The British TV invasion

America's love for British TV

So, what makes British TV so good?  Tracy Smith takes us behind the scenes:

You may remember Norman Lear's "All in the Family" as an American TV classic. But you may not know the show that inspired it. Six years before Archie Bunker, the show "Till Death Us Do Part," was already a hit in the U.K., complete with the bickering dad and son-in-law.

Before Carroll O'Connor's bigoted Archie Bunker made waves in "All in the Family," Warren Mitchell's Alf Garnett did the same in the British sitcom "Till Death Us Do Part." CBS/BBC

Surprised? Don't be: For the past few decades, dozens of British TV shows – or at least the ideas for them – have crossed the Atlantic to become big hits here in the colonies.

For instance, "Steptoe and Son," a sitcom about two London junkmen, was the inspiration behind "Sanford and Son." But Redd Foxx made it his own.

Then there's "The Office" – Ricky Gervais helped make it big in Britain; the American version, starring Steve Carell, was a pretty big hit as well.

And when the reality show "Strictly Come Dancing" waltzed away with top ratings in Great Britain, an American version – "Dancing With the Stars" – soon followed its lead.

The British dance competition "Strictly Come Dancing" gave birth to an American cousin, "Dancing With the Stars." BBC/ABC

At first, not even host Tom Bergeron thought it would fly.

Smith asked, "Before you saw the British show, what did you think of the concept?"

"Dancing With the Stars" host Tom Bergeron had to be convinced. CBS News

"Horrible idea, thought it was a horrible idea," Bergeron replied. "Who wants to watch people do a Viennese waltz on network television?"

The answer is, nearly everyone. The show is now in its 13th year.

Of course, not every show on U.K. TV is ripe for remake, says Pulitzer Prize-winning L.A. Times editor Mary McNamara. "There are shows that are magical because of the writing or because of the team or whatever. And then there are shows that are magical because of, like, one or two people. And you cannot recapture that."

A case in point: the '70s hit "Fawlty Towers," a show created by Monty Python star John Cleese. When asked why he thought "Fawlty Towers" was, and still is, so popular both in Britain and in the U.S., Cleese laughed, "Because it's very good!"

"Fawlty Towers" creator John Cleese with correspondent Tracy Smith. CBS News

It was also pretty rare: Your typical American network show makes 22 episodes a season, the Brits often make just six. And there are only 12 episodes of "Fawlty Towers." Period.

And no remake was ever quite as good.

"They tried to remake it three times, yes," Cleese said. "Each time, I said, 'Can I help?' And each time, they were quite confident that they knew exactly how to do it. And each time, it was a total disaster."

There have been three failed attempts to remake John Cleese's classic British comedy "Fawlty Towers" for American television. One, 1983's "Amanda's," starring Bea Arthur, lasted three months. BBC/ABC

For the record, CBS tried remaking "Fawlty Towers" in 1999, as "Payne," starring John Larroquette. It was cancelled after nine weeks.

Still, when it comes to remaking British TV, it seems the hits outnumber the misses.

Smith asked Bergeron, "So, we have a way of taking an idea and kind of running with it?"

"Yes, indeed. Sometimes into the ground, and sometimes to great success! Happily, we're in the latter."

In other words, our productions might have British DNA, but they have American heart … and sometimes that can really make a show sing.

For more info: 

Story produced by John D'Amelio.