

Five years ago, we had no scripted originals on our air. In the summer of 2007, we launched Mad Men and we followed that up with Breaking Bad. At the time, you had people saying, "Is AMC in this for the long haul?" We maintained, not only are we, but we are trying to do the kind of diverse projects that were really seen only on premium television. Our stated goal then, and it's still on my board now, is to produce premium television for basic cable.

The "premium" versus "basic" distinction is essentially the difference between subscriber-funded HBO and advertising-supported AMC, but, again, Collier would tell you that ignoring the conventional model is what has created some of the best television of recent times.

Here's a network that has questioned everything that networks have done conventionally and succeeded. Would anyone tell you to take a moody period piece and turn it into a serialised drama on cable? And then would they tell you to take a modern-day story about a high school chemistry teacher who deals crystal meth and make that you're follow up ad-supported lead? And the answer is no, but we did it.

Indeed they did, and after following up Mad Men with Breaking Bad, they had further success with The Walking Dead in 2010, before Hell On Wheels launched in the US in November as AMC’s second highest original series premiere with the all- important second series already in production.

That’s not to say it’s all been perfect, and, sandwiched between Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, came a re- make of The Prisoner and then Rubicon, both of which died out over here on ITV1 and BBC4 respectively.

Furthermore, AMC’s commitment to doing things differently saw them bravely take on remake duties with international critics' favourite, Forbrydelsen  failing even to beat a repeat of Law & Order on Channel 5.

Still, a quick look at current TV schedules shows AMC’s impact, with Mad Men, The Killing and The Walking Dead all currently airing here and Breaking Bad season 3 arriving shortly on DVD (14 May). Hell on Wheels could well be another hit, with an impressively cinematic scope, scenery- chewing characters and the requisite balance of sharp dialogue, gore and intrigue. It’s even got an unknown actor as the steely- eyed lead with a mysterious past - now where have we seen that before? We’re looking at you, Jon Hamm.

As for why AMC’s shows have been so warmly received over here, it might be a little too easy to look to the network’s mantra of "story matters here", but it’s Hamm himself who articulates the secret: “There are a million different channels, and everyone is doing original programming now. But part of rising above the noise is having something different to say or a different approach.”

The cast and crew of AMC's Mad Men at the 2011 Emmy Awards (Photo: Getty Images)
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.