There’s never been a better time to watch British TV in America, but if you want to see absolutely everything, it will cost you.
An ever-expanding universe of cable and streaming channels is so hungry for programming that we no longer have to wait for 10- or 20-year-old Britcoms to find their way to public stations, or for broadcast networks to make U.S. versions of U.K. shows.
PBS’s Masterpiece, a production of Boston’s WGBH, has added hours in recent seasons, so that its British dramas sometimes run back to back on Sunday nights, and may even follow other PBS-acquired series, like Call the Midwife or Last Tango in Halifax.
If you got to know James Norton as the conflicted vicar in 1950s-set Grantchester on Masterpiece, or Sarah Lancashire as the beleaguered headmistress and daughter on Last Tango in Halifax, you can also see them on Netflix, playing very different characters in the Yorkshire-set police drama Happy Valley. Norton’s newest series, the international thriller McMafia, premiered in Britain on New Year’s Day, and will make its U.S. debut on AMC on Feb. 26.
If you’re loving Jenna Coleman in Victoria on Masterpiece, you may already have seen her on Doctor Who on BBC America (and if you missed her as the Doctor’s companion, you can catch up on Amazon Prime Video). BBC America last month also introduced the U.S. to Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor (and the first woman to play the role) in the Christmas special “Twice Upon a Time.”
British TV may look even better from a distance.
Spend an evening channel-surfing in the U.K., as I did not long ago — or, for a cheaper thrill, check out the listings on TVGuide.co.uk — and you’ll find loads of reruns and “reality” shows from both sides of the pond. Maybe Real Housewives of Potomac seems exotic to them. Maybe we’d be charmed by Bargain-Loving Brits in the Sun, which follows the adventures of people who’ve moved to Benidorm in eastern Spain to get away from it all.
Neither, though, is the stuff of Masterpiece, or the kind of show for which PBS now finds itself competing with a growing number of cable networks and subscription services.
“It certainly has become more competitive, and there are projects that we would have liked to have taken that end up other places. But I think that the fact that there’s more appetite for good drama, and particularly drama that’s usually been in our space, isn’t a bad thing,” PBS president Paula Kerger said in an interview during the Television Critics Association’s winter meetings this month.
“You can tell I’ve been in public service my whole life, because I think that anything that spawns more opportunities for good drama is good. We should claim victory. But I also think, as we have seen with every other genre of programming that we have done, it becomes a flavor of the month because everyone is chasing the next Downton Abbey. And I think it will lurch back again. And so we’re just continuing to look for great drama,” Kerger said.
At Acorn, which began selling British TV to Americans on VHS tapes in the mid-1990s and which has operated a standalone streaming service since 2013, they’re also keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of competition that includes Britbox, a $6.99/month streamer launched last year by Britain’s BBC and ITV.
“I think we have a very good sense of who our customer is. We’ve been at it for a long time,” said Mark Stevens, Acorn’s chief content officer, who described Acorn’s subscriber base, which pays $4.99 a month, or $49.99 a year, as “an audience that skews maybe slightly older, like that PBS customer, perhaps.”
When Britain’s Sky 1 decided not to renew Acorn’s popular Agatha Raisin, starring Ashley Jensen (Ugly Betty) as a PR woman turned sleuth, Acorn commissioned a second season on its own, and it’s been expanding its international offerings.
“There’s a lot of content, interesting content, from Australia, Canada, New Zealand,” Stevens said. “We have a Swedish detective series, Rebecca Martinsson, that … you don’t even have to read the subtitles [to] enjoy the show.”
On Monday, Acorn premieres its newest British series, Girlfriends, a soapy six-parter starring Miranda Richardson, Zöe Wanamaker, and Downton Abbey’s Phyllis Logan as girlhood friends who are brought closer after Logan’s character is widowed under slightly mysterious circumstances. Richardson’s character, about to turn 60, is fighting to keep her magazine job, and Wanamaker’s is caught among the demands of a ne’er-do-well son, a grandson, an aging mother, and a soon-to-be-ex she clearly misses.
It’s a show bound to push buttons for a lot of people, particularly women who may be beyond the 18-49 demographic most ad-supported networks target.
So is the main character in Britbox’s Mum. A comedy, it stars Oscar nominee Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread) as 59-year-old Cathy, who’s just been widowed and who has some eccentric friends and family. (To quote the Guardian, “Lesley Manville puts the fun in funeral.”) A second season, in which the character turns 60, premieres on the service in May.
“I think 60 is being redefined by this generation of people who are 60,” Manville told reporters via satellite during Britbox’s recent session at TCA. “I think that women particularly are breaking the stereotypical role that’s been set for them over the decades, over the previous decades, about how they should be when they’re 60.”
Hulu, the subscription streaming service owned by Disney-ABC, 21st Century Fox, Comcast’s NBCUniversal, and Turner, will be courting drama junkies of all ages with Hard Sun, a coproduction with the BBC that premiered in the U.K. on Jan. 6 and that launches on Hulu on March 7.
Created by Neil Cross, the novelist and screenwriter best known for the Idris Elba series Luther, Hard Son encompasses at least a couple of genres as a “pre-apocalyptic” crime drama in which detectives played by Agyness Deyn and Jim Sturgess try to catch a killer after stumbling across a huge secret — that the Earth has only five years left.
Sorting out streaming
How should fans of TV with English accents decide to put their money?
Netflix has 19 season of Midsomer Murders. But so does Acorn, which also has all eight seasons of Doc Martin; Netflix has only the first six. Britbox has neither but does have newer programming, as well as Doctor Who episodes going all the way back to the 1963 beginning. (According to a Britbox spokesman, the service will add Midsomer Murders later this year.)
Most streaming services, fortunately, offer users at least a seven-day trial. They can be watched on computers but also through mobile apps or on a television using devices such as Roku.
Subscribers to Amazon Prime can order Acorn and Britbox as add-ons to their subscription, or even a Masterpiece-specific channel that, for an added $5.99 a month, allows streaming access to a sizable collection of the show’s current and past programming.
PBS has its own Passport streaming service, a perk for local station members who donate a certain amount — usually $60 or more — and who get longer online windows for current shows and access to a library of past ones.
Or Anglophiles can simply continue to turn to PBS on Sunday nights.
“I think that the challenge that we have moving forward is that there are a lot of streaming services, and that will even itself out,” said Kerger, noting that PBS partners with Netflix and Amazon on some distribution.
“But I think there are a lot of producers that want to work with us because of the platform that we have, that we’re in every home.”