One hundred years ago this week, the company that would become known as the British Broadcasting Corporation was founded in London. Transmitting news and entertainment across radio and television, the BBC would go on to have a far-reaching impact on not only the United Kingdom, but also audiences worldwide. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is celebrating one of the BBC’s chief exports to the United States: British TV. From Masterpiece Theatre to Love Island, join us as we look back on some of the iconic shows that have crossed the pond in the past century.
When University of Minnesota professor Timothy Brennan was a graduate student conducting research in the 1980s, he paid a visit to New York’s Museum of Television and Radio, now known as the Paley Center. Visitors to the museum enjoy access to a vast trove of archives, which currently spans more than 160,000 entries and more than a century of material—not that you would know it from what Brennan’s fellow patrons chose to watch. Almost every other viewing booth, he now recounts, was tuned in to one thing and one thing only: Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the sketch comedy show that propelled its namesake troupe to stardom. The British performers amassed an American audience through hit films like Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life, which received international distribution at the multiplex. Once hooked, though, stateside fans had to go to some effort to obtain their earlier work.
It may be an extreme example, but the story sums up several themes in America’s decades-long love affair with British television. Transatlantic exports, from cozy mysteries to costume dramas, inspire a fierce devotion that’s a little at odds with the genres’ soothing, subdued allure. It’s the kind of devotion that once got you off your couch and into a museum archive, all in search of something you couldn’t get at home. Movies have long had the arthouse circuit, an established path for foreign titles to gain exposure and acclaim. For most of American airwaves’ history, they had a much higher barrier to entry—one that required intent to overcome.
These days, access is no longer an issue. Major streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have boosted British series including Black Mirror and Fleabag—the latter of which nearly swept the Emmy awards in 2019—while more niche products like BritBox and Acorn TV cater to Anglophiles. Technological changes have altered both the quantity and quality of shows available in the States: There’s more to watch than ever, and much of it bucks our staid stereotypes of what British fare tends to look like. (Yes, the same country can give us Jane Austen and Love Island’s Ekin-Su.) But these streamers are also building on preexisting demand, much of it cultivated by legacy players like the venerable Masterpiece showcase on PBS. Acting as curators and gatekeepers, such institutions helped cultivate an image of British artistry that persists to this day.
“Europe is a place where one can see art that is meant for grown-ups rather than children,” says Brennan, who teaches cultural studies and comparative literature. “There’s a sophistication to European culture that I think people, whether highly educated or not in American culture, hunger for and don’t find in most American fare.” And while the United Kingdom may no longer officially be a part of Europe, it’s the Europe-adjacent country with the strongest linguistic and historical link to a certain former colony.
American television is now awash in prestige. Before that relatively recent phenomenon, though, its British counterpart served as a foil—an exemplar of all the things (elegant, educated) the Commonwealth’s prodigal child (crass, crude) was not. Like every attempt to reduce entire nations into narratives, this contrast wasn’t entirely accurate. But it does give context to British TV’s enduring appeal to stateside viewers. And by understanding the systemic forces and individual shows that shaped this cross-cultural exchange, we can also appreciate the novelty of the current moment, which verges on blurring the line between two previously distinct entertainment industries.
In many ways, the history of Americans watching British TV is the history of two complementary kinds of public broadcasting. On one side of the pond, we have the BBC, which this week celebrates 100 years of producing news and entertainment on television and radio. On the other, we have the U.S.’s more decentralized, less well-funded network of affiliates under the banner of PBS. That the former has frequently licensed its output to the latter is not a coincidence, and touches directly on the perceived purpose of public television.
Of course, British media made its way to the States long before Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. (The CPB then formed both PBS and National Public Radio.) In their early days, for-profit American networks often aired British films to fill time at less expense than producing original work—not dissimilar to how modern streaming services relied heavily on acquired titles before building out their own libraries. Later, James Bond fever kicked off a wave of fun, pulpy espionage shows like The Avengers, featuring Diana Rigg’s breakout role as the stylish spy Emma Peel.
