Foreign Shows on American Television

While American television rules in most of the world, very few foreign shows ever make it in to the United States, partially because of union rules, partially because television programmers fear chatter that isn’t “Americanized” and partially because the quality of some foreign shows just isn’t up to U.S. standards.

Of the few British shows that made it big-time in America include two from actor Roger Moore, better know as the James Bond who became between Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan. His first show was Ivanho -- which originated from an old-time poem about days of old when Knights were bold, which is a decidedly British element that translated over well for American audiences, at least mostly the children in the U.S. His other show, The Saint was very popular in syndication and was even put into primetime during the 1960’s when they switched to color.

Syndication is often the best venue for foreign television to reach American audiences. This is where a group of existing episodes is sold at a trade show on a station by station basis for a small, flat fee. This allowed independent stations like WGN in Chicago or KTLA in Los Angeles to bring in something close to “original programming” that could compete with the big networks, which back then was only NBC, ABC and CBS.

The children’s puppet shows produced by Gerry Anderson and his wife Sylvia (she often provided the female voice for a central character) were a mainstay in 1960’s television syndication for Saturday morning children’s programming on location stations. These series, which I used to watch as a kid, included “Supercar” and “Fireball XL-9.” The theme song from that last show, an outer space series, was featured in one of the last installments of the Tom Hank/HBO mini-series on our space program. Anderson also produced several live action shows which made it into syndication, including one that ran for two years and starred “Mission Impossible” defectors Martin Landau and his wife Barbara Bain. More recently he produced a show for CBS late night just before the turn of the millennium that was, once again, outer space oriented.

One of the first majors shows to American primetime in the 1960’s was Secret Agent which is considered a classic. This show originally appeared in half-hour format under the original title Danger Man in syndication. They expanded the show to a full hour and it ran for two seasons here in the states. After that the star, Patrick McGee, ushered in a very strange show that has become a cult-classic called The Prisoner which also ran on CBS and more recently PBS in re-runs.

With the major box office draw of the English motion picture James Bond franchise from novelist Ian Flemming and producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli, secret agent properties because a hot item, thus the popularity of “Secret Agent” which even netted Johnny Rivers a #1 music hit around the world with his singing of the theme song (“Secret Agent Man”).

Another highly popular British secret agent series called The Avengers was picked up about half-way through the series run in 1964/5 during the starting tenure of Diana Rigg as Ms. Peel.

The star of the show, however, was Patrick McNee who played the suave secret agent John Steed. Most of you have seen this actor in one of his early roles at Christmas time as he’s in one of the many version of “Scrooge” made in the 1950s.

Steed was original a minor character who appeared now and then in another British series about a Police Doctor. His character apparently drew lots of letters from the viewing audience. He worked for the British secret agency M.I. 5 ½ (which doesn’t actually exist, M.I. 5 is like our FBI and M.I. 6 is like our CIA). They created a show around this character, along with a partner and love interest in the form of Honor Blackman, who left the show after two years to be the “Goldfinger” female lead of Pussy Galore.

Originally show live on a set in video or directly live all the tapes of these early episodes, which never ran on television in the states, are half black and white kinescope (a film made off a TV screen) and partially show in 16mm for the outside (English work on very low budgets and shows like “The Saint” and “The Avengers” were mostly shot on 16mm equipment).

Around 1964 they switched to 35mm black and white film starting when Blackman’s character Cathy Gale left the show and Diana Rigg, who was from the British theater company, took over as Mrs. Emma Peel. Also that year a new leading producer came on board in the form of Julian Wintle as executive producer. He brought along with him two associates from his major film hit, “This Sporting Life,” a blood and guts Rugby film (a form of English football) which was directed by Lindsay Anderson. Albert Fennel and Brian Clemens were associate producers on that film and moved into lead spots on “The Avengers” as writer-producers.

There was no longer a love connection between Steed and his associate Mrs. Peel, but there was still hard action with lots of karate and tumbling. The producers also kept the female lead in snazzy clothing, as Honor Blackman’s all leather look was very popular with the fans. For Ms. Peel they provided jumpsuits in spandex.

Fennel and Clemens also lightened the show up, making it into a more tongue-in-cheek series than the originally two years when they were far more dramatic. They also improved production quality with better sets, atmosphere and costumes. The villains were always larger than life and very strange. The storyline far, far fetched.

With infusion of capital from the American ABC network run they were able to shoot in color the following year, which is also when Diana Rigg left the show and was replaced with a much younger Linda Thornsen, who was positively rejected by most American Viewers.

