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The Sunday Post: Americana on the BBC

Andrew Martin

BBC Genome

Beam me up to the BBC... Star Trek arrived in 1969

To mark the period of Thanksgiving (hey, we do Black Friday now, so why not…), here are some reminiscences of the most notable US programming that has been shown on the BBC.

When the BBC television service started officially in November 1936, while most of the programmes were live, it was realised it would be helpful to allow resetting of studios if film material could be arranged to supplement the schedule. 

Apart from cinema newsreels which were bought in to provide topical material, there was a shortage of alternative film content.  Distributors of feature films were reluctant to co-operate with television, so very few features were seen on television in the early days. 

One source that was willing to allow their material to be used however was the Walt Disney studio, which proved to be the beginning of a long relationship between that company and the BBC.  Many Mickey Mouse and other Disney cartoons were to be shown between 1936 and 1939, when the service closed down – in fact the last programme to be transmitted in 1939 was, famously, a Mickey Mouse cartoon, Mickey’s Gala Premiere – which was then repeated on the day the television service resumed in 1946.

Gradually through the course of the 1940s and 1950s film companies relented a little, and more purchased material, including series made for television, was made available to the BBC.  Perhaps the earliest full-length American film to be shown on British television was The Fighting Texan, an obscure Western made in 1937 and shown on BBC television in May 1939.  Other films such as Whistling Bullets and Galloping Dynamite were also shown before the war, but it can safely be assumed that these were not particularly lucrative properties.  Post-war, American cowboy films became one of the staples of daytime programming, and the adventures of Hopalong Cassidy and others were widely shown in the 50s, often as part of Children’s Television.

US film studios had initially been hostile to the new medium of television, but by the 1950s they saw they had more to gain by working with TV and producing material for it.  With America’s huge landmass encompassing several time zones, it made sense to produce non-topical material such as comedy and drama on film, which also had the advantage of high production values.  

There was simultaneously what has been described as a ‘golden age’ of live American television comedy and drama in the 1950s, with comedies such as The Honeymooners and single plays like Marty and Twelve Angry Men being produced.

US TV star Phil Silvers became a familiar face on the BBC

Most of the widely-exported US shows were filmed productions.  Comedy greats such as Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy and its successors, and The Phil Silvers Show (better known as Sergeant Bilko) were among the early programmes which were successful on this side of the Atlantic as well as back home. 

BBC television had to wait until the last day of 1962 to transmit The Lucy Show, but it had been showing Bilko since 1957.  Silvers’ success with British audiences saw him interviewed for Alan Melville’s alphabetical showbiz magazine A-Z in 1959.  There were selected repeats under the title The Best of Bilko in 1961, and specials featuring Silvers including The Phil Silvers Special were also purchased.  The Phil Silvers Show, recognised as one of the greats of American comedy, was revived a number of times on BBC television, as late as 2004.  Imported comedies continued into the 60s, including hits like The Dick van Dyke Show and Bewitched.

US drama series were also bought in by the early 50s, with George Raft series I’m the Law, shown from 1954.  With the start of ITV, there was competition with the BBC over who would obtain which programme.  Among the BBC’s purchases were the hugely popular courtroom drama Perry Mason, medical drama Dr. Kildare, and during the mid-60s spy boom, kitsch espionage series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (and its sequel The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.). A slightly less eccentric espionage series in the 70s was Mission Impossible.  

While ITV was able to produce some of its own filmed series for both domestic and export markets, the BBC was confined for the time being to making part-videotaped shows, so its only real source of faster-paced, slicker drama material was America.  As with the earliest bought-in US shows, Western series remained popular, with titles like Wagon Train, The Virginian, The High Chaparral and Alias Smith and Jones remaining a staple of BBC programming in the 60s and 70s, before America itself fell out of love with the Wild West.

One great hit that was emblematic of the 60s was comedy/music serial The Monkees. Based on the style pioneered by Dick Lester in the Beatles' first two feature films A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, the show featured a manufactured pop group who got into crazy adventures, punctuated by specially written pop songs – many of which charted very highly.  Although this series was filmed in colour, the BBC could only show it in black and white at the time, as while the US networks were converting to colour by the mid-60s, the BBC only had limited colour transmission, on BBC2 from 1967, and on BBC1 (and ITV) in 1969. 

One of the first programmes to benefit (for those viewers with colour sets) from the coming of colour to BBC1 was Star Trek.  Originally produced from 1966 to 1968, the BBC began showing it in summer 1969 as a replacement for Doctor Who,  now being reduced to six month-long seasons.  Star Trek soon acquired a loyal audience, though the BBC regarded it as a family programme, but thought some of the episodes weren't suitable to be shown before the watershed.

The Radio Times heralded the start of Dallas spin-off Knots Landing with a big feature

A new crime series that began on BBC1 in 1967 was A Man Called Ironside (known in America simply as Ironside), and it was now possible to see this in colour.  The 70s saw a number of memorable US police and private eye series bought by the BBC, including Kojak, The Rockford Files, Cannon and Starksy and Hutch. 

These were often shown on peak time BBC1 and got big audiences, becoming cults and allowing their stars spin-off careers as recording artists in some cases.  At one point BBC1 would alternate different shows in the same slot called The Detectives, rather than run a single series at a time.  One highly successful US show picked up by BBC2 was the Depression-era family drama The Waltons, which gained a faithful audience with a mixture of humour, sentiment and likeable, plausible characters – as well as a novel way of rounding each episode off, with characters talking in voice-over as they prepared to go to sleep at night.

BBC2 also had a line in importing high quality comedy shows, such as brilliant Korean War show M*A*S*H, which benefited from the BBC choosing to use the laugh-track free version of the programme.   That said, it was made on location, while studio-recorded programmes such as the soap-ish but well-written and acted Rhoda did have audience laughter it was from a live audience, like most home-made shows.  It was seen as a daring experiment to have live studio audiences on filmed shows, with US executives worried that they might not laugh enough and in the right places.

US TV experimented with a new drama forms in the 70s too.  The BBC did not pick up the feature length detective series like Columbo at first, but did but the new ‘mini-series’ on ‘difficult’ subjects – Roots, which told the story of the African slave trade, and Holocaust, which showed the plight of European Jews before and during the Second World War.  Both these series faced accusations of turning serious subjects into soap opera, and though they did show the darker side of historical events there was still a temptation to provide a happy ending. 

Towards the end of the 70s came the advent of the expensive, high-quality soap operas like Dallas, which gained a level of hype not seen before – the furore over ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ in 1980 was even covered on the News (which was an unusual event in those days).

Through succeeding decades, US shows kept on being used for some time as a ratings-grabbing way of filling schedules.  Gradually this tendency was reined in, though cult hits like The X-Files, “Star Trek: The Next Generation and Twin Peaks still commanded an audience – usually on BBC2. 

Gradually with the advent of Sky and other cable and satellite channels there was more competition to secure the rights to American programmes, and while certain programmes such as Family Guy are still shown on the main BBC channels (at least for the time being), American programming no longer features anything like as heavily in the schedules as it did in former decades.

Hundreds of US shows have been imported to the BBC over the decades, so we couldn't include them all in this post. Are there any you would like to mention? Please do so using the space below.

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