TV UK, 5 April

'Americans seem to have a fondness for UK TV that goes beyond our famously world-class dramas and documentary series (mostly made in the 1970s).'

Dolan Cummings

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Topics Politics

Readers of The Times (London) will have been disconcerted recently to see spiked’s editor Mick Hume filling in for Anne Robinson in the Weekend section. What Mick has in common with the feisty Liverpudlian is far from obvious.

spiked readers in the USA will already be familiar with Mick. TV viewers will be introduced to Ms Robinson when her infamous quiz show The Weakest Link begins on NBC (Monday 16 April at 8pm).

For the uninitiated, then – the contestants stand in a circle and are asked questions one at a time. Contestants who answer correctly can either add money to a shared kitty or ‘bank’ the current balance. If they answer wrongly, any unbanked money is lost. At the end of each round, the contestants vote on who they think is the weakest link: the poorest player.

Anne Robinson then reveals which player really has been the poorest, but regardless of that, it is the player who has been voted the weakest link who must make ‘the walk of shame’. Robinson snaps, ‘You are the weakest link. Goodbye’, and off they go. This continues until there are only two players left, and there is a playoff. The winner takes the kitty; the loser is just that.

It’s not a bad idea as gameshows go, but it isn’t really the idea that made the show a hit. The Weakest Link was first shown on BBC Choice, the digital-only channel used mainly for Teletubbies and repeats. It was Ms Robinson herself who won the show promotion to BBC1 and hence to NBC. She took the cruelty implicit in the game, and made it explicit.

Robinson was previously known for presenting Watchdog, the BBC’s consumer advocacy programme, in which she tormented spokesmen from incompetent holiday companies. Well, she turned out to be even more vicious with hapless quiz contestants, calling them stupid, hopeless and pathetic, and showing none of the human sympathy (or is that patronising smarm?) that quiz-show hosts are generally known for. You stupid Americans are for it now.

Still, the last time we sent over a jackbooted femme fatale, she forged a ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the USA. And Americans seem to have a fondness for UK TV that goes beyond our famously world-class dramas and documentary series (mostly made in the 1970s). Hell, British children on holiday in the USA have reportedly been mugged for their Bob the Builder merchandise. Even more interesting though, is the use of British characters in US shows.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel are packed with Brits. It is natural, of course, that the ancient Watchers’ Council should be based in the old world. That accounts for the splendidly stuffy Giles and the farcically fey Wesley Wyndam Pryce. Characteristically of Buffy though, these stereotypes are deceptive, and the actual characters strikingly human.

The same is true even of Spike, the vicious, Manchester United-supporting vampire, who (despite not having a soul) repeatedly finds himself fighting on the wrong (that is, the right) side. Spike’s ex, Drucilla, has an English accent second only to Daphne from Frasier in its awfulness, but Dru at least has the excuse of being an insane vampire.

The general assumption on US TV is that Brits are all posh, and a bit gay. This prejudice is used to comic effect in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air: Geoffrey is an uptight snob, despite being black. But there are exceptions. Willy the janitor from The Simpsons, for example, is a fairly accurate representative of the Scottish nation. And Bart’s own ‘Spare a copper, guv?’ routine gives voice to the London poor.

Anne Robinson was at the centre of a row recently after she made unkind comments about the Welsh (1). As long as she keeps her ethnic slurs in the USA to the generic ‘stupid American’ variety, and doesn’t mess with the hyphens, she’ll probably be okay. Meanwhile, Americans looking for an upstanding example of the British character would do better sticking with Mick Hume.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) See Welsh wails by Andrew Cox

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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