British drama is a hit around the world – but let’s not sell its soul

The world wants to buy our hit dramas, but let’s learn from Indian Summers, says David Butcher

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Every time a TV writer sits down to work on a new drama script, he or she inevitably has one eye on the lucrative overseas market. And they could be forgiven, because right now British drama is taking over the world.

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You may not be aware of this quiet boom – it’s the sort of thing that gets lost amid our domestic rows about leaders’ debates and Top Gear – but more countries are buying more UK series than ever before. Around the world, foreign TV channels are hoovering them up.

The world loves the image of Britain as a heritage brand, all sideboards and mullioned windows. But here’s the interesting thing: it’s not just the Downton Abbeys and Grantchesters and Poldarks of this world that sell to overseas broadcasters. All British drama is hot right now.

BBC Worldwide, the Corporation’s commercial arm, recently announced it had sold 700 hours of drama to international broadcasters. They’ll be watching Happy Valley in Germany, The Honourable Woman in Israel, Ripper Street in Poland and The Musketeers in Mexico.

They already watch Sherlock in China and Death in Paradise in Japan. And Doctor Who, of course, everywhere. It’s a thriving export industry. It’s also a big reason why foreign owners have bought up more than half of our independent production companies in recent years.

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But there is a downside to the global success, and we’re seeing it on our screens. Inevitably, hard-pressed TV writers start to tailor their ideas to what they know will play well abroad. And if they don’t, producers and script editors will lean on them, because they know which side their distribution deal is buttered.