Lights, camera, London: the rise of British movies and TV culture in the US

Today we’re delighted to introduce a post from our digital team in the USA on the stateside popularity of British movies and TV. If you’re an inbound passenger travelling to the UK, read on  to discover exactly how you can explore all your favourite filming locations while you’re here…

VAA US - British TV & Movie Culture - London skyline - gacabo

London is a popular location for TV and movie filming; Image by Gacabo

British film and TV are having a moment. In fact, that’s an understatement. They’re booming – not just in the UK, but here in the US, and in the rest of the world too. This following means there’s a huge interest in UK filming locations, and ergo, a growing demand for TV and movie tours in London.

Not only can you visit famous areas, but you can join tours that will take you to all the hidden nooks and crannies you may not have found otherwise (filming spots in London tend to be a little more elusive than those available to you on a Hollywood movie set). For example, you can book BBC TV tours around the UK, with some dates even selling out, and in 2012 Warner Bros. Studios opened its doors to ‘Harry Potter World’, to much acclaim. There are also independent tour operators such as Brit Movie Tours (more on those guys later).

VAA US - British Movie & TV Culture - Harry Potter - Hogwarts Express - Brit Movie Tours

Take a trip on the Hogwarts Express at Warner Bros. Studios’ Harry Potter World; Image courtesy Brit Movie Tours

Feeling the FOMO yet? With the typical US resident watching more than 30 hours of TV each week (on average), we thought it made sense to dive a little deeper. Sit back and treat yourself to a satisfying binge-read on why the US just can’t get enough of British entertainment, and why seeing the London scenes from your favourite shows and movies in the flesh is better than any HD experience.

The rising popularity of British TV in the US

The UK has exported more than 600 TV shows worldwide. We’re not just talking new, shiny shows (though we will get to these), but well-loved, old-school sitcoms. Sit three different generations in front of one of these shows, and you’ll find they all laugh at the same jokes (even when they’ve seen the episode many times before). That is what is known in the industry as ‘timeless.’

“You can’t beat a good British sitcom – Fawlty Towers, Only Fools and Horses and The Office are my particular favourites,” says Elliot Gonzalez of I talk telly, a site about all things TV (‘telly’ = ‘TV’ in the UK – go figure).

“All three of those shows are so brilliantly written, wonderfully observed and have really stood the test of time,” he continues. “They have also inspired great comedy on both sides of the Atlantic and have really led the way in this field.”

The real Downton Abbey - Highclere Castle, set in the picturesque English countryside; Image courtesy of Lady Carnarvon at Highclere Castle

The real Downton Abbey – Highclere Castle, set in the picturesque English countryside; Image courtesy of Lady Carnarvon at Highclere Castle

And then, there are British drama shows. Series such as Downton Abbey, Sherlock, Mr Selfridge, Merlin and Doctor Who have grown in both quality and popularity. As Elliot explains, “In the four years I’ve been writing about TV, British drama in particular has just got better and better. We’re finally able to compete with America when it comes to shows that look great, attract a wonderful cast and are watched worldwide.”

Let’s put things into perspective. The final episode of Downton Abbey drew the biggest finale audience ever on PBS. It’s the network’s highest-rated drama of all time. Just let those facts sink in for a moment: Of ALL TIME. This begs the question, what is it about British shows that US audiences can’t get enough of?

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BBC’s hit show Sherlock is regularly filmed in the heart of London; Image courtesy Brit Movie Tours

The best British TV shows

Anglonerd is an American’s guide to British entertainment, with everything from reviews of stand-up comedians to interviews with some big names in movies and TV. Its owner, Jaime Pond, takes an interesting stance on the appeal of British material in the US: “I’d guess that it’s more to do with production quality than an attraction to the culture. While American shows often run about twenty-two episodes each season, British shows are usually six or eight episodes. In extreme cases like Sherlock and Black Mirror, you get just three episodes. Even longer shows like Doctor Who are known to go on long hiatuses. I believe it’s this extra time that gives them such high quality television.”

So to name a few, which other shows in particular are America loving right now?