Crucially, these shows were products of the U.K.’s independent television, a commercial model distinct from the BBC and closer to American broadcasters like ABC, which aired The Avengers in the U.S. (Britain’s earliest independent outlet, ITV, was founded in 1955.) Many were distributed by the Ukrainian British producer Lew Grade, whose company ITC Entertainment was explicitly geared toward overseas markets like the States. Shows like Danger Man, also known as Secret Agent, and The Saint could feature dozens of episodes per season, a noted break from Britain’s more condensed “series”; such extended volumes were more friendly to foreign buyers like NBC, accustomed to shows running for most of the year. (Grade also coproduced Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show in the mid-1970s.) While popular, such exports form a separate, less continuous tradition from that of public broadcasting. It’s still a relative anomaly to see British shows on commercial network prime time; Masterpiece has aired continuously for more than half a century.
By the 1960s, American commercial television had pivoted away from dramatic anthologies like Playhouse 90 and General Electric Theater (sponsored productions that echoed the feeling of live theater) and toward popcorn fare like Gunsmoke (ad-supported shows that cranked out genre riffs 20-odd weeks a year). The rise of such populist distractions prompted vocal hand-wringing from concerned elites, a sentiment typified by Public Television: A Program for Action, a 1967 report issued by the Carnegie Corporation’s Commission on Educational Television. The commission “has reached the conclusion that a well-financed and well-directed educational television system … must be brought into being if the full needs of the American public are to be served,” the report’s summary begins.
Public television, then, emerged directly out of “this kind of despair over what was coming across the airwaves,” says Nancy West, a scholar at the University of Missouri and the author of Masterpiece: America’s 50-Year-Old Love Affair With the British Television Drama. “The Beverly Hillbillies, The Brady Bunch, all those shows my husband knows by heart because he watched too much television when he was a kid—this sense that it’s a wasteland.” Public television, in the views of opinion-makers like the members of the Carnegie Commission, would serve a civic interest beyond acquiring the largest possible audience, and would set its sights above the lowest common denominator. Congress created the CPB shortly after the commission shared its findings.
Around the same time, a surprise sensation set a precedent for what programming on public television might look like. The BBC’s adaptation of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, an intergenerational family epic aired in 26 parts, was a massive hit in the U.K., but mainstream American networks declined to acquire the rights. Instead, The Forsyte Saga found a home on National Educational Television, or NET—an early forebear to PBS—in 1969. Fascinated by the show’s depiction of Victorian wealth, finite span (miniseries had yet to take hold in the U.S.), and charming characters, American audiences embraced the show with open arms. The phenomenon wasn’t enough to save NET, which shut down the following year, but it did set the template for everything that came after.
“The Forsyte Saga is really the beginning of America’s fascination with British television,” West explains, “and it’s the public station that picks that up.”
That success caught the attention of Stan Calderwood, the first president of the Boston public TV station WGBH. While on vacation in London, the Anglophile executive realized there was plenty more where The Forsyte Saga came from and contacted the BBC about turning a one-off event into a replicable formula. Without any other American bidders, the BBC supplied an entire season’s worth of programming for just $375,000. After all, the shows had already been produced and shown domestically; any additional revenue would be a bonus. Already low, WGBH’s costs were further alleviated when Calderwood found a presenting sponsor in Mobil Oil, a throwback to the dramatic anthology’s heyday. It didn’t have a name yet, but the show that would soon be known as Masterpiece Theatre was born.
“I’ve grown very appreciative of America,” says Julian Fellowes, the creator and writer of Downton Abbey. The affection is clearly mutual; Fellowes’s signature series is among the most popular selections in Masterpiece history. Downton’s cultural reach, including 15 Emmys and multiple movies, may be exceptional, but as a Masterpiece product, it’s entirely consistent with a well-established MO—part of which is, well, consistency.
