Beyond 'Downton': BBC Shows You May Have Missed Believe it or not, Downton Abbey is not the only quality show that the BBC has sent stateside in the past few years. Elizabeth Blair explores BBC imports — and an original from its American counterpart — that conjure up the same nostalgia and drama.
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Beyond 'Downton': BBC Shows You May Have Missed

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Beyond 'Downton': BBC Shows You May Have Missed

Beyond 'Downton': BBC Shows You May Have Missed

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/167455947/167988880" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Throughout the year, we report on a lot of new books and music and other entertainment, but we miss a few. So this week, we're going to play a little catch up in the series we're calling The Ones That Got Away.

Today, NPR's Elizabeth Blair tells us about three TV dramas from the BBC.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: There are two primary platforms for BBC shows in the U.S.: PBS, which has been programming their shows for decades, and the cable channel BBC America. One of its best shows is a cross between "Mad Men" and "Broadcast News."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HOUR")

BLAIR: "The Hour" takes place in London in the 1950s. It centers around the journalists and egos who put together a daily TV news show. Ticking deadlines, booze, sex, crime, "The Hour" moves.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HOUR")

PERRY SIMON: It really functions, both as a personal drama, as a historical drama in terms of the BBC news of that era, and then as a really kind of edge-of-your-seat crime drama.

BLAIR: Perry Simon heads up BBC America. He says another show he's very proud of is not an import but a series coproduced by BBC America and set in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COPPER")

BLAIR: "Copper" is a gritty crime drama packed with history.

SIMON: "Copper" is set in 1864, during the last gasp of the Civil War, and it revolves around very intense, rugged Irish immigrant cop who returns from the war to find his wife missing, his daughter dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COPPER")

BLAIR: "Copper" gave BBC America its highest-rated drama ever, says Perry Simon. As for PBS, they had a hit with the series that is divinely unconventional.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CALL THE MIDWIFE")

BLAIR: "Call the Midwife" on PBS is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth. When she was 22, she left her middle-class life and became a midwife with the nuns at a convent in a poor part of London in the 1950s.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CALL THE MIDWIFE")

BLAIR: In the UK, "Call the Midwife" was a sensation and every bit as popular as that other period phenomenon "Downton Abbey." Small wonder. "Call the Midwife" has characters you fall in love with: great humor and poignancy and drama.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CALL THE MIDWIFE")

BLAIR: "Call the Midwife's" executive producer Pippa Harris says when she first read Jennifer Worth's memoirs, she knew it was a TV series in the making.

PIPPA HARRIS: I think it was a combination of the episodic nature of her storytelling and the big ensemble cast, but also the mixture of humor and pathos that she has within the storylines that she tells. All of which combined made me think it would be brilliant television.

BLAIR: "Call the Midwife" takes place in the tenement blocks of London's East End. The midwives ride bikes through the overcrowded streets to get to their charges, the nuns in full garb and the lay nurses in skirts.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CALL THE MIDWIFE")

BLAIR: One of the many compelling characters is Sister Evangelina, a no-nonsense nurse who's seen it all and has little patience for the middle-class nurses who gasp at the poor living conditions.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW," CALL THE MIDWIFE")

HARRIS: Sister Evangelina, who is played by Pam Ferris, is probably the most working class of our characters. So she feels that she very much understands the community around her and finds at times that the others are, you know, all a little bit on a higher plain and they're being ridiculous about things. So she's very good at slapping the other characters down.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CALL THE MIDWIFE")

BLAIR: Sister Evangelina's annoyance takes an amusing turn when an upper class young woman, a midwife-in-training, shows up.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "CALL THE MIDWIFE")

BLAIR: Chummy for short is played by Miranda Hart. She's extremely tall, clumsy and needs a bike lesson.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "CALL THE MIDWIFE")

BLAIR: "Call the Midwife" is really about the community created between the nuns, the lay nurses and the people living under dreary circumstances. The midwives take care of the elderly, prostitutes and teenaged mothers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "CALL THE MIDWIFE")

BLAIR: In 2008, Jennifer Worth talked to the BBC about her experiences as a midwife. She said that even though she and the other nurses were working in rough neighborhoods, sometimes by themselves late at night, they never felt they were in danger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLAIR: Jennifer Worth consulted on the BBC TV series. But during pre-production, she was diagnosed with throat cancer and died six weeks later. Pippa Harris.

HARRIS: She actually died before we started filming and never got to see anything on film, which was awful actually.

BLAIR: In the series, Vanessa Redgrave is the voice of the main character Jenny Lee looking back on her career. The character is inspired by Jennifer Worth, and "Call the Midwife" captures the essence of her memoirs.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "CALL THE MIDWIFE")

BLAIR: PBS will be running a "Call the Midwife" holiday special on December 30th. A new season begins at the end of March next year. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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