“America has just discovered Stewart Lee,” Jaime says. “Lee’s comedy is so alternative, I was amazed his TV show Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle made it to television, let alone jumped the pond. This stand-up/sketch show hybrid, which is basically stand-up for people who think they don’t like stand-up, has recently been on both Hulu and Netflix in the States.

“America has also just discovered Mad Dogs. I’ve been obsessing over this show (which is either a surreal drama or black comedy, depending on who you ask) for years, but it was only available in region 2 DVD. Now Americans are discovering it by way of the American remake on Amazon Prime.”

Jaime also mentioned a few favourites that she would love to see land on US shores. Look ‘em up:

• Friday Night Dinner
• 15 Storeys High
• Luna (a movie, not a show)

VAA US - British Film & TV Culture - Downton Abbey ©Carnival Films Masterpiece.

Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham; Image courtesy Carnival Films / Masterpiece via Driehaus Museum

Naturally, this is just the tip of the iceberg. If we step out of the comedy and drama sphere, we have the ‘national treasures’: Top Gear, The Great British Bake Off, Planet Earth… the list goes on.

But surely there’s more to the appeal of British movies and shows than just the production quality? There must be something that’s enticing people to visit London to see their favourite sets for a selfie…

Why do US audiences love British TV?

When it comes to shows made and shot in the UK, according to Elliot, it could be their quintessential ‘Britishness’ that fascinates us: “They offer Americans a window into what some believe British life to be like. When they think of Britain, they think of the upstairs/downstairs nature of Downton Abbey; they’re of course familiar with the Sherlock stories, and you can’t really get more British than Sherlock.”

Is this true? Do we in the US assume that Brits frolic around stately homes like the characters in Downton? Or that they say things like “elementary, my dear Watson” on a daily basis? Perhaps it’s this sort of romantic belief that’s making TV and movie tours in London so popular. Or maybe there’s something more.

“There’s an accessibility with British shows that you don’t often get with US TV shows,” continues Elliot. “The stories are often more believable, and there’s a greater emphasis on great characters with great storylines.”

This is an interesting point: British shows don’t just feature characters who we can fall in love with, but stories that seem somehow more authentic (a few supernatural elements notwithstanding) and spellbinding backdrops that make us dream. But that’s just the thing: they’re no dream. We can visit them. For real.

Lewis Swan, Director of Brit Movie Tours, agrees: “They are creative. The storylines are creative and there is some great talent involved in the shows – great acting, great locations.”

Downton Abbey’s London location, Grantham House – otherwise known as Bridgewater House in Westminster; Image courtesy Brit Movie Tours

Downton Abbey’s London location, Grantham House – otherwise known as Bridgewater House in Westminster; Image courtesy Brit Movie Tours

TV and movie tours in London

Taking a trip to the English capital no longer just means visiting landmarks, museums and world-famous stores – it means discovering the secret offices of the James Bond London HQ, stopping by some of Sherlock’s favorite haunts, or indeed, frolicking in the grounds of Downton-famous stately homes.

Cyberman from Doctor Who on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral; Image courtesy Brit Movie Tours

Cyberman from Doctor Who on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral; Image courtesy Brit Movie Tours

Brit Movie Tours is one of the best-known UK companies when it comes to visiting the scenes of your most treasured movies and shows, so Lewis knows a thing or two about famous filming locations across the pond. We asked him how TV and movie tours have become such a big hit. “I think people get immersed in a show or a character and it’s a way to make it more real. There’s a bit of magic about going to a place where a particular scene has taken place […] it makes it a more immersive experience.”

Harry Potter’s magical Platform 9 ¾ at London’s King’s Cross; Image courtesy Brit Movie Tours

Harry Potter’s magical Platform 9 ¾ at London’s King’s Cross; Image courtesy Brit Movie Tours

With so many UK locations to visit, which are the most popular?

“I would say that places that are really similar in real life to how they are on-screen are always popular […] One really popular location is from the BBC Sherlock tour – the scene where he falls off the top of the hospital. There’s something of a pilgrimage site at the bottom. Also Platform 9 ¾ for Harry Potter and MI6 for James Bond fans.”

And which tours have caught on most with US customers?

“Harry Potter, James Bond, Sherlock, Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones. The big hitters. The US represent about 20% of our customer base from across the world.”