Masterpiece has evolved over the years. It dropped the Theatre from its name in 2008, introducing sub-brands like Classic for period dramas and Mystery for crime; presenter Alistair Cooke, a Cambridge graduate who delivered lengthy introductions from his iconic winged armchair, has given way to actors like Laura Linney and Alan Cumming. But the program has cultivated, and retained, a loyal fan base by training viewers what to expect, then meeting that expectation for over half a century. Not coincidentally, the archetypal Masterpiece show has come to stand, in many Americans’ eyes, for the archetypal British show.
From its inaugural season in 1971, Masterpiece sought to associate itself with “quality,” a word that came up often in its initial advertising. In theory, the term is a generically positive descriptor. In practice, it’s weighted with all kinds of connotations: about the patronizing, patrician stance of a former empire toward its onetime satellite, and about the whiter, wealthier demographic its dispatches hope to attract. “Quality is class inflicted,” Brennan says. “It will signify as somebody who is better educated and more refined, and therefore the association of these shows with quality has something to do with its association with being of a higher class and being more educated.” Long before HBO, Masterpiece was distancing itself from—and positioning itself above—traditional TV and those who love it.
Masterpiece has long since pivoted toward a more inclusive stance, and it still takes pride in presenting work of substance, not just style. “We like programs to be about something,” says Susanne Simpson, who has served as the executive producer of Masterpiece since 2019. (She succeeded the legendary Rebecca Eaton, who held the post for 34 years—over half of Masterpiece’s current lifespan.) “I do think we look to bring programs to an audience that reads a lot, enjoys literature, appreciates good writing, and we’re always a place people can find that.” To that end, Masterpiece has historically relied on literary adaptations, from Jude the Obscure in its very first season to Around the World in 80 Days in its 52nd.
But Masterpiece, and British TV writ large, also offers more accessible pleasures than a survey course syllabus. Matt Graham, the general manager of the streaming service Acorn TV, sums up the value proposition of British content as what he calls the “three C’s”: character, craftsmanship, and culture. “As Americans, we’re fascinated by British culture,” Graham says. “There’s this civility to it, a quaint orderliness to it. That’s the way we perceive it, which is a nice counterpoint to the way we feel about a lot of the way things are going in the United States.” (Personally, I didn’t see the appeal of Netflix’s The Crown until after the 2016 election, when a toothless monarchy suddenly seemed like an enticing alternative.)
That culture also comes with an undeniably appealing aesthetic: verdant countryside, sprawling manors, and beautiful costumes. Drinking in the details of a sumptuous table setting or manicured garden hardly feels like eating your vegetables, even if the shows that include them were once marketed that way. Moving through those gorgeous backdrops are rigorously trained actors, the product of schools like the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art that produce performers steeped in Shakespeare. The United States may have comparable training grounds like Juilliard, but it’s generally understood that the U.K. punches above its weight in producing world-class thespians.
And despite British TV’s highbrow reputation, its dramas often tap into the same pleasure center as a distinctly lowbrow genre: the soap opera. Downton Abbey’s closest ancestor is Upstairs Downstairs, the 1970s series that helped prove The Forsyte Saga was no one-off. Writing about the show in 1976, the writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron never mentions the quality of the acting, nor the resonance of the themes. Twist by twist, she just runs through the plot, referring to characters by their first names and rendering judgment upon them: “We are all terribly worried that Rose will never find a man. … We would all rather die than know what is going to happen. Mostly, we all wish Upstairs Downstairs would last forever.”
Fellowes characterizes this response as uniquely American. “I was always rather moved, if I’m honest, by the extent to which American fans of the show would get emotionally involved with the fate of the different characters,” he says. As Upstairs Downstairs did, Downton Abbey dramatizes the relationships between a fictional upper-class family and its many servants, while transplanting the action from London to a more pastoral setting. And like Ephron before them, American fans reacted so strongly that they stopped treating it as fiction. Fellowes recalls one fan approaching him in tears, distraught over the trials of Cora Crawley. When Fellowes tried to argue that actress Elizabeth McGovern was doing just fine, the woman was unmoved.
