The Brits are Invading

The Brits are invading North America … but don’t panic!

They’re invading North America’s television sets, and it is no bad thing. After enjoying years of successful American imports in the UK such as Friends, Lost and Heroes, it seems the tables have turned and now US audiences can’t get enough of the UK’s latest shows. The British shows broadcast in the US in their original format are obvious, but American viewers may be surprised to learn that some of their ‘home-grown’ favourites actually started life in the UK too.

Popular British business program Dragon’s Den was successfully adapted and renamed as Shark Tank in America, while America’s Got Talent originated in Simon Cowell’s home country too – you could say that Britain had talent first! The talent shows themselves are sometimes even shipped across the Atlantic with a few British judges and hosts thrown in for good measure, with Piers Morgan, Simon Cowell, Sharon Osborne and Steve Jones all making appearances.

Perhaps aside from the X-Factor and America’s Got Talent, arguably the most famous British television adaptation in America is The Office. The show originated on BBC television in 2001 while the US version was launched in 2005. The US show still enjoys success to this day, even with the hilarious Steve Carell no longer in the leading role.

Yet, British adaptations haven’t always done well in America. Shows in Britain, which had cult status and whose adaptations were expected to thrive, often flopped.

In 1992 NBC created a pilot for cult science fiction show Red Dwarf. Original writers and creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor were involved, and even Robert Llewellyn came across the pond to continue his role as Kryten in the US version. The pilot, however, wasn’t received by the audience as well as expected and the show was never continued.

These days the original Red Dwarf series is aired on PBS and BBC America, and over the years it has been referenced as a cult geek show in related sci-fi and sitcoms such as The Big Bang Theory and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Word of mouth publicity from Joss Whedon himself has done the show a world of good in America.

Learning from this experience, American TV networks are now letting more original British shows air on TV without being adapted. The success of many of these shows is staggering. Here’s an insight into some of the currently most successful and un-adapted British shows on American TV:

Downton Abbey

At last year’s Emmy Awards, period drama Downton Abbey swept up four awards, one of which was Best Mini Series. Dame Maggie Smith also won an Emmy in the supporting actress category for her role as Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey.

The show is set in the fictional Downton Abbey, a Yorkshire country house owned by Earl and Countess Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern. It follows the lives of this aristocratic family and their servants. The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 sets off the whole story with the changes in society before, during and after the Great War (World War I) being told through the lives of the family and their servants.

There are many theories as to why this period drama has made such an impact on American audiences. The one that seems most likely is that it is a well written show with a compelling story and good acting. The fascination and drama of that particular period of time helps the show’s success, but it is the balance of all these things which make it such great television appreciated by audiences of many nationalities.

Doctor Who

Recognised as the longest-running science fiction television show in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records, Doctor Who has been delighting Sci-fi fans on BBC America for many years, and by the look of it many more years to come.

Based around the adventures of the Doctor, a Time Lord (humanoid alien with two hearts), who travels through space and time in his TARDIS (blue police box from the 1960s, which is bigger on the inside than the outside), Doctor Who first hit the screens in Britain in 1963.

Always accompanied by companions, starting with his granddaughter, the Doctor has faced many alien nemeses including the Daleks and Cybermen. Luckily for the Doctor, and the show, Time Lords can regenerate. If mortally wounded, Time Lords can regenerate their bodies and heal themselves, but thus take on a different form. So far the show is on its eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith.

The success of this show in America came after its revival in 2005 by Russell T. Davies. Doctor Who had lost popularity in the UK, and was off air from 1996 until 2005. This revival brought international success, due to the cult status of science fiction shows, and the creativity behind the show’s concept, writing and aliens. Twists and turns are commonplace in a Doctor Who episode, and the audience loves it.


Steven Moffat, the current writer of Doctor Who, is also the writer and co-creator of the latest Sherlock Holmes series. The crime drama, which is an updated version of Conan Arthur Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes detective stories, has been sold to over 180 territories and this with only six episodes so far.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Holmes, who assists the Metropolitan Police Service with his flatmate Doctor John Watson (Martin Freeman) by his side. Watson has recently returned from military service in Afghanistan, and is not the only familiar character from the original stories, as arch-nemesis Moriarty (Andrew Scott) returns in this modern series.

Its success is credited to the quality of the writing, the quality of the performance and the direction of the show. However, Holmes may have to watch out for the competition if the American adaptation by CBS is a success.

To sum up this invasion, it looks like it’s due to the quality of the writing of these shows, their originality and creativity, the performance of the actors, and the talented directors behind it. There also seems to be a current fascination in America with British-ness, i.e. its history (Downton Abbey), and its wit (Doctor Who, Sherlock).

Personally, I think it’s due to the fact these shows are awesome.

As a rare treat, and to give you more of an idea of what inspires British shows, here’s a guide to Cardiff with the current star of Doctor Who, Matt Smith, as your tour guide. Enjoy!

This article was written by Sarah Oxley on behalf of VisitBritain US Shop, the official British tourist authority shop with great deals to help you explore Britain and all its British-ness.

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