The sun never sets on the British entertainment empire.
Whether it’s the BBC’s “Blue Planet II” wowing TV viewers in Beijing or Paddington Bear’s new movie making kids squeal in Bulgaria or the latest West End hit thrilling theater buffs on Broadway, Britain’s cultural offerings have conquered consumers the world over. Like the U.K.’s diplomatic prowess and its military might, the local entertainment industry boasts a reach and impact disproportionate to the nation’s size.
It probably ranks second only to the U.S. in how widely its content crosses cultures, countries and continents, heightening Britain’s soft power and burnishing its international image. From “Fantastic Beasts” to “Fleabag” to “Phantom of the Opera,” the U.K.’s films, shows and plays attract global followings, as do many of its stars, whose names regularly appear on prestigious awards lists. Since 2010, seven Brits have flown back across the pond from L.A. clutching acting Oscars, most recently Olivia Colman in 2019 for “The Favourite” and Gary Oldman in 2018 for “Darkest Hour.”
The U.K. doesn’t just dispatch people and content abroad; it also draws them in. With its wealth of talent, the country has become such a powerful production magnet that it can barely meet the demand for facilities and expertise. Disney and Netflix are setting up shop at Pinewood-run studios, and Warner Bros. owns Leavesden, sparking a bit of grumbling by local producers about getting squeezed out on home turf. The dance cards of leading British directors, actors, writers and craftspeople are booked for months, even years.
It all adds up to a stellar résumé for a country whose population is barely a fifth that of the U.S. “In terms of boxing above its weight class, Britain does that better than almost any country in the world,” says Josh Berger, head of Warner Bros. U.K. and chairman of the British Film Institute. “The impact that British talent has on the entertainment industry is massive.”
But all is not easy on fair Albion’s shores. This is a nation wrestling with its identity in a troubled and increasingly polarized era, with the never-ending Brexit saga dominating dinner-table discussion and exposing the cracks in a not-so-United Kingdom. That fretfulness is reflected in the stories being told on screen and stage, as in Channel 4 and HBO’s “Brexit: The Uncivil War” and the National Theatre’s “My Country; a work in progress.” The British entertainment industry overwhelmingly favors remaining in the European Union; about half of the U.K.’s exports in the visual, performing and musical arts cross the English Channel. Local players are bracing for the impact of Britain’s withdrawal, including potentially greater difficulty hiring artists and skilled workers from the Continent or using a U.K. broadcasting license in other parts of Europe.
But for all the hand-wringing and uncertainty, the world continues to beat a path to Britain’s door. Nowhere is that more evident than in the screen sectors. Film and television production spending in the U.K. has more than doubled in the past 10 years, setting a record in 2017 at $4.3 billion and coming in slightly shy of that in 2018. (Figures for 2019 are not yet available.)
To cope with — and cash in on — the boom, studio construction and expansion projects are cropping up in every region of the U.K. The hit ITV and PBS series “Victoria” is filmed in Northern England, on a disused air force base where Buckingham Palace interiors have been lavishly re-created on two soundstages. Cardiff, the capital of Wales, hosts production of “Doctor Who.” Some of “Avengers: Infinity War” was shot in Scotland on an old industrial site being groomed for possible redevelopment as a permanent studio, and “Game of Thrones” has turned Northern Ireland into a pilgrimage destination for the show’s obsessive fans.
London, the nerve center of Britain’s creative industries, has ambitious plans to build a large studio complex on the east side of the city, with up to a dozen stages and an event space. “It will attract major new projects, boost the area with hundreds of new jobs and show that London is open to talent, business and imagination,” Justine Simons, London’s deputy mayor for culture and the creative industries, tells Variety. “Our capital has been the backdrop for so many great movies, and this studio will welcome production companies from around the world.”
Brits certainly love the big screen. Local cinemas raked in about $1.7 billion in both 2017 and 2018, making the U.K. the world’s fourth-largest film market in box office terms, after North America, China and Japan. Movie ticket sales in 2018 were at their highest (177 million) in nearly 50 years. Although U.S. blockbusters usually rule, plenty of love gets shown to homegrown flicks and franchises, some of which, such as the “Paddington” and “Kingsman” movies, travel well. Driven mainly by Hollywood, English remains the lingua franca of filmed entertainment, which puts the mother country in prime position to peddle its wares internationally.
Britain’s storytellers are also blessed to be the inheritors of a national past that is the subject of global fascination — a history full of crowned heads, colorful leaders, colonial excesses and courageous wartime exploits. The first non-Hollywood film to bag an Academy Award was “The Private Life of Henry VIII,” which earned Charles Laughton a statuette in 1934 for his portrayal of the multiply married king. Indeed, playing a British monarch or prime minister seems like a fast track to Oscar glory; just ask Colman (Queen Anne), Oldman (Winston Churchill), Helen Mirren (Elizabeth II), Colin Firth (George VI), Judi Dench (Elizabeth I) and Meryl Streep (Margaret Thatcher).
