It’s a common discussion in my world. People get started discussing the quality of British television based on what they see on PBS, and pretty soon comparisons are being bandied about between Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Downton Abbey, trying to make the case for one being better than the other. (I’ll leave it up to you to determine which.)
It’s true that PBS imports a lot of good stuff for us over here, and that by now most avid television viewers have at least some idea that quite a few of the more innovative shows we’ve enjoyed here have their roots in a British antecedent, from FOX’s American Idol and NBC’s The Office to the more recent Showtime series Shameless. But it’s also true that ludicrously trashy gets produced on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as plenty of good stuff.
One thing that is undeniable, though, is that whether it’s highbrow stuff or lowest common denominator, U.S. and British TV, while in many cases they’re adaptable for the other’s audiences, can’t help but come off as being pretty different from each other.
In recent interviews with two actors — Joanne Froggatt and Jason Isaacs — both of whom have considerable experience working in the British television system as well as having grown up consuming it, I took the opportunity to ask about how they perceive the contrast as industry insiders.
Isaacs, whose NBC series Awake premieres this coming Thursday, agreed that the American and British systems might as well be chalk and cheese.
“I live and work in England, mostly,” he says. “We have an entirely different system. They decide to make a show, they develop the scripts, and then they shoot it — that’s it. They make six episodes of new things — always. They never make any more than six. And if they find an audience, and it’s a good audience, they recommission another six. Occasionally, a few seasons in, they’ll extend the run. But that’s what happens — they back the things that they like, and they make them, they put them on and they make sure that they have enough time and space to publicize them.”
Isaacs seizes on the practicality of the way things are done overseas. “It’s a completely different thing in terms of efficiency,” he explains. “Executives are hired for their taste. They back the things they like, and they make them. And if they don’t work enough times in a row, they’re out of a job themselves.”
It’s a completely different logic from the American television system, which tends to take a sort of “spray and pray” approach to developing new series. The size of the economy involved staggers Isaacs.
“It’s an odd system to be a part of, here,” he says. “I did a pilot last year for FOX that didn’t get picked up. And to be on something where they spend so much money — it was bigger than most of the British movies I’ve been in. And to know you’re part of hundreds of these things being made, most of which will never be aired — no one will see them and nothing will happen further with them — seems spectacularly inefficient.”
“It’s fascinating, because I can’t think of any other business that would do the same thing. I know, in the car industry, if you’re Toyota, you might work on prototypes, but you don’t make 200 models of cars for two of them to be successful. If you’re McDonald’s, you don’t make 68 types of burger and see which one sells. You find something, you think it’s good, you develop it and you put it out there.”
At the same time, Isaacs wholly concedes the benefit of pilot season to those who work in the industry. “It does provide some employment, and that’s a good thing, too.”
American audiences just finished watching Joanne Froggatt in Season 2 of Downton Abbey on PBS. She’s worked more exclusively in British television than Isaacs has, but nonetheless agrees about the contrasting budget scales, and how series in her home country more frequently are able to finish strong as a result.
“I think it is a good thing to leave things on a high and leave people wanting more,” she says. “That’s probably got more to do with the size of the business and the size of the production companies in England, because there’s just not as much money in making the productions as there is in the U.S. series. It kind of comes from the fact that, say, when an actor signs his first series here, they might sign an option to do two or three years for this series. You’d never, ever be asked to sign to do seven years like pilots here in L.A. and in the U.S.”
According to Froggatt, the smaller size of the industry in her country forces actors to diversify their talents much more to maximize their exposure and opportunities.
“You have to be versatile and you have to be able to do different accents, and do stage, do film, do TV, do radio — try your hands at all these different things, because that’s the way you work for it, really,” she asserts. “I think because our industry is smaller than the industry in America, you have to have that to carry on with any longevity of career.”
Of course, both Froggatt and Isaacs are aware of the enthusiasm that many Americans have shown for their respective series, and they acknowledge the high standard of work that does get exported to the UK.
“We see things like Mad Men, and some of the shows that have come over here, and we think the same thing about those shows, as well,” Froggatt says, enthusiastically. “At the end of the day, it’s the quality of what you’re watching that matters, no matter where it’s from or what the budget is behind it. It’s the story, really, for me. … I’ll work for peanuts if it’s a fantastic story. Because that’s what it’s about, and that’s what compels people to watch something. And I think it’s really important to try and strive to do that kind of work.”
Isaacs Photo: © NBC Universal, Inc. Credit: Lewis Jacobs
Froggatt Photo: © 2011 Carnival Film & Television Limited for Masterpiece