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Imperial gogglebox: TV is one of Britain’s most successful exports

China is obsessed with Sherlock, Iran loves Top Gear and Azerbaijan has its own Anne Robinson. But these shows are worth much more than money, writes James Medd.

The same yet different: Indonesia's Got Talent

If you were looking for an instant guide to Britain’s TV successes, the BT Convention Centre in Liverpool in February this year was the place to be. There, in front of an audience of 725 television executives from around the globe attending BBC Worldwide’s 38th annual showcase, Graham Norton introduced our superstars. There was Top Gear’s presenting trio, Sir David Attenborough, Peter Capaldi emerging from the Tardis, the cast of India’s Strictly Come Dancing and a filmed segment from Benedict Cumberbatch for Sherlock.

This modern-day Roman triumph was an effective demonstration of the corporation’s grip on global viewing habits. When we talk now about success in television, it’s about “territories” – the number of countries airing a programme – and the degree of interest in China, TV’s new frontier. For Sherlock, the BBC’s poster-boy, that’s 200 countries, and obsessive: so obsessive that visiting Britons, including the Prime Minister, are asked when there will be a new adventure for the men the Chinese know as “Curly Fu and Peanut”. And the viewing figures look absurd: for the first episode of the latest series, the download site Youku Tudou says it received 49 million hits.

That’s not even the biggest British success of the moment. Absent from the showcase gala because it’s on ITV1, Downton Abbey runs in America on the venerable but tiny PBS channel; quaintly introduced by Laura Linney in an evening gown, it’s the most watched British import ever, its popularity echoed in 250 territories, including Russia, Korea and Dubai (Chinese viewers have been put at anything up to 100 million).

Who Wants to be a Millionaire USA

The surprise isn’t so much that this is happening with British shows, but with British dramas. We already lead the world in factual television (everyone loves David Attenborough) and “formats”, the light-entertainment or factual show frameworks that can be adapted and reproduced to suit local tastes. In fact, fighting off strong competition from Holland and Israel, we are currently responsible for more than half of the formats in the world, from The X Factor (versions in roughly 45 countries) and Strictly Come Dancing (50) to MasterChef (more than 40) and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? (well over 100 at the last count). Turning on a television anywhere in the world today is likely to provoke an eerie sense of dislocation reminiscent of The Fast Show’s “Scorchio!” sketch. Indonesia’s Got Talent has a cheeky pair performing an Ant and Dec tribute and a judging panel made up of the regulation has-been male pop star, middle-aged impresario, beautiful young female singer and stern matriarch figure, all locally sourced. And anyone missing the mean-spirited quiz show The Weakest Link can find comfort in a home-made YouTube compilation in which a nightmarish stream of glowering Anne Robinson clones from around the world, many of them red-headed for accuracy, introduce their version of the show. France and Azerbaijan go for the schoolmistress peering over her glasses, Israel’s is bald, and Turkey pushes it too far with a leather-clad dominatrix. Only Italy, with a grinning male variety-host type, goes against the grain.

French version of The Weakest Link

That’s not the only old show finding new life overseas, either. Strictly Come Dancing and the shiny new Bake Off were the two most successful formats of 2012 (the last year for which there are figures), but just behind them was What Not to Wear, the fashion makeover show last seen here in 2007. Its eight licences included India, which put together an uptown take on our high-street original, taking Mumbai’s It-girls to the shops with the gracious actress Soha Ali Khan and a dignified male stylist, Aki Narula, in place of the over-opinionated prodders Trinny and Susannah. Not all versions are quite so classy, though. Brazil’s Esquadrão da Moda (“fashion squad”) is a mike-gripping variety show saved by its ludicrously attractive contestants and its ex-model host Isabella Fiorentino. Italy’s fashion credentials take a knock on Ma come ti vesti?! (“What are you wearing?!”), where a man as camp as that title suggests competes with a strident blonde foil and cartoon sound effects.

But way out in front is Top Gear, the alpha male of factual entertainment. With 350 million viewers, it has been so big a brand for so long that it even has a managing director, Adam Waddell. “People forget that Top Gear was a pretty big show throughout the Nineties,” he says. “I remember Jeremy [Clarkson] constantly reminding everyone that it was as big as Baywatch in terms of global audiences, though I don’t know if that was based on fact. ” Until 2007 it wasn’t even trying. “The show was devised by Jeremy and his mate, the executive producer Andy Wilman, and I don’t think world domination was part of the master plan.”

