Netflix’s UK Drama Originals

One of the issues that Netflix has to face is how it can satisfy all its users in every country around the world. If you set up in France, you need to produce local French programming. If you set up in Australia, you need to produce local Australian programming.

To some extent, Netflix has been able to dodge some of this in English-language markets, because a UK audience will happily watch a US-made Netflix Original (NB. What constitutes a Netflix Original is an interesting story in itself). Netflix can get around some of this by licencing lots of BBC, ITV and C4 programming, as well as buying ex-US rights to US network or cable series. But in the end, a drama on Netflix probably has to work in multiple territories. The sums just don’t add up if they have to make substantial commissions in each territory in which they operate.

So more and more, Netflix is commissioning UK originated material. I’m going to explore some of Netflix’s higher-profile drama shows, and see what they really mean and who they’re targeting.

The Crown is probably their biggest success. It’s quite possibly the most expensive drama Netflix makes full stop, on a per hour basis anyway, and if we exclude some of their films. It’s premium quality drama and it wins lots of awards. (An admission: I’ve not got more than an episode and a bit into it. I know, I know. I will get around to it).

Of course, a drama featuring the lives of the Royal Family is going to have international appeal. This is the kind of series, that had the BBC been able to make it, would have shown up on PBS in the US too.

Safe, which was released in May last year, was a very curious piece indeed. Theoretically, it’s a British crime thriller, but everything about it was wrong. The series was created by Harlan Corben, an American crime writer. It starred Michael C Hall (of Dexter fame) playing a British paediatrician whose daughter goes missing within their gated community.

So a series created by an American (although written by the very British Danny Brocklehurst), featuring an American lead actor who has a very mannered, yet nondescript British accent, and set within the type of community that’s actually fairly rare in Britain (I’m not saying that there aren’t such places, but they tend to be more frequent in the US).

Throw in a French teacher played by Audrey Fleurot (or Engrenages/Spiral fame), and you get the distinct impression that several boxes had to be ticked to get this series green-lit. American audiences will watch for Hall; French audiences will watch for Fleurot; British audiences will watch for everything else.

The series even avoided mentioning any locations, by not really giving anyone any regional accents, and talking about going to “the city” rather than anywhere too specific. I really hope that this wasn’t because international viewers might get confused by anywhere in the UK that’s not London.

I confess that I bailed on this before the end.

The Innocents appeared midway through last year – and seemed to be aimed at teenagers. I didn’t watch most of this either, although I note that while the cast was mostly of unknowns, there’s also Guy Pearce in there.

It’s a strange supernatural tale that seems to be partly set in Britain, and partly in Norway. There are some accents, although the story is such that what producers were really going for was a sense of alienation and other-worldliness.

Which brings us to Netflix’s most recent UK original, Sex Education, starring Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson. It’s hard to know where to begin with this frankly bizarre series.

Butterfield plays Otis, the teenage son of Jean (Anderson), and best friend of Eric. They are outsiders at their local school, which is kind of understandable, because it seems to exist in some kind of strange time warp. Although the series is very much contemporary – smartphones and mentions of Ed Sheeran – everyone dresses up like they’ve walked out of a John Hughes movie from the eighties, and the soundtrack is stuffed full of the kind of music you might of heard on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack. Everyone seems to drive vintage cars, and Otis and Eric ride to school on old racing bikes.

The school itself is a curious American-style High School, with “jocks” wearing jackets and it having a swimming team – or should that be “swim team”?

And everyone is obsessed with sex. If you thought The Inbetweeners had a one tracked mind, you haven’t seen this lot. It must be something in the water.

As it happens, Otis’s mother is a sex therapist, and the premise of the series is that Otis will use what knowledge he’s gained from his mother to help his classmates out with sex-advice for their various issues.

If you think that’s a deranged premise – that anyone at school, learning about their own sexuality, would pay heed to a classmate in such matters – then you’d be right. But like everything else in this series, you have to go with it.

The series is theoretically set in a Welsh valley, although nobody actually seems to speak in a Welsh accent. Instead there’s a general you-could-be-anywhere feel to the series, even though the valley were they shot this series is fabulous looking.

Now part of all of this is clearly a kind of stylistic device. We’ve seen similar kinds of things in other series like Legion and Maniac with retro-contemporary settings. But you also wonder whether Netflix is consciously trying to make something that doesn’t completely alienate a US audience.

I do worry that so many of Netflix’s UK originals seem to have any sense of localness surgically removed from them. I’m not saying that they should only be making dramas that would give Jimmy McGovern a good run for their money in their depictions of troubled inner-cities, but providing at least some sense of place would be nice.

Last week the BBC opened a consultation on being able to keep programming on iPlayer for longer than 30 days. They note that audiences – especially younger audiences – expect to be able to watch full series as they do on Netflix.

The concern for all British broadcasters must be that Netflix dominates in due course. But their idea of a British drama is very different to current broadcasters views of drama. A British series shouldn’t just be an American series with different accents and cars on the other side of the road.

2 Comments

  1. I think Sex Education is a brilliant watch. On both the timewarp aspect and the US/UK hybrid school setting I think it’s more of an editorial choice than a Netflix mandate (though of course it works for them too). There’s a good interview at the end of this Radio Times piece where the creator talks about it:
    https://www.radiotimes.com/news/on-demand/2019-01-14/sex-education-netflix-british-show-look-so-american/

    There’s also a great line in the penultimate episode where the main character disses the idea of a US imported school dance, which was very knowing and made me laugh.

  2. I did see that Radio Times piece, and I’m not altogether convinced by it.

    “For instance, the Brits may notice that they are throwing American footballs, whereas the Americans won’t notice that that might be strange for people speaking with British accents.

    “The rules are shifting all the time in terms of how an audience receives the shows that they’re watching, what they’re willing to accept and what realms and worlds they’re willing to step into to suspend their disbelief.

    “I think Netflix feels quite strongly that they’ve hit on something with this amalgamation.”

    We all watched those eighties movies and TV series. While I can entirely see that it might have been an editorial choice to make this a weird transatlantic place, I don’t think that Netflix is discouraging it – and they may be actively encouraging it.

    And playing American Football rather than rugby in Wales!!!

    I suppose what I’m concerned about is that there becomes a formula for regionalised shows on Netflix:

    – Don’t do anything that’s too culturally different to life in the US
    – Try to get at least one actor that US audiences are already familiar with (Gillian Anderson, Guy Pearce, Michael C Hall etc)
    – Don’t have a setting that’s unfamiliar to US audiences (e.g. Anywhere that’s not London), or if you do, ignore it so audiences think it could be California with a different landscape.

    I don’t think that’s a healthy creative place to be in.

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