British crimewave hits America as edgy dramas make cult TV

From Happy Valley to Peaky Blinders and The Night Of, UK shows are winning ratings and critics plaudits Stateside

Households across America will tune in to the much-anticipated finale of the HBO crime drama The Night Of and discover whether Riz Ahmeds character, Naz, is saint or sinner an innocent victim whose only error was stealing his fathers taxi to get to a party, or a violent psychopath guilty of a particularly brutal crime.

If that plotline sounds vaguely familiar, thats because The Night Of, which arrives in the UK on Sky Atlantic on Thursday, is based on the 2008 BBC hit Criminal Justice, which starred Ben Whishaw as the wide-eyed partygoer whose night on the town in his dads cab takes a very dark turn.

And its not the only British crime series to be making waves in the US. Happy Valley recently aired on Netflix in America to critical acclaim; Peaky Blinders has built up a cult following since airing on the same streaming channel; and Broadchurch was so well received after airing on BBC America that network Fox decided to remake it as Gracepoint (the response was considerably less laudatory).

Both Victorian crime drama Ripper Street and the gloomy Fortitude have also won good reviews in the US the former was described as magnetic and intriguing in the Hollywood Reporter; the latter billed by New Republic as one of the seasons most visually interesting shows.

Maureen Ryan, chief television critic for the American trade magazine Variety, says that tone is a huge factor behind the growing interest in British drama.

A large part of the appeal is that these shows are character-driven, she says. They put people in situations that are extreme in some way, but what occurs is often realistic and, even if its challenging, it makes sense and is dramatically compelling. Theyre willing to go to a dark or darkly comic place for anyone who enjoys sarcasm and mordant wit, theyre really satisfying on those fronts.

Its also the case that the advent of streaming channels allows us to curate our own television. We watch what we want, when we want to and with that freedom has come a greater knowledge of shows from all over the world. So American audiences flicking through Netflix are more likely to stumble on Peaky Blinders or take a chance on Happy Valley.

The success of Happy Valley in the US is the most interesting example, says Frith Tiplady, executive producer for UK-based Tiger Aspect Drama.

Its such a very British crime drama, but it found an audience because it succeeds on its own terms and feels fresh. Plus Sally Wainwright writes women in a way that no one else does, says Tiplady.

Cillian Murphy as Thomas Shelby in Peaky Blinders. Photograph: Robert Viglasky/BBC/Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd/Tiger Aspect/Robert Viglasky
With Peaky Blinders, were almost selling back to the Americans what they do so well its a deliberately self-mythologising story about crime and family that has western overtones and steals from 1920s gangster tales. Its not surprising that US audiences have responded really well to it because its a show that takes American storytelling and gives it a British twist.

Indeed, British crime stories have done so well in the US that theyre starting to return the favour: Sky Atlantic recently announced that it had started production on political thriller Guerrilla, starring Idris Elba, a drama about radical black politics in 70s Britain with a twist its being written and overseen by an American, the hugely talented John Ridley, who was the writer of 12 Years A Slave.

Its a story that John had wanted to do for ever, says Zai Bennett, director of Sky Atlantic. Once wed put the packet together, US cable channel Showtime were immediately interested in airing it. They said, we want this and we want to keep it British and I think thats because it was an unmined period of history with a great cast and an amazing script that felt particularly interesting because of its setting. Theres something new there. The best drama stands out because it has a sense of authorship and, as a nation, were rather good at creating dramas with that original voice.

Jane Tranter, the former BBC executive who took the idea for a Criminal Justice remake to HBO and is an executive producer on The Night Of, agrees, adding that both sides of the Atlantic can learn from each other.

Its definitely the case that television has really broken down the Atlantic gap, she says. When I moved to the US, the main thing I wanted to take from British television was the kind of storytelling we do intelligent, thought-provoking and with something to say.

In the same way, Id like UK dramas to take from the US their commitment to giving a story space to breathe theres a reason The Night Of feels the way it does and thats because we had the scope and scale to tell the story in our own time.

The Night Of starts on Sky Atlantic at 9pm on 1 September, when the whole series will be available from Sky Box Sets.

Making a killing



figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Sarah Lancashire as Catherine in Happy Valley Photograph: Ben Blackall/BBC/PA

Of Happy Valley, the Yorkshire police drama starring Sarah Lancashire, Variety said: Its rare, not to mention refreshing, to come across a female TV character who is not defined by her relationship with a man.

Peaky Blinders, the gaudy gangster tale with Cillian Murphy, about the Shelby clan in early 20th century Birmingham, has won a cult following, with celebrity fans from Brad Pitt and Snoop Dogg to Tom Cruise.

Ripper Street may be less flashy than Peaky, but this period crime drama about East End coppers, starring Matthew MacFadyen and Jerome Flynn, has an army of devoted fans.

The star power of Gillian Anderson in The Fall helped US audiences to discover Alan Cubitts drama on Netflix. The Atlantic went so far as to call it the most feminist show on television.

The original version of crime drama Broadchurch, with David Tennant and Olivia Colman, went down so well that the <a href=”″ data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Hollywood Reporter called it a textbook example of great writing, acting and economy of story. Fox was sufficiently impressed to remake it as Gracepoint, unfortunately for all concerned.

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