London locations: the highlights

Take a Google Map tour of each location by clicking on the points above

Call The Midwife - St Joseph's College - Mill Hill Mr Selfridge - Selfridge's Oxford Street Harry Potter - Kings Cross - Platform 9 3/4 Sherlock - St Bartholomew’s Hospital Downton Abbey - Highclere Castle - Hampshire James Bond - MI6 Building - Vauxhall Doctor Who - The Tardis - Earl's Court Downton Abbey - Bridgewater House - Westminster Mission Impossible - Excel London - Docklands

When it comes to movies, the UK is the third most popular destination for film locations (after the US and Canada). We spoke to The Collective – a market-leading agency in London for film, TV and photography – to find out why so much filming occurs there in the first place.

“London has been the overseas destination of choice for US studios for a number of years now because we have created the perfect ecosystem for big budget productions,” says Managing Director Antony Iredale. “The tax incentives are extremely appealing, but you need more than that to sustain the level of production London has for so long.”

So how are these locations scouted? In a nutshell, production crews hire a location manager and provide them with a brief. The location manager then starts searching for the perfect spot, whether it be for a TV show, movie or commercial. They’ll typically scour a range of sources, including their own personal photo library from previous scouts, location agencies such as The Collective, and even street-by-street searches and letterdrops if necessary.

And of course, just because filming for a production has taken place in the UK, it doesn’t necessarily mean it was set there, as Antony explains: “The range and scale of architecture in and around London means you can find a wide range of locations to double for most countries and eras.”

Look familiar? The former Central St Martin’s campus in Holborn is the setting for a number of movies filmed in London; Image courtesy The Collective

Look familiar? The former Central St Martin’s campus in Holborn is the setting for a number of movies filmed in London; Image courtesy The Collective

The sites that are selected are usually pretty versatile, so can be used again and again. “Our most prominent location is the former Central St Martin’s campus building in Holborn,” explains Antony. “You might recognise it as the examination room where Keira Knightley aced Benedict Cumberbatch’s maths test in The Imitation Game, […] the derelict hospital where Idris had his finale dust-up as Luther, the Victorian asylum Alice escapes out of in Alice Through the Looking Glass, the ‘back of house’ for the opening episode of Mr Selfridge, or where Victor Frankenstein fought with a mechanical bat monkey. It was also the building that housed TFI Friday in its recent comeback.”

Some other highlights include:

• Langleybury, an old, vacant mansion near Watford (the setting for Adele’s Rolling in the Deep video, plus the movies Diana, In the Heart of the Sea, Florence Foster Jenkins, Paddington and Suffragette)
• ExCeL London in the Docklands (used for Mission Impossible 5, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mortdecai and Now You See Me 2)
• St Joseph’s Catholic College in Mill Hill (the bombed missionary college that acted as the principal location in Call the Midwife)

Filming aside, we also asked Antony for his thoughts on the popularity of British movies and shows in the US. “Britain has had such an amazing and dramatic history, which fortunately has also been incredibly skilfully and comprehensively documented,” he says. “We have been cultural and artistic pioneers for centuries, giving birth to hundreds of classic stories and characters, both fictional and factual.”

And the more recent material?

“We are also incredibly successful and adept at producing and successfully exporting incredibly high-quality contemporary content – The Night Manager being a prominent recent example, [plus] Luther, Broadchurch, Utopia, Black Mirror, Humans, Lucky Man, Marcella, London Spy, Peep Show, Top Boy, This is England and of course Harry Hill: The Movie!” (Not heard of Harry Hill? Seriously, look him up. You’re welcome.)

Visit London

London is a popular location for TV and movie filming; Image by Per Salomonsson

London is a popular location for TV and movie filming; Image by Per Salomonsson

But back to London. Brit Movie Tours’ Lewis has some closing words for us:

“I think British history is romanticised for Americans, and there is a real fascination and attraction to it. TV gives them a taste of it, and when they come here, they get the full meal.”

Want a taste? Book your flights to London with Virgin Atlantic today.

About Virgin Atlantic USA

We are the Virgin Atlantic digital team in the USA, bringing you stories and views on our favourite destinations around the globe. Our aim is to make you feel like a local, by immersing you in stories on culture, the arts and of course… cuisine.
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