Ma Come Ti Vesti?!, Italy's equivalent of What Not to Wear

The strangest thing about the popularity of Top Gear is that, against the world’s preference for home-made TV, most countries prefer the original. As a rule, foreign channels try an original British show and if it finds an audience then they make their own version. But although the actor who dubs Clarkson in Iran is a national celebrity on the back of it, no one wants to see him, it seems. “We’ve made local versions in Russia, Australia, the US, China, Korea,” Waddell says. “It’s worked really well in some, less well in others. Most countries have just taken the UK show with subtitles or dubbing. In Australia, where the British show has a strong following, the local format was always seen as secondary to the main show.”

The Korean version, launched two years ago, has even produced a spin-off men’s fashion line: “Yes, would you believe it? Their market wanted that rather than fan merchandise. The presenters are younger and more glamorous than the UK team – not that that’s very hard. But then we never go out and say, ‘Who’s going to be Jeremy, who’s going to be Richard and who’s going to be James?’ ” But a look at TG Korea shows a trio of male presenters who, though clearly more familiar with hairdressing and 21st-century dress, have just the same bantering rivalry as the originals, with an older one firmly in the Clarkson sarcastic-prefect mould and the other two playing the Kindly Uncle and Little Bear.

China's version of Strictly Come Dancing

All of which suggests that Top Gear’s appeal is not just in the format or universal subject matter but also in the personalities. Waddell certainly thinks so: “It’s the sense of self-deprecation that comes through,” he says – “they celebrate failure as much as success, and that is quite a British virtue, I think.” There’s a similar tone to another recent BBC export success, the comedy drama The Wrong Mans, in which James Corden and Mathew Baynton bumble boyishly through a murder plot like Hugh Grant’s less handsome cousins. Nor is it such a long way from the sitcoms that have been touring the world in dubbed versions for decades now: Are You Being Served?, Keeping Up Appearances, ’Allo ’Allo (50 countries – but not picked up in Germany until 2008, for some reason) and As Time Goes By (in Finland, Vanha suola janottaa, meaning “when old salt makes you thirsty”). We British do like to laugh at ourselves, and all that.

Equally, we have long been doing good but quiet global business with the kind of Sunday-evening whodunnit that takes place in a soothingly nostalgic Agatha Christie dreamworld of late summer and pretty houses, from the actual Poirot and Miss Marple serials to Inspector Morse and Silent Witness. One of these, Midsomer Murders, is a sleeper hit of phenomenal proportions, shown in 225 territories, picking up fans in Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and the American indie-rock icon Kim Deal (also keen on Foyle’s War, as she confessed in an interview with this writer). Midsomer Murders celebrated its 100th episode in February with a joint Danish production that cast our own obsession with Scandi drama in an interesting light. And Finland, according to a recent straw poll of TV buyers from around the world, has a particular fondness for Heartbeat, the Sixties-set Yorkshire bobby Sunday-nighter from ITV.

The Russian Life on Mars

Factor in more recent export successes, such as Call the Midwife and Mr Selfridge (adventures in Victorian shopkeeping), both watched in more than 150 countries, or even tales of the eccentric gentleman traveller Doctor Who, bringing peace and fair play to the universe, and there’s a distinct feeling of trading on past glories, harking back to a time when we ruled the world and dictated its culture. There was outrage in December when China’s Global Times described us as “just an old European country apt for travel and study” – but our TV’s emphasis on heritage does sell us as a historical theme park. Even if not set in the past, many shows feel as if they might be: for all its shiny London-as-New York surface, Sherlock still relies on that classical English framework. Two UK/US co-productions in the works, the Channel 4/PBS Indian Summers and the BBC/HBO A Casual Vacancy, won’t change matters. One is set in the days of the Raj; the other is based on J K Rowling’s novel about a parish council controversy.

