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 Armando Iannucci debuted a political satire about a U.S. vice president in 2012, he fretted about how it might be received stateside. “I was very nervous doing Veep,” Iannucci tells The Ringer, “thinking, you know, we’ll be slaughtered, because we’re Brits coming and laughing at American politics.” Instead, the HBO show became a cherished seven-season hit, winning 17 Emmys.
It helped that it starred Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but it also helped that Iannucci and Co. weren’t just roasting Americans out of misplaced superiority—they’d already proved themselves more than willing to arch their eyebrows toward the British Isles with shows like 2005’s The Thick of It. Set in a fictional British “Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship,” The Thick of It (and In the Loop, a spinoff film) delighted in depicting the same sort of part-ruthless, mostly hapless disharmony that would later be featured in Veep. And it eventually joined a glorious tradition of TV inspiration making its way back and forth between the U.K. and the USA like a passenger on the Queen Mary.
From The Office to sports broadcasts, from The Golden Girls to the girls of countless half-scripted reality shows, there are lots of onscreen cultural links between the U.K. and the USA. “I do find America a very generous, welcoming country,” says Iannucci, who hails from Scotland, “that welcomes people if they’ve got something useful to contribute.”
Hugh Laurie, who played a daffy aristocrat on British TV in the early 1990s and a brusque medical genius in House on Fox in the aughts, and who has teamed up with Iannucci for both Veep and for the current HBO deep space satire Avenue 5, agrees. “American audiences are incredibly receptive,” Laurie says. “If a thing strikes them, amuses them, or intrigues them, they will go with it, above and beyond.”
With that in mind, here are some of the many people, moments, and television programs that may have been born in one place, but have developed spiritual analogues all the way across an ocean.
The British version of America’s Funniest Home Videos is … You’ve Been Framed! Both shows were inspired by a segment on Kato-chan Ken-chan Gokigen TV, a variety program from Japan. You’ve Been Framed! host Jeremy Beadle was no Bob Saget, but after leaving the show in 1997 he would go on to become the U.K.’s Ben Stein, filming 52 episodes of a trivia show called Win Beadle’s Money and keeping his pounds sterling during 44 of them.
The British version of Bill Nye the Science Guy is … Johnny Ball. If American kids learned to love science because of Bill Nye (or my personal favorite, Mr. Wizard!), generations of British children learned much the same from the edu-tainer Johnny Ball. Everyone loves Johnny Ball! (Touches earpiece) Uh, just don’t look up Johnny Ball’s views on climate change. Sorry, Bill.
The British version of Boardwalk Empire is … Peaky Blinders. Bootlegging! Gangs! Lead actors with faces capable of gracing your daydreams and haunting your nightmares in equal measure! Or, as one Redditor put it: “the chad Nucky Thompson vs. the virgin Thomas Shelby.” Your mileage (kilometrage?) may vary.
The British version of Cosmo Kramer bursting into Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment is … Del Boy falling through a bar. No matter what side of the Atlantic you’re on, there are few more reliable laughs than a guy in a trench coat caught off guard by a door opening. Every year or so, some highly reliable poll—one of them was from LADBible—deems this slapstick scene from the British show Only Fools and Horses to be the height of comedy, and who are we to say otherwise?
BBC finest moments:— Classic British TV (@Classicbritcom) October 19, 2022
Only Fools and Horses - Del Boy falls through the bar (1989) #BBC100 pic.twitter.com/k3DJaPpHSU
The *IRISH* version of Charles Barkley is … Roy Keane. While Keane is famously, extremely Irish—he was the longtime captain of the Irish national soccer team—he still counts for purposes of this English-heavy list thanks to his time spent playing for Manchester United and his more recent presence on sports TV across the U.K. Like Barkley, who just renewed his contract with TNT, Keane is a former player who is as unfiltered now as he was then. (One of them spoke about not wanting to be perceived as a role model to kids; the other once snubbed an autograph-seeking Rory McIlroy.) Both men ruffle feathers; both have played golf (Keane’s swing is more raw, yet also more pure) and both are entertaining as hell, even as they make you roll your eyes. This spring, Ted Lasso co-creator and actor Brendan Hunt confirmed that Roy Kent has some Keane origins.
The British version of the Dallas Cowboys is … Manchester United. Always on TV. Always being talked about on TV. One is America’s Team, and the other is owned by Jerry Jones.
The British version of Elmo is … Peppa Pig. You could spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year with your child, exposing them to absolutely zero TV or screen time. And yet the moment they turn 22 months, they will hit a developmental stage in which they instinctively begin agitating for more Elmo and/or Peppa Pig, quite possibly in a clear-as-day British accent. Later, when a parent at the playground mentions Peppa Pig in passing, you will remark that Daddy Pig looks distractingly phallic, leading to one fewer birthday party invitation for your child—which in this economy is quite frankly a sound financial outcome.
