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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.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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