So, are we pandering to others, or pantomiming ourselves? Tim Davie, chief executive of BBC Worldwide, says: “I draw a distinction between Britishness and being absolutely laden with British imagery. We’ve clearly evolved. Our channel in America was originally marketed using what we might call the bowler hat and Big Ben, and what we’re finding is that there’s enormous appeal to a modern British sensibility, defined by our sense of humour, our quirkiness and wit.” Downton Abbey’s executive producer Gareth Neame says he faced this head-on. “We took a very traditional genre that everyone in the world recognises as expressly British but completely rebooted it. We did it as an original work, not a literary adaptation, and with a pace and amount of narrative that is akin to a modern show.” He did much the same with another of his international big sellers, the soapy spy drama Spooks. “My idea with that was to take a perennially popular British genre that has usually been seen in cinema and do it on television,” he says. “It’s Graham Greene, it’s James Bond, it’s John le Carré.”

The Chilean version of The Office

There is also the danger that, unless the shows we send out are so quintessentially British that other countries can’t decode them, they will simply remake them themselves. Having done this with format shows, they are now turning to drama, led by Russia’s take on the time-travel police series Life on Mars. Renamed Dark Side of the Moon (because Pink Floyd beats Bowie there), it takes the 2013 cop Mikhail back to 1979 and Soviet Russia, where his version of the maverick boss Gene Hunt is a by-the-book kind of Party guy and Mikhail is the rule-bender. With a hallucinatory style that may well be modelled on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, it looks, if anything, better than the original and is now in its second series.

Luther is to follow, reset in St Petersburg, as is the BBC sitcom My Family. Usually we have rather celebrated America’s inability to reproduce our comedies, citing taste and irony, from the four failed attempts to re-create Fawlty Towers to hapless takes on Dad’s Army and latterly The IT Crowd and The Inbetweeners. Sporadic goes at some of our old-stagers appear elsewhere every now and then: an Indian version of Keeping Up Appearances with a young, nouveau-riche Mumbai wife in place of our genteel suburbanite; takes on Yes, Minister in the 2000s in Turkey, India, Holland (where Sir Humphrey became a woman and her assistant a Moroccan) and then Ukraine. But that may have changed with The Office, seen in its original incarnation in over 90 countries and now in eight remakes. With the exception of the US version, which took on a glorious life of its own, it is remarkable how closely most stick to the David Brent model. His Chilean counterpart does a similar nose-wrinkle, the French version fiddles with his tie in the same manner. Some versions give him a combover and a few dump the mockumentary format, but any question as to why they would make the same show but worse is answered by a look at the viewing figures. Excepting Downton and Top Gear, local versions win every time.

Keeping up Appearances, Indian-style

What might save us is another of our supposed national traits, snobbery. In China, British television is considered a luxury brand in the same way as Burberry or Dunhill, and there is a “chain of disdain” that places it at the top of a status pyramid above American, then Japanese, then Hong Kong, Chinese and Korean. According to the in­ternet company Sohu, “Watching British TV . . . represents intellectual superiority and a breadth of knowledge” – rather as HBO does for us. That has a knock-on effect for their advertising sales, but it is also important for us in terms of cultural or moral influence, or “soft power”.

China’s Global Times may not rate it but it’s an idea the BBC director general, Tony Hall, has championed, as has John McVay, chief executive of Pact, the organisation that represents independent TV production companies. “Everyone goes on about the Olympics,” he says, “but actually that was a bubble. I talk to politicians who want to market London to Brazilians and I say, ‘We’re doing it already, every time they watch Sherlock.’

“You don’t need to spend £2m on a tourism campaign; they’ve been watching our TV for a decade, they’ve been playing our music and they read our books because everyone’s learning English.”

Perhaps, as US television in decades past gradually taught us about American life beyond the Hollywood Hills and the mean streets of New York, ours will introduce the world to an understanding of Britishness that goes deeper than tea and tweed and monuments. It’s still enough of a wild frontier to give room to breakouts such as Misfits, Channel 4’s comedy drama about a multiracial group of attractive young people on community service who gain super powers. Fuddy-duddy old Yes, Minister may have done well but its rather more vicious modern counterpart The Thick of It has now been seen in 150 territories, too. Rev, the BBC’s quietly subversive, decidedly 21st-century vicar sitcom, received a big push at that BBC Worldwide showcase.

As we’ve been reminded in the past few months, it is 20 years since Britpop revived the idea of Swinging London. If this turns out to be television’s version, its influence could be infinitely more far-reaching.