I was predominately raised on children’s programming on the British television networks CBeebies, CBBC and CITV. When I was 11, however, we had access to the likes of Disney Channel and Nickelodeon for the first time. I grew extremely fond of Disney Channel’s sitcoms but particularly their musical films.
I particularly enjoyed the likes of High School Musical and Camp Rock. These films were not only popular in the US, but in the UK too. As the 2010s progressed, the US gave us series like Glee and films like Pitch Perfect, The Greatest Showman & A Star is Born.
Glee was hugely popular in the UK, with their cover of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ charting at number 2 on the UK singles chart, higher than the peak of number 6 achieved by the original.
Songs from The Greatest Showman & A Star is Born have been frequently covered on British talent shows (Britain’s Got Talent, The X Factor and The Voice UK). The Greatest Showman’s soundtrack album was the biggest selling album of 2018 in the UK and enjoyed 28 non-consecutive weeks at number one on the UK album chart – the highest reigning album of the decade. Three songs from the film charted within the UK singles chart top 20.
This is evidence that British audiences gravitate to a good musical film. However, British attempts at a modern musical film haven’t had the same hit rate. In 2008, ITV1 aired a series called ‘Britannia High’ – it was a musical drama which focused on the lives of a group of teenagers and their mentors at a fictional London theatre school. It was backed up with a big production – the soundtrack featured original material led by Gary Barlow.
The show was created by famed choreographer Arlene Phillips (known for being a judge on Strictly Come Dancing). A lot was pumped into it; there was online content and the potential of a tour & soundtrack release, but it was all likely dependent on the show’s popularity.
The show opened with an audience of 3.55 million, which was only the 29th most watched programme on ITV1 that week (14th excluding duplicates). That was an extremely low audience for a drama launch in 2008. It rose to 4.27 million in the following week (21st for the week, 12th excluding duplicates) but subsequently fell to 2.53 million and closed on 1.30 million for the finale. It was not renewed for a second series.
There are many reasons why Britannia High didn’t succeed. It won’t have been down to a supposed lack of appetite for music television shows among young people, because The X Factor was airing to 11 million viewers over that same period. This was a show aimed at a young audience – I feel this is somewhere the main networks can go wrong with as forced attempts to bring in that audience ends up having the opposite effect.
I also feel American culture is significantly more celebratory of school life, with a running theme of school being “the best years of your life”. I don’t believe it’s considered the same in the UK, with many recounting more unpleasant experiences of school, me included. I believe US musicals have a glorification theme, whereas UK musicals is largely the opposite in that it displays more of the ‘horrors’.
Having said that, I feel the interest in performing arts is largely similar across the pond, but opportunities for people to showcase themselves on a big scale can be quite scarce.
I like the idea of a British version of one of these musical films having a huge worldwide impact. It may well require a case of trying out many ideas, nor will it come cheap. While you’re hoping things will translate internationally, making something with a British audience in mind is also important. There’s also plenty of people from lower-income backgrounds who would really benefit from an opportunity to showcase themselves.