When Steven Moffat was in charge of Doctor Who, the venerable science fiction show that’s aired on and off since 1963, he’d check the internet after new episodes premiered in the U.K. Without fail, there’d be a high-quality rip available for download on some illicit, if easily found, torrenting site—a testament to the show’s extremely avid, and extremely online, following abroad. “I remember doing anything to get hold of the next episode of The West Wing back in the day,” Moffat now says. (He’d often have to rely on VHS copies from friends in the States.) In less than a decade, technology had caught up with consumer demand. Fans were no longer content to wait months for fresh infusions of their favorite shows—and eventually, (legal) streaming services would adjust accordingly.
In its heyday, a conduit like Masterpiece served a practical purpose. For most of its existence, the program and the rest of PBS were one of the only means that American viewers had to consume British TV, hence why Masterpiece exerted such an influence over the art form’s reputation. “It’s literally decades of being the home to [British shows] when there were very few channel outlets, very few places where you could get it outside of your local PBS station,” Acorn’s Graham says. Like Netflix, Acorn has its roots in physical media; beginning in the 1990s, it would sell box sets of the series imported by Masterpiece to capitalize on the demand. These days, it’s easier than ever to marathon Midsomer Murders.
The advent of online platforms has, in part, eased the pressure on Masterpiece to represent an entire country with its editorial choices. “Maybe in the early years of Masterpiece it had that kind of aspiration, which is that we’re somehow holding up culture by ourselves,” the Masterpiece producer Simpson says. “But I don’t think we think that anymore.” The franchise may continue to embrace its warm, family-friendly house style, though Masterpiece is actively courting a wider, more diverse audience with series like Atlantic Crossing, a World War II drama starring Kyle MacLachlan as FDR, and an upcoming adaptation of Tom Jones starring the Ivorian Australian actress Sophie Wilde. But British television on the whole is increasingly able to communicate its multitudes.
“Warm” and “family friendly” are not how one would describe the spectacular violence of Gangs of London, the slapstick sex of Catastrophe, or the mind-numbing vapidity of Love Island, to name just a few British series that have gained popularity via streaming. In search of deep catalogs to prove their worth to subscribers, and without a PBS-style mandate to uplift and inform the public, these platforms have turned to a far broader range of British shows. “There’s been a little bit of an inflection point to broaden the aperture of what people want to consume out of the U.K., versus just the tried-and-true period pieces,” says Chris Mansolillo. As the head of U.S. content licensing for Amazon’s Prime Video, Mansolillo has helped acquire titles like Steve McQueen’s Small Axe and A Very English Scandal. “Over time it’s been contemporized and shown a bit of edge and modernity with the humor and the story lines.”
At the same time, companies based in the United States but operating globally have started to erode the distinction between British and American media. The Crown is a Netflix original, as a production with a budget of nine figures per season would have to be. (The BBC may have more resources than PBS, but those resources aren’t infinite.) Acorn has expanded to the U.K. while making original series, creating an ouroboros of international exchange. “An American company is producing British shows based on British IP in the U.K. for U.K. audiences,” Graham says. “It’s kind of a wild world.”
All this innovation hasn’t rendered Masterpiece obsolete; in fact, Simpson says, the 2021 season enjoyed some of the strongest ratings of the last decade. Paradoxically, the sheer volume of the streaming era places a premium on diligent curation, the kind Masterpiece built its name on. After all, one quality that Masterpiece taught its fans to appreciate about British culture is a reverence for tradition, a kind of small-c conservatism they seem to have internalized. British TV is hardly the only source of intelligent entertainment these days, but it’s a dependable one, and Masterpiece a dependable source.
Moffat, for his part, is amused that the “British is better” stereotype ever existed in the first place. “Everyone in Britain was thinking that the American TV shows were much better and classier and more expensive and glossier. And the reason that was really happening, in both directions, is we only see the best of each other’s output,” he says. “We don’t tend to export our drivel, do we?”