American Public broadcast helped to bring a few British shows into America, the most popular offering being Monty Python which was actually a type of remake of the earlier British “Goonies” show. The Goonies was half Python and half Benny Hill (which is probably one of the most popular all-time British produced shows run in America). The Goonies started on radio and moved to film and TV under the direction of creative genius Spike Milligan and his good right arm Peter Sellers (who became a mega star of worldwide stature). Python thrust John Cleese, another major international movie star (“A Fish Called Wanda”).

Benny Hill Show, was of course, low ball comedy from an old Musical Hall (or Vaudeville) star Benny Hill for whom the show was named.

The unions started putting pressure on the American networks and they stopped buying English shows in the last 1960s. Instead Norman Lear converted English shows into American shows by re-writing “‘Til Death Do Us Part” a comedy show about a bigoted man and his wife, which became “All In The Family” in America. Also the English show about a black junkyard owner and his son named “Steptoe and Son” was turned into the Redd Fox vehicle “Stanford and Son.”

Cable networks started brining in more English shows, including another comedy hit of the 1980’s called Absolutely Fabulous which was actually more popular in American than in England. It was about a totally dysfunctional family and the mother’s totally, totally dysfunctional best friend. It dealt with drugs, sex, homosexuality, free love, repression and other family values. It was recently updated.

PBS also continued the tradition of British imports with one other major contribution by airing the longest running television sci-fi show Dr. Who which went throughout a total of 10 leading actors in the 20+ year run of the show which began as a children shows about a kindly inventor and his granddaughter who traveled through time and space meeting people.

As with the Avengers this was shot live or on video, but it was done in half-our segments as a mini-series with two to four episodes that were always “continued next time” like they did with Batman on TV in America.

The show actually begin in 1963 produced by Verity Lambert on the BBC (it wasn’t seen in America until the 1980s) starring William Hartnell as the first Doctor. With episode two ace British television writer Terry Nation struck a major chord when we created a new character called the “Deleks” who were half machine and half living tissues, a parable of oppressive fascist ideology.

In the fourth season new producer Innes Lloyd helped to introduce the concept of the “companion” who basically replaced the Doctor’s granddaughter on the show. Lloyd was also instrumental in moving the story lines away from being purely historical in nature.

Starting in the 8th installment of 1966 Patrick Troughton magically replaces William Hartnell as the Doctor in what we learn is “regeneration” where the old body is renewed into a new, younger body – Doctors have 12 lives it seems, more than a cat! When they get old, sick or are seriously injured they simply regenerate (into a new actor).

Troughton was far more humorous character actor and he turned the show into a more light-hearted adventure show. Several new “companion’s” were also brought in to replace the older ones. There was also the introduction of an organization they met while visiting Earth called UNIT and the leader Brigadier Stewart.

In 1970 Troughton was sent into exile by his superiors, the Time Lords, and the Doctor regenerated on Earth into the form of Music Hall veteran character actor John Pertwee. Brigadier Stewart’s people find the new Doctor but don’t know him, they do however recognize his time machine the Tardis. Because of his exile he stays in England quite a lot, which the British fans liked.

American fans, however, liked the 4th Doctor and the fact that he traveled more into time and space and in the 1980s we met up with Tom Baker (who was better known at the evil villain in the feature film “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad”) a year or two after his character left the show in England. Baker was the longest Doctor on record, seven years.

In 1980 a new producer, John Nathan-Turner, was promoted from production manger and Barry Letts was brought to supervise the transition. Baker, Turner and Letts had disputes over the direction, with Baker leading more towards light-hearted comedy and the Turner-Letts team wanting more serious approach the show.

One of the most major improvements Turner, however, made was to have the title music by Ron Grangier and title visuals modernized. The choice he and Letts made for a new Doctor in the form Peter Davidson and his Cricket playing outfit (which must have bewildered Americans who aren’t familiar with the game) gave this new Doctor only a two year run before he was replaced with a more hostile, however the new Baker mellowed out after a few months. His contract, however, was not renewed and he was one of the shortest regular Doctors.

Sylvester McCoy took over in 1987, who was closer to Patrick Troughton’s portrayal of the Doctor.

There were also two other incarnates of the Doctor in theatrical movie versions, plus a replacement for William Hartnell as the first Doctor in a special episode called “The Five Doctors.” Hartnell had died and they used Richard Hurndall for insert shots and old video footage of Hartnell for parts of things.

In the 1990's as Canadian production was growing there was an attempt to import some Canadian shows, but American's couldn't accept the wearing of white wigs by lawyers as is done in both Britsh and Canadian courts, but not in America. Shows like these were quickly dropped, but many U.S. and Canadian co-productions, such as Stargate SG-1 are easily put into worldwide and U.S. syndication.

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