Watching coverage of the Olympics this month reminded me of how deeply television has shaped my view of England.
For decades before she ever landed in London, the late American author Helene Hanff visited England vicariously through its writers.
“I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for,” Hanff recalled. “I said I’d go looking for the England of English literature, and he nodded and said: ‘It’s there.’”
The England of Hanff’s imagination was slightly different, perhaps, than the one she encountered when her passenger jet landed at Heathrow Airport, but the England of her mind was every bit as compelling a place as the real one.
The England I’ve met through British TV seems a vivid and tangible place to me, too.
I started watching British television as a pre-teen, catching reruns of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” on late-night public TV. The comedy show ran after prime time because of its racy and irreverent content, which tended toward references to flatulence and other off-color subjects. My mother, who would not have approved, was fast asleep upstairs as I engaged in clandestine viewings.
“Python” gave me a sense that the English must be a uniformly zany tribe, but as a British visitor explained to me some years later, the opposite was true. The ensemble comics of “Monty Python” resonated in England, or so I was told, precisely because they lacked the kind of inhibition so typical of the British character.
That kind of restraint rests at the center of “Doc Martin,” a British series popular on public television here and available to viewers through DVDs distributed by Acorn Media. Acorn released the fifth-season disc earlier this summer, allowing me to catch up on the title character, an emotionally repressed doctor played by Martin Clunes, as he navigates an uneasy relationship with his rural patients.
Clunes plays his part for laughs, but Kenneth Branagh explores the darker textures of introspection in the third season of “Wallander,” a British import coming back to public TV’s “Masterpiece Theatre” on Sunday nights at 8 from Sept. 9-23.
Branagh’s Wallander is a Swedish detective, but the series is a chance to reconnect with a lot of familiar faces from other British productions, including Branagh, a native of Northern Ireland who hammed it up while reciting Shakespeare during the opening ceremony of the Olympics. His plummy delivery at the ceremony wasn’t surprising for an actor trained on the British stage and accustomed to playing to the balconies. It’s a treat, though, to see Branagh directing all that energy inward for Wallander, a character known more for interior anguish than expressive emotion.
If there were an Olympic medal for comedy and drama, I thought as I watched “Doc Martin” and “Wallander,” the British would take home a lot of gold.