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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

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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