Is the Golden Age of British TV over?
For all I know, no one has yet identified the current era as a British TV Golden Age -- an era of perhaps 20 years or more, partly running more or less parallel to the American TV “Golden Age” that everyone on this side of the Atlantic talks about constantly.
The idea of a British TV Golden Age comes to mind with the finale airing this coming Sunday of “Inspector Lewis” on PBS. This series was a spinoff of the old “Inspector Morse” series, which ran for 33 episodes. “Inspector Lewis” ran for 33 episodes too. Detective Inspector Robert Lewis (played by Kevin Whately, seen at right in the photo) was an assistant-partner for Detective Chief Inspector Endeavour Morse (John Thaw).
Inspector Lewis got his own series, which raises the possibility that his own partner, Detective Inspector James Hathaway (formerly detective sergeant) -- played by Laurence Fox (left in the photo) -- would now be getting his own spinoff. However, no evidence that such a spinoff is in the works could be found in a Google search Tuesday morning. And a PBS publicist said she has not heard of one. (“Inspector Morse” spawned another spinoff -- the prequel series called “Endeavour.”)
“Inspector Lewis” was a perfectly serviceable detective-mystery series -- a durable entry in the “Masterpiece Mystery” pantheon. Fans of the show, and all the ones like it that are seen on public television here in the U.S., should be well-satisfied by its concluding episode -- most of which is another complicated murder mystery requiring almost 90 minutes to solve. By all means, enjoy it.
But “perfectly serviceable” is not “extraordinary” -- which was an adjective you could apply to so many made-for-British TV productions from the ’90s through the mid-’00s (and beyond). This was a period in my own career in which few packages I received in the mail filled me with more excitement than a padded envelope or small box containing DVDs (or before that, VHS cassettes) of an upcoming British-made TV series, movie or miniseries.
To give credit where credit is due, a TV critic who I once worked with -- David Bianculli -- was the first to identify for me the particular qualities of British TV productions when he championed the work of producer-writer Dennis Potter, auteur of “The Singing Detective,” the legendary miniseries that aired on British and American television in the late 1980s. (The star of “The Singing Detective,” Michael Gambon, plays Winston Churchill in a “Masterpiece” movie coming to PBS next month.)
My own list of four-star British TV productions -- pieced together mainly from memory -- includes a number of titles many people might not readily remember. These include the miniseries “White Teeth” (2002), the two-part TV movie “Armadillo” (aired in the U.S. on A&E in 2002) and the TV movie “Gideon’s Daughter” (2005), starring Bill Nighy and Emily Blunt.
Nighy figures into a number of other highlights of the British TV Golden Age, including the three installments of “Worricker,” seen on “Masterpiece Contemporary,” and the great 2003 miniseries “State of Play” (seen in the U.S. on BBC America).
Watching and reviewing the 2004 miniseries “Island at War” -- a dramatization of the Nazi occupation of the English Channel Islands during World War II -- remains a highlight of my career. The cast included Clare Holman and Laurence Fox – both seen in “Inspector Lewis” -- and Joanne Froggatt, who became a star on “Downton Abbey” (as the lady’s maid Anna).
“Downton Abbey,” of course, occupies a lofty position in television history all its own. And yet, “Foyle’s War” is my personal favorite among all of the British TV series I have watched and written about.
These titles are rarely mentioned in the context of shows everyone goes and binge-watches. But they should be. For a time, the Brits had a special way with the writing and filming of their TV “programmes.” And then there’s the high quality of British acting. The Brits have a special way with that too -- so much so that American TV is brimming with English actors all adopting American accents in roles that American actors would have killed to play.
Ever since “Downton Abbey” came to an end last winter, nothing has emerged to take its place. I realize that’s a tough act to follow. But following “The Singing Detective,” British TV production flourished -- at least as it was reflected in the shows we got to see over here.
Where is the next “Downton Abbey,” “Foyle’s War” or “State of Play”? For now, that question has no answer.
“Masterpiece Mystery: Inspector Lewis: Finale: What Lies Tangled” airs Sunday night (Aug. 21) at 9 Eastern on PBS.