The British version of Euphoria is … Skins. Yeah, yeah, it’s true that there was an American knockoff of the British Skins (2007) that aired on MTV in 2011 and was also called Skins. But it’s the more recent series Euphoria that has successfully mimicked not only the original Skins’ jarringly raw, compulsively watchable vibe, but has also done so while being a starmaker. The British Skins featured Nicholas Hoult, Dev Patel, Daniel Kaluuya, and Hannah Murray—better known as Game of Thrones’ Gilly—early in their careers. These days, Euphoria’s cast brims with ascendant talent ranging from Sydney Sweeney and Zendaya to Jacob Elordi.
The British version of the fake flowers stapled to every inch of a bathroom wall on Trading Spaces is … that Pinhead-looking sex lair in Changing Rooms. Trading Spaces was part of a group of early reality shows that put TLC on the map at the turn of the millennium, and it had some real humdingers—like designer Hildi Santo Tomás’s decision to staple hundreds (thousands??) of fake flowers on a homeowner’s bathroom wall. (She claims they loved it!) That show was a copy of the British program Changing Rooms, which had some interesting decisions of its own—like Chaz Chaplin presiding over one’s den, or this chamber of horrors. (To be fair, the before picture is almost as creepy.) “I have no words than can make up for what we did… Sorry x” tweeted Linda Barker, one of the show’s designers.
I have no words than can make up for what we did... Sorry x https://t.co/0fcoywtl2K— Linda Barker (@ReallyLinda) July 14, 2017
The British version of The Golden Girls is … Brighton Belles. American TV loves to borrow British ideas, but sometimes the flow of inspiration goes the other direction. That was the case with Brighton Belles, a series that unfortunately learned it’s hard to translate sheer magic. The Golden Girls didn’t just have a winning formula, it had truly idiosyncratic players (Betty White and Bea Arthur, for starters) who had world-class chemistry. Brighton Belles … well, let’s just say it’s never good when your Wikipedia entry has a bullet point under “See Also” called “List of sitcoms known for negative reception.” Maybe try adjusting the rabbit ears?
The British version of a Top Chef judge saying “it eats salty” is … a Great British Bake-Off judge declaring something “a good bake.” Fun with grammar! Even Language Log weighed in about Top Chef’s chosen “mediopassive voice,” while GBBO judge Paul Hollywood explained to Eater: “A good bake is a good bake regardless of where it’s baked.” That settles that.
The British version of Jersey Shore is … Geordie Shore. Another instance in which the American show was the inspiration for the British series—except that it was the latter show that became the total beach bum who never leaves the basement of the Parker House. Whereas the OG Jersey Shore aired for 71 episodes over six seasons, Geordie Shore has run for nearly 200 episodes over 23 seasons, though indications are the program is finally getting put out to sea. We’ll always have Series-3-era Vicky and Ricci. (For more on the umpteen Geordie castmates out there in the world, I can’t recommend this Twitter thread enough.)
The British version of John Marshall High School is … Highclere Castle. If you think about it, American TV shows set in high schools are kind of the equivalent to British TV shows set in castles: lots of hectic social climbing, awkward meals, long hallways, and sage advice from chefs. So it makes sense that two of the most favored places for location scouts would be John Marshall High School in Los Angeles (where shows like Boy Meets World and Growing Pains were filmed) and Highclere Castle outside London (home to multiple Masterpiece Theatre selections, including and especially Downton Abbey).
The British version of the Kardashians is … the Windsors. An all-powerful family matriarch, RIP/long may she reign! Paternity gossip! Wall-to-wall televised coverage of every sibling squabble, marital hiccup, and pregnancy! Jewels for days! The sun never sets on the Kardasho-Windsorian Empire.
The British version of this “Laguna Beach Breakups That Are SO High School” YouTube compilation video is … this “The Most DRAMATIC Breakups Part 1 | Season 9 | The Only Way Is Essex” YouTube compilation video. Self-explanatory!
The British version of The Lonely Island is … A Bit of Fry and Laurie. Before Andy Samberg, even before Adam Sandler, we had Hugh Laurie in a Boss-style headband performing the patriotic ballad “A Song for America” . Other songs from the sketch program starring Laurie and Stephen Fry included “The Polite Rap” and “I’m In Love with Steffi Graf.”
The British version of Madonna on Letterman is … The Sex Pistols with Grundy. In March of 1994, Madonna appeared on Late Show for an all-timer of an interview. She smoked a stogie and thrust an undergarment in David Letterman’s face. She called the host “a sick fuck,” one of 14 f-bombs from the episode that had to be censored. Other topics of conversation included peeing in the shower, Charles Barkley (sorry, Roy Keane!) and Letterman being a sellout. She even refused to leave the stage for a while. The show concluded with Counting Crows performing “Round Here.” Anyway, all of that was downright collegial compared with the time the Sex Pistols went on Bill Grundy’s Today show in 1976—as a replacement for Queen when Freddie Mercury had an emergency dental appointment—and put on an absolute clinic in projecting righteous disgust. (Come for this story about the phones in the green room; stay for the show of Irish national pride.)
