As Benedict Cumberbatch’s detective scoops seven Emmys, what is the secret of successful UK drama?
Last week, BBC1’s Sherlock took home no fewer than seven Emmys – a higher total than Game of Thrones or even Breaking Bad, which was hailed as the big winner on the night. So while British TV critics regularly – and often justifiably – lament that the best drama is made in America, UK series are now enjoying unprecedented success in the US.
Downton Abbey led the way, scooping 11 Emmys for its first three series on US public service broadcaster PBS, which also co-produces Sherlock and Call the Midwife.
Cable channel BBC America provides a more niche showcase for the best of British drama, airing shows including Doctor Who, Broadchurch and Luther. Other US cable channels (such as Sundance, which shares The Honourable Woman with BBC2) are looking more and more to UK drama for co-productions.
So do the Americans – after years of adulation the other way – now have something to learn from us? “Everybody’s saying it’s now the golden age of drama on television – but I also think it’s the global age of drama on television,” says Beth Hoppe, chief programming executive at PBS. “Borders don’t matter when it’s fantastic acting, writing and storytelling – that’s what’s resonating with Emmy voters. I was thrilled that the accents [in Sherlock] didn’t get in the way.”
Indeed for Hoppe, Britain’s multi-skilled actors – such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, Sherlock’s two Emmy-winners in the acting categories – are one of our key selling points. “It’s common for British actors like Derek Jacobi, who’s in [ITV sitcom and PBS import] Vicious, to be on stage, or to be on screen, or to be on the small screen,” she says. “So there’s that great tradition of acting, rather than being a movie star.” Hoppe points to Matthew McConaughey, Emmy-nominated last week for HBO’s True Detective, who is among a growing number of US film actors now making the switch to TV.
Britain’s off-screen talent is increasingly recognised across the Atlantic too, with Steven Moffat the other big Emmy winner as co-creator of Sherlock. “There’s an individuality to the way that we do it,” says Ben Stephenson, the BBC’s head of drama commissioning. “If you look at all the shows really that have been successful in the US – whether it’s Julian Fellowes with Downton Abbey, or Heidi Thomas with Call the Midwife, or Steven and Mark Gatiss for Sherlock – they are all driven, in the main, by one writer.”
Though the US terrestrial networks still employ big writers’ rooms, to churn out annual runs of 22 episodes, award-winning cable shows now often rely on the creative vision of a single writer (such as Vince Gilligan for Breaking Bad, and Matt Weiner for Mad Men). Industrial-scale US network shows also don’t necessarily punch through in the way that a short-run British drama can. While Sherlock cleaned up, there was no Emmy love this year for CBS’s Elementary, which tells similar modern-day Holmes mysteries, and has already racked up 48 episodes. “Elementary is a good show, but it’s week-in-week-out, story-of-the-week – it’s there to do a job and it does it really, really well,” says Stephenson. “Sherlock is there to be a special event, it’s there to be like a big movie that comes out every so often, and is explosive when it does – they’re very different beasts.”
Online services, such as Netflix and Amazon, are also these days helping UK series – such as Ripper Street and The Fall – to find their niche across the Atlantic. “I think there’s something about the specificity of stories, and of place, that audiences across the world are really responding to,” says Stephenson. “So just as we in the UK are responding really well to Scandinavian stories, which we wouldn’t have done 10 years ago, even very parochial British stories are engaging American audiences. Happy Valley has just been sold to Netflix for a lot of money.”
The biggest British drama in the US is Downton Abbey, another PBS co-production. In the 2013-14 season, Downton was – with 13 million viewers plus – the 18th highest rated show in the US. For the past three years, it has been the first UK series ever to be shortlisted not in the Emmys’ miniseries category, but up against America’s big guns – including Breaking Bad – for outstanding drama series.
Gareth Neame, Downton’s executive producer, says that TV know-how now travels both ways across the Atlantic. “I think what they have learnt from us is that the old model – that you have to pilot everything, then you order 13 episodes, and another nine if it works, and everything being very prescribed – is not the answer,” says Neame. “But equally we have a lot to learn – the ambition in the writing, the mechanisation of television so that shows can be made quickly and efficiently, the way they can be monetised.”
There’s certainly plenty of money flowing: when PBS co-produces a series with the BBC or ITV, it typically provides between 10% and 40% of the budget (which can be well over £1m an hour). And the UK’s new high-end TV drama tax credit has attracted a lot of US producers to actually shoot here: BFI figures show that, in its first year of operation, the tax credit attracted £225m of inward investment.
PBS’s Hoppe believes that the transatlantic momentum will continue – she’s already looking forward to next year’s Emmys. “I’ve been very frustrated that Call the Midwife hasn’t received Emmy nominations – I think it’s because it appeals so female. I’m not sure if the guys who are Emmy voters are watching.” Then she chuckles: “I’m going to personally put a DVD under the door of every man in Hollywood, and try to get some votes for that baby.” Watch out, HBO: as if Sherlock Holmes and the Earl of Grantham weren’t enough, now the midwives of Poplar are coming to get you.
Neil Midgley – Monday 1 September 2014 – The Guardian