My sister’s home in London has Sky, Rupert Murdoch’s zillion-channel TV service, which for me, an admittedly indecisive pop-culture consumer, means that I start out watching with a kid-in-a-candy-shop feeling but inevitably sink into get-me-out-of-this-friggin’-clothing-store-’cause-nothing-looks-right anxiety. Still, a few moments from my British surfing stood out: Stephen Fry’s impress-me trivia-panel show QI — for Quite Interesting — is really just a great excuse to showcase witty, smart people saying witty, smart things. Also, Brits can see American Idol here on Fridays in a much more desirable one-stop-shopping way: performance show and results show squeezed together and edited down to remove most ads, needless chitchat and the incessant repeating of the call-in number. (And not being able to vote somehow lets you complain more.)
I also became a parlor act of sorts to my wife, identifying the British actors who were narrating documentary-style programs: Richard E. Grant filling in the storytelling gaps on a series that followed couples’ impending weddings; Bill Nighy providing sonorous overvoice to a popular new show called The Armstrongs, a real-life The Office about a family trying to expand its double-glazing business; and David Morrissey (currently looking puzzled opposite Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct 2) lending his authoritative baritone to my favorite discovery of the visit, a fascinating doc variation on This is Your Life called Who Do You Think You Are? In this series, famous faces take it upon themselves to trace their family history, and invariably learn fascinating, often very moving details about their ancestors.
In the episode I caught, comic actress Meera Syal — if you’ve seen The Kumars at No. 42 on BBC America, she’s in old-age makeup as the hilarious grandmother — traveled to India to learn about her maternal and paternal grandfathers, both of whom, it turns out, were freedom fighters for their nation’s independence from completely different corners. One was a Sikh whom Syal discovered was jailed and tortured for marching against the British, and the other a middle-class communist news editor whose paper was at the forefront of India’s independence movement. By the end, an invigorated, deeply touched Syal has brought a stone from her ancestral home back to England to give to her parents, and the occasion is warm, funny and tear-inducing enough to make one believe in television as a force occasionally miraculous in its multifaceted charms, able to provide celebrity-gazing, culture-shock humor, family values, history lessons, one country’s shame, another’s pride, and a sense of horizons broadened, all in an hour. It’s a show whose own family tree I wouldn’t mind seeing extended to the U.S. — then maybe we wouldn’t have to rely on the likes of Being Bobby Brown and The Surreal Life to get a bead on how human our celebrities are.