Does Your PBS Station Show...?

Dateline: November 18, 1999
Updated: December 4, 2000

You've read my Top 10 Series Not Shown In U.S., but let's look at British shows which are readily available to individual Public Television stations but may not be running in your area because neither you nor they have heard of them...yet.

First, it's necessary to distinguish between series which are networked by the national PBS feed (such as Masterpiece Theatre, Mystery, and Nova), and shows which are purchased by each station to fill up odd hours. Are You Being Served? and Keeping Up Appearances seem ubiquitous in this category on most stations, and for purposes of this article I'm not going to mention either Doctor Who or EastEnders, both long-running cult series which require a large commitment both in time and money for a station to purchase.

Father Ted: Hilarious Channel 4comedy about three misfit Irish Catholic priests stuck on remote Craggy Island. Slightly surreal and possibly a bit offensive to those with no sense of humor, it ran for three seasons.

Jonathan Creek: Three seasons (and a Christmas special) of this BBC comedy/mystery series have been broadcast so far by the BBC. Very much in the vein of Moonlighting, a brilliant but eccentric inventor of magic tricks (Alan Davies as the title character), reluctantly investigates cases of "impossible" crimes with a novelist (Men Behaving Badly's Caroline Quentin), and the romantic sparks fly even though both claim to loath the other. Cleverly written by David Renwick (One Foot In The Grave), this charming series has turned up on a few PBS stations so far, and is well worth trying to see.

Ballykissangel: The popular Irish drama is already a staple on BBC America, but PBS stations are also able to get episodes for those without the cable channel (or a distaste for commercials). Not unlike Northern Exposure, with its "fish out of water" premise set in a small town of eccentrics (and remade for American TV as PAX's Hope Island), early episodes with Stephen Tompkinson and Dervla Kirwan quickly won viewers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Goodnight Sweetheart: For five years Gary Sparrow (Nicholas Lyndhurst of Butterflies and Only Fools And Horses) lived two lives: as a contemporary husband in a dead-end job, and a dashing would-be spy in 1940s wartorn London romancing a pretty young barmaid. This time traveling BBC sitcom appealed to both nostalgia buffs and lovers of situation comedy when Gary would inevitably have to simultaneously keep two women in two eras happy.

Class Act: Joanna Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous) stars in this 1995 ITV comedy/drama series as Kate, an ex-con former socialite now advancing on middle-age trying to maintain her lifestyle (and house) in fashionable Chelsea. Lumley gets the best lines, but is also the butt of most of the jokes about her somewhat sad character who dreams of being on top again.

Karaoke/Cold Lazarus: The final two works of writer Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective) that chronicle the demise and resurrection centuries later of a screenwriter (Albert Finney).

Star Cops: This short-lived 1987 BBC attempt at "serious" science fiction (as opposed to Doctor Who) is mainly a mystery series about (what else?) cops in space, as they sometimes encounter brand new forms of crime. Though somewhat racist (a different nationality took turns each episode being the villains of the week), probably not too far off from how life in space will be actually be in the early 21st Century. Because there are only nine episodes, this is a fairly cheap investment for a PBS station, particularly one that might be normally allergic to science fiction shows.

Chef!: Black comedian Lenny Henry stars in this BBC comedy about a highly strung head chef and owner of a small 3-star French restaurant. He hurls abuse at all his employees (and any customers who don't appreciate his genius), but his long-suffering wife keeps him in check. Things got a bit dull during the third season, but the amazing thing about Henry is his charisma shines through even playing a rather unpleasant character.

One Foot In The Grave: Believe it or not, this is the "inspiration" for the latest Bill Cosby series, about a recently unemployed old crank (Richard Wilson in his signature role as Victor Meldrew) generally making life miserable for everyone around him as well as himself. His trademark catchphrase "I don't believe it!" is known all over Britain, and to Americans who have sampled this amusing BBC comedy series.

Red Dwarf: Despite being over 10 years old, many parts of the United States have yet to screen the hilarious, if sometimes juvenile, adventures of Dave Lister (Craig Charles) as the last survivor of humanity stuck out in deep space in this BBC comedy. My advice if you want to persuade your local PBS station to run it: first, tell them it pledges like crazy (our local PBS station has literally made millions just from Red Dwarf over the years), but more importantly, it attracts people in their 20s and 30s who probably have never bothered to watch Public Television before. If PBS is going to survive into the 21st Century, they need to appeal to a broader range of viewers, and Red Dwarf is an excellent way to do that in ways Barney and Keeping Up Appearances won't.

The Brittas Empire: Chris Barrie (Red Dwarf) stars as Gordon Brittas, the anal-retentive but well-intending manager of a sports complex in this BBC comedy series. His misfit staff tries to contain the chaos that reigns in Gordon's wake, but usually a brilliantly conceived disaster builds and builds each episode for a spectacular payoff.

Chalk: David Bamber stars as Vice Principle Eric Slatt in this BBC comedy set at a high school where everything goes wrong on a daily basis. Everyone else at the school are just as nuts including the ditzy music teacher who has imaginary students playing in an imaginary band, a PE coach into S&M, and the befuddled old headmaster with the unfortunate name of Richard Nixon. Slatt is a great comic monster, always allowing situations to deteriorate way past the point of salvage, and then completely overreacting.

Faith In The Future: Probably the best attempt at a sitcom ITV has produced in the past decade. Lynda Bellingham and Julia Sawalha (Absolutely Fabulous) star as a mother and daughter slowly driving each other crazy, and their respective love lives. Simon Pegg provides good comedy support as Julia's best friend, who secretly loves her but never has the nerve to say so.

Outside Edge: Originally a stage play, this ITV series about a weekend cricket club focuses on two couples, the uptight middle class Dervishes (Robert Daws and Brenda Blethyn) and more laid back couple (Josie Lawrence and Timothy Spall). You don't have to be a fan of cricket to appreciate the subtle comedy here, which (much like the game) rewards handsomely those who pay attention.

The Grand: ITV period drama series set in Manchester 1920, where the Grand hotel has just reopened after a major remodeling as the country tries to recover from The Great War. Starring Mark McGann (Paul's brother), Susan Hampshire, Tim Healy, and Julia St. John, it's very much a serial in the Upstairs Downstairs vein.

Grafters: Robson Green (Touching Evil) and Stephen Tompkinson (Ballykissangel) play two brothers from Newcastle who work as builders down South. Robson is the smooth one with experience, while Stephen is clueless when it comes to both life and construction. This ITV drama series has run two seasons so far.

Now read about how to talk with your local PBS station to see some of these series.

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