The British version of Mr. Rogers’s 100 percent approval rating is … David Attenborough’s 100 percent approval rating. The GOATs at demonstrating the kindness of humanity and the savagery of nature with a measured, steady sense of wonder. Legends only.
The British version of the Miracle on Ice (1980) is … the World Cup (1966). Both Team USA’s run to a gold medal in hockey during the 1980 Winter Olympics and England’s win of the 1966 World Cup drew huge, rapt televised audiences of more than 30 million viewers. Of course, in England’s case this represented, like, half of the population; in America’s, it was more like one-seventh. Neither team has returned to glory since.
The British version of The Office is … The Office. The younger generation won’t understand this, but there was a time when saying “apparently, it’s based on a British series” about this new, awkward show called The Office was an entire personality, and having actually seen the British series was the ultimate cultural cachet. Were we ever so young?
The British version of the pantsless mom on CNN is … the crawling mom on the BBC. All hail both Gretchen Goldman and Kim Jung-A, each of whom, in their own ways, highlighted that working from home in the presence of children sometimes requires professional-grade improvisation.
The British version of Sarah Jessica Parker is NOT … Rachel Hunter. On June 3, 2003, Hello! magazine reported that the former supermodel Rachel Hunter had been cast in a leading role—a socialite named Georgie—in a London-based take on Sex and the City on ITV called Denial. But less than seven months later, the Mirror reported that the show had been canned before it ever aired. “It had ‘expensive flop’ written all over it,” an anonymous TV insider said. “This is a big blow for Rachel and the rest of the actresses involved.” Meanwhile, on the Upper West Side, Carrie was in the midst of a Big blow of her own…
The British version of Shonda Rhimes is … Sally Wainwright. At least that’s how IndieWire put it, noting that both women are not only capable of writing complicated and compelling strong female characters, they’re also known for juggling numerous projects at the same time. Rhimes created Grey’s Anatomy (which, 402 episodes later, is still going strong), Scandal, and most recently Bridgerton through her Shondaland production company, while “SallyLand,” so to speak, at one point simultaneously comprised the still-extant crime drama Happy Valley, the detective caper Scott & Bailey, and Last Tango in Halifax, a work based on Wainwright’s mom’s second marriage.
The British version of Tucker Carlson is … Piers Morgan, but not exactly. “Can a British Fox News work?” asked a Wired article in 2020, reacting to reports that several entities were trying to set up networks in the U.K. that held a rather strong point of view. The article went on to note that more stringent airwaves regulation in the U.K. makes it difficult to launch the kind of explicitly opinionated broadcasts that are typical in the U.S., meaning there’s less of an outright Carlson or Sean Hannity type. Still, Morgan, who left Good Morning Britain last year during an investigation into comments he made about Meghan Markle, has always tried his darnedest to be provocative—and he’s even perfected the Carlsonian quizzical squint and the condescending vibe.
The British version of Vanderpump Rules is … Made in Chelsea. You could also argue that Made in Chelsea, a reality show filled with glossy, bossy young people getting mad at each other in and around the poshest parts of London, is more of a Southern Charm or The Hills. (After all, Stephanie Pratt makes an appearance!) But the Vanderpump universe has more staying power, rattling on and on as it spirals ever outward, and in that way it feels spiritually descendent from Made in Chelsea.
The British version of Veep is … The Thick of It. A pretty big side-note to this one is that Veep was actually the second attempt to bring the whole The Thick of It gestalt to the United States. The first attempt had been more literal: a show also called The Thick of It that had, as part of its creative team, writer Christopher Guest and Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz. According to another producer, Jeremy Whitham, “ABC famously passed on picking up the show in favor of a ‘sitcom’ based on the Geiko [sic] Cavemen commercials.” Two of the actors in the series, Rhea Seahorn and Michael McKean, went on to appear in Better Call Saul (a show that is as American as it gets).
The American version of Never Mind the Buzzcocks is … ??? One final element of British TV that doesn’t really have a modern-day American analogue is Never Mind the Buzzcocks, a pop-music-“celebrity”-panel-quiz-show of sorts. (Sample this impenetrable, whimsical graf from an article promising a list of the show’s “15 most ridiculous” teams: “Presumably, rapper Tinie Tempah was about to pass out when he was told he’d be on the same team as ultra-surreal 1970s-styled camp comedy teddy bear Paul Foot.”) The show has yielded some interesting celebrity moments over the years, in much the same way that, say, Hot Ones or Howard Stern interviews do. But an attempt to copy the formula with a U.S. version of Buzzcocks hosted by Marc Maron never really got off the ground, and the search continues for a format where guarded creative types can really let their full selves shine. This being America on the cusp of 2023, it’s probably going to wind up involving pickleball … innit.