Besides tales of the great and the good, the U.K. produces intimate, socially engaged fare that captivates moviegoers. The British indie sector, like its American counterpart, often struggles for attention and money in a sea of studio tentpoles. But backed by industry organizations such as Film4, BBC Films and the BFI, pictures like Ken Loach’s 2016 Palme d’Or-winning “I, Daniel Blake” and Francis Lee’s 2017 rural gay love story “God’s Own Country” add luster to Britain’s cinematic reputation. (Yes, there are also duds.)
“The breadth and depth of filmmaking — both global, blockbuster-type filmmaking and the vibrancy of British independent cinema — amounts to a very impressive record of British achievement,” says Berger, an American who has worked in London for nearly a quarter-century and is a naturalized Brit. “All of us in the last 20 years have just seen this grow from what seemed like a cottage industry to a global competitor right alongside Hollywood.”
If the U.K.’s success in film inspires envy, its television business is another high achiever, especially in this time of Peak TV. From drama to comedy, natural history to reality shows, British programs delight critics and audiences the world over. They also rake in money: In the 2018-19 financial year, television exports rose to a record high of about $1.8 billion, an increase of 7% from the previous year. Britannia may no longer rule the waves, but on the airwaves it still does a jolly good job.
The U.S. gobbled up nearly a third of those exports, with the result that British stars and shows were out in force at the 2019 Emmys, even if their branding got a bit lost somewhere over the Atlantic. Talk in the States of “Amazon’s ‘Fleabag’” and “Netflix’s ‘Bodyguard’” triggered some embarrassed throat-clearing and apologetic reminders from the U.K. that both shows originated in Britain, at the BBC. The attributions stung all the more because the Beeb and other British broadcasters regard the big-footed American streamers as existential threats.
Despite the hostility directed at it from some traditional players, Netflix is a firmly established presence on the British landscape and a significant contributor to the creative economy. CEO Reed Hastings revealed recently that Netflix spent more than $500 million in the U.K. over the past year, an amount he expects will grow. That huge sum, along with the company’s new long-term lease at Shepperton Studios, signals its commitment to the U.K. — and its intention to keep on poaching the best local talent, such as “The Crown” writer Peter Morgan, who signed what is believed to be an eight-figure multiyear deal with the streaming giant.
“It’s making a massive investment in our country, and it deserves the kudos it’s getting,” says Claire Enders of media research firm Enders Analysis. But “they’re building their business by cherry-picking the most talented people in the sector. There’s no business I know that hasn’t lost one or maybe even their two most talented people to Netflix.”
With Disney’s and Apple’s direct-to-consumer services entering the fray, the pressure on local broadcasters will only intensify. Joining forces to stay competitive is the name of the game. Longtime rivals ITV, the BBC and Channel 4 are all feeding content to digital SVOD service BritBox, which has just launched in the U.K., to help it counter the interlopers bent on global domination. The steeply climbing cost of premium drama — which Enders calls “the single most heinous impact of Netflix” — has also given rise to more transatlantic partnerships between British and American producers to make pricey shows like “Chernobyl,” “His Dark Materials” and “Killing Eve.”
The busy two-way traffic across the pond encompasses the legit world as well. Remarkably, at the end of 2019, the West End and Broadway had 10 of the same productions running simultaneously, most of them crowd-pleasing musicals such as “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Wicked.” The cross-fertilization has reached a point where even works about American life debut in the U.K. before landing in front of U.S. audiences. “The Inheritance,” a two-part play about contemporary young gay Americans, kicked off with a successful run in London before transferring to New York. Same with “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical.”
Britain is steeped in theater; it is, after all, a country whose most important literary figure, William Shakespeare, was a playwright. That affinity helped spur record attendance in the West End — 15.5 million — in 2018, which brought in almost $1 billion in receipts. (By comparison, Broadway logged attendance of 14.8 million during the 2018-19 season and grossed $1.8 billion.) Outside London, theaters across the U.K. attracted a collective audience of 18.8 million through the year.
The rosy numbers mask the challenges facing non-West End venues in an era of spending cuts, which have caused public funding of the stage to fall by more than a quarter in real terms over the past decade. “The government subsidy in our theater [industry] is meant to allow us to take risks and be innovative,” says Indhu Rubasingham, director of the Kiln Theatre in northwest London. “It allows us to have the National Theatre, which is world-class.”
In spite of the cutbacks, British playhouses regularly put on new and experimental productions. The stage can often be quicker than film and television to react to and explore current affairs, in plays like “Albion” by Mike Bartlett, which delves into England’s identity crisis, and “My Country; a work in progress,” which features the words of ordinary people interviewed around the U.K. after the Brexit referendum. To Rubasingham, art can help ease the divisions that have split the country. “We’re in a time where everyone gets into their different tribes and throws rocks at each other,” she says. “Theater has a very important role in bringing people together. Literally, you bring people together in the audience. It’s about telling stories that connect us.”
In the end, that’s what lies at the root of Britain’s extraordinary success in the field of entertainment, on both stage and screen: the quality of the stories being told, and the care and craft that go into the telling. If the U.K. industry keeps tapping into that rich vein, it should continue to excel.
“No matter how many tax credits you have, how many drama schools and skills programs, if the content isn’t great, it doesn’t really matter,” Warner Bros.’ Berger says, adding with a dash of British understatement: “What we make here is really good.”