10 British TV Shows That Crossed the Pond

By: Susan Sherwood
Actor Tom Baker, as the Doctor from the BBC science fiction TV series "Doctor Who," poses with the Doctor's arch enemies, the Daleks, in 1975.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

What do "Trading Spaces," "American Idol" and "All in the Family" have in common? Probably not a lot, but they are all based on British shows: "Changing Rooms," "Pop Idol" and "Till Death Us Do Part." Many U.S. production companies have adapted original ideas from across the Atlantic, giving them an American twist, a new name and a new audience.

But Americans don't always need a Yankee Doodle spin on TV series. Plenty of British imports do well once they cross the pond, thank you very much. They often show up on BBC America or PBS in their beautifully unadulterated British forms. Pour yourself a cup of tea, and read on to discover some U.K. shows that Americans have embraced in their original form. One lump or two?


10: 'Monty Python's Flying Circus'

The Monty Python sketch comedy group circa 1970.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

"And now for something completely different." That catchphrase captured the essence of the irreverent British comedy sketch show. Debuting on the BBC in 1969, "Python" landed on American public television channels in 1974 [source: BBC America -- Monty Python]. By 1975, the bizarre antics of the show's stars -- Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin -- made it one of the best-rated PBS series of its time [source: Rozen]. After the series ended, its cast collaborated on three films, including "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." In fact, the Broadway hit "Spamalot" was based on that film, and won the Tony Award for Best Musical of the 2004–2005 season and received 14 Tony Award nominations. Though all six actors also had successful individual careers, the legacy of Monty Python remained.

"Monty Python's Flying Circus" introduced unforgettable iconic sketches, such as the cheese shop that's completely out of cheese. Then there's the pet store clerk who sold a dead parrot and won't let the customer return it -- ignoring the obviously stiff carcass, the salesman insists the Norwegian blue parrot is, alternately, resting, stunned, sad or tired. Equally memorable is the café that specializes in Spam. A customer reluctantly listens as a waitress and her inexplicable chorus of Vikings extol the virtues of the processed meat. Completely different, indeed.


9: 'House of Cards'

British politician Gordon Brown and "House of Cards" actor Ian Richardson in 2006.
Jeff Overs/Getty Images

Plotting. Revenge. Greed. Power. Brutality. No, it's not a soap opera; it's BBC's dramatic version of British government, "House of Cards." The miniseries follows the cold-blooded career choices of Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson), a parliamentary officer passed over for a cabinet position. The snub incited a no-holds-barred struggle to the top.

In the U.K., the role of Frank earned Richardson an award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts [source: BBC America]. When the show was broadcast on BBC America, writer Andrew Davies took home a 1991 Emmy Award for bringing Urquhart to life [source: Television Academy -- Andrew Davies]. Netflix had such admiration that it launched its own American version starring Kevin Spacey. That's a lot of love for some very bad men.


8: 'The Office'

Actor and writer Ricky Gervais poses holding two awards for "The Office" at the British Academy Television Awards in 2003.
Gareth Davies/Getty Images

A BBC show about a BBC show, "The Office" earned critical acclaim after landing in the U.S. In 2004, the series aired on BBC America and became the first U.K. sitcom to win a Golden Globe Award for best comedy. One of its leads, Ricky Gervais, was also the first British actor to win a Globe for comedy [source: BBC News]. The award show prized Gervais so much it later brought him back as host for three years. NBC loved the "The Office" enough to produce its own version in 2005 starring Steve Carell.

Shot as a faux documentary, the British series takes place in a paper factory, and some moments are so true-to-life they're cringe-worthy. Gervais' manager, a legend in his own mind, is a truly inept administrator. Martin Freeman ("Sherlock," "The Hobbit") stars as Tim, a competent working stiff tired of getting nowhere. He finds a little joy by playing odd practical jokes on Mackenzie Crook's Gareth, a naïve, yet arrogant, co-worker. How did Gareth's stapler end up inside a Jell-O mold?


7: 'Doctor Who'

A security guard walks past a giant Doctor Who poster at the 'Doctor Who 50th Celebration' event in London, England.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

An immortal Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey travels through time and space in the phone booth-like TARDIS machine -- yeah, it's your just typical British import. This BBC series, which began in 1963, has featured numerous actors in the lead role, including comical Tom Baker, youthful Peter Davison, charming Paul McGann and thoughtful David Tennant. The difference in appearance is easily explained. Doctor Who never dies; he just regenerates into a new body. Simple!

After a several-year break, the BBC rebooted the series, and it showed up on BBC America in 2010. The premiere broke the network's record at the time, with an audience of 1.2 million [source: Hibberd]. The 2014 season opener far exceeded that with 2.2 million viewers, up a whopping 46 percent from the previous year's debut [source: O'Connell -- Doctor Who]. Clearly, Doctor Who was becoming Doctor Very-Well-Known.


6: 'Luther'

Actor Idris Elba in the press room with the Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television award for "Luther," at the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards in 2012.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Dark, darker, darkest. The BBC One miniseries "Luther" follows the career of a brilliant, dedicated, but violent police detective who sometimes deals with criminals in ways that are outside the law. Luther's wife was murdered by a former colleague and friend, and the tragedy brings out the dangerous side of the investigator. The show's tone is often creepy, disturbing and even repellant. How else can you describe a scene where a murderer tries to render fingerprint evidence unusable by removing prints with a kitchen blender?

