Thursday, April 01, 2004

Transatlantic Cultural Relationships

This is a post about a collection of thoughts and theories that have been knocking round my head for a while!

Much has been written about the cross-proliferation of cultural influences in popular music between Britain and the US. In the 50s, American Rock n Roll inspired a generation of teenagers who grew up to be the "Beatles and the Stones and the Who, who went to America, and inspired a generation of musicians who became the Beach Boys and the Byrds. Dylan went electric partly as a result of listening to the Beatles, and the Beatles started writing grown up, introspective and intelligent music partly as a result of listening to Dylan. A generation in the UK who grew up listening to Public Enemy and NWA and De La Soul went on to invent drum n bass, and that went back to America an informed a whole bunch of RnB producers when it came to their beats. The Sex Pistols begat Nirvana and Nirvana begat Oasis and Oasis wait, scratch that one...Ah well, there's an exception to every rule

Broadly speaking, I think it's probably also fair to say there have been times when America was where interesting music was happening on a large scale, and times when Manchester or London or Coventry was. (ok, Coventry was one band, and not for that long, but how much do the Specials rock!?!)

Lately, I've noticed a similar phenomenon (doo doo do doo doo - forth post down...) in television, particularly in comedy and drama. In the best british sitcoms poll thingy, 8 out of the top 10 were made in the 70s or 80s, an era of really strong British Sit Coms - Fawlty Towers, Only Fools and Horses, Butterflies, etc etc which were incredibly high quality. In the 80s and early 90s, British television drama was also incredibly strong (and excuse the family bias in this list) with programmes like A Very British Coup, Traffik, Boys from the Blackstuff, GBH, Tales of the City, Dennis Potter's work for both the BBC and C4, and occasionally both at the same time.

Then it all went a bit flat drama wise. And although some great work was done in more "culty" type programmes, in terms of massive mainstream but high quality work, there was less going on in sit com too.

But as this was happening here, in the states, in terms of comedy shows like Seinfeld, the first few series of Friends, and Frasier which were intelligent and witty were hitting the heights. And then, without any prior warning, the US began to make some fantastic drama series. These are not like their UK counterparts, in that they tend to be long running, but they do draw heavily on the influences of the British drama series listed above. The television adaptation of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, a Channel 4 series made by working title, a British company, but shot in the states, and set in the states was a minor success in the UK, but it was a big hit on PBS in the America. It was revolutionary in terms of American television in that it dealt very openly with homosexuality and recreational drug use. The massive recent hit US Six Feet Under is partly a big success because of the furrow ploughed by this British series. It also draws heavily on the work of Dennis Potter - the characters break in to song in sequences that could be straight out of Pennies from Heaven, the Singing Detective or Lipstick on Your Collar.

Aaron Sorkin has talked about how The West Wing (along with Seinfeld my very favourite American television programme of all time) was influenced by the equally wonderful "A Very British Coup" in which an idealistic left winger becomes prime minister. Incidentally, I just did a search for very british coup and the west wing in quotes and came up with amongst many other things that on the peopler that bought British Coup on DVD also bought the West Wing and an article by my dad which says basically what I've said here - but I didn't know that before I started writing!).

And of course, last but not least, they made a movie of Traffik and have now made a miniseries. (A miniseries based on a movie based on a mini-series - only in America.)

And I hope, I sincerely hope, that some of this will re-inspire British writers and executives - there's some recent evidence of this - Shameless, Passer By (which I managed to miss), Hustle (only kidding - no link for this one - it's a bug bear of mine!) - maybe there'll be some good stuff back on British TV that wasn't made in the states!

Here endeth the drivelling on about television! I don't care if you agree with my thesis, but you've got to be impressed by all those links ;)