As unsettling as the series can be, it drew admiration when it showed up on BBC America. In 2011, Idris Elba (the actor then best known for portraying Stringer Bell on HBO's "The Wire") earned the first of multiple Emmy nominations as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries. The show also contended for Outstanding Miniseries [source: Television Academy -- Luther]. Gloominess pays off.


5: 'Being Human'

"Being Human" ran on BBC Three before moving to BBC America and being adapted by Syfy.

You think you've had roommate issues? Imagine a ghost, a vampire and a werewolf sharing the same house. Who's going to cook dinner? The BBC Three series "Being Human" shows the struggles of being a little too supernatural. While the werewolf and vampire often try to blend in as ordinary mortals, the ghost must learn to deal with limited human interaction. Amazingly, this premise is presented as a comedy-drama, blending humor, warmth and danger. The show made a long-term impact in the U.S., running on BBC America for five seasons until 2013. Syfy TV adapted "Being Human," setting the show in Boston.

The paranormal trio faced more than its share of challenges, including prejudice, a trip to purgatory and a visit from the devil. The three also had to deal with their true natures. Why does someone become a ghost? Can a vampire keep from eating humans? What happens when a werewolf accidently turns on his girlfriend? (Spoiler alert: It's a real dating faux paw.)


4: 'Downton Abbey'

(L-R) Actresses Joanne Froggatt, Sophie McShera, Laura Carmichael, and Phyllis Logan, winners of Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series for 'Downton Abbey,' at the 21st annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in January 2015.
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Apparently, Americans just love them some British nobility. ITV's "Downton Abbey," which follows the members of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants, drew a record-setting 10 million viewers in 2014 when season four debuted on PBS [source: Runcie]. A whopping 8.5 million viewers tuned in for the finale. That's up more than 300,000 from the previous year's climax [source: O'Connell -- Downton].

Actress Maggie Smith, who plays the sharp-tongued matriarch, is part of the show's appeal. She's full of cutting witticisms. When admonished that servants are also humans, she witheringly remarks, "Preferably only on their days off" [source: PBS -- Downton]. The "upstairs" and "downstairs" characters on "Downton Abbey" deal with realistic issues of their era, including World War I, a downturned economy, death of loved ones and social class barriers. The countess handles it all with her typical aplomb, as she explains, "I'm a woman ... I can be as contrary as I choose" [source: Stylist].


3: 'Sherlock'

Benedict Cumberbatch filming "Sherlock" in London in 2013.
Harlem Mepham/FilmMagic/Getty Images

What do American audiences think of the BBC One series "Sherlock"? It's elementary: They're mad about it. In 2014, the third season's ratings on PBS averaged 6.6 million, an increase of more than 2 million from the prior year [source: PBS Sundays]. This updated version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary detective stars Benedict Cumberbatch ("Star Trek Into Darkness," "The Imitation Game") as the title character, with Martin Freeman ("The Office," "The Hobbit") as the long-suffering war veteran and trusted companion Dr. John Watson.

Some episodes' plots are similar to the original stories, but the entire series updates Holmes' adventures. The Baker Street Irregulars include homeless Londoners and a graffiti artist. Instead of writing down Holmes' cases, Watson blogs about them. Also, Holmes' sometimes-adversarial relationship with authority takes a 21st-century spin -- he sends taunting texts to the press [source: Sherlockology].


2: 'Broadchurch'

Actor David Tennant appearing on "The Late Show with David Letterman" in 2014.
Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS/Getty Images

This BBC series starts out grimly with the murder of a 12-year-old boy, but the gravity of the plot didn't lessen recognition of its quality. After "Broadchurch" aired on BBC America in 2013, it received the prestigious Peabody Award for its storytelling excellence [source: Peabody]. Part of the series' appeal is that, in addition to telling a first-class mystery, it also examines how the locals are affected by the tragedy. Family and friends reel from the death, the press interferes and tourism becomes endangered.

The show stars a former popular Doctor Who -- David Tennant -- as detective Alec Hardy. Newly arrived to the seaside town of Broadchurch, he is all business and nearly emotionless. Detective Sergeant Miller (Olivia Colman, "The Iron Lady"), who had expected to get the inspector's position, is resentful but also highly competent and sympathetic to the village residents. Viewers tuned in to experience the complex nature of the series. Time magazine critic James Poniewozik wrote that "Broadchurch" was "a murder mystery that is about far more than its murder or its mystery."


1: 'Call the Midwife'

The fourth season of "Call the Midwife" premiered in 2015.

Contractions just minutes apart! What do you do? "Call the midwife!" This BBC One series, which airs on PBS, is based on a British midwife's memoirs. Set in London's poor East End during the 1950s and 1960s, the title characters serve their neighborhood, riding bikes to take calls. The realistic portrayals of pregnancy and childbirth fluctuate between joyful and heartbreaking. Other issues of the day, such as social class and mental illness, interweave with the birthing stories.

The fourth season of "Call the Midwife" has made a home for itself on Sundays, anchoring that night's drama-heavy PBS lineup. During its third year in 2014, the show drew 3.6 million public television viewers: an increase of 20 percent from the initial season [source: PBS -- PBS and BBC]. The midwives are on call to American audiences, as well.

Lots More Information

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