To the international outsider, the practice of adapting successful foreign television shows for the American market seems to create either lumbering monstrosities that butcher the original work, or unforgettable successes that run well beyond the lifetime of the source work. The vastly different concepts of ‘success’ create the impression that there is no middle ground. Consider the recent adaptation of time-travelling cop drama Life on Mars, which was cancelled for achieving ‘only’ 5 million regular viewers (numbers the UK frequently achieved and were widely lauded).
No nation on the earth would claim to be more frequently offended by the process than the UK, though it is arguably true that the UK exports more shows to the US than any other nation. But it’s something of a mania in the UK to instantly denounce the adaption of a beloved show (unless it’s one of our many gameshow formats, which you’re more than welcome to) as a great injustice and butchery of the original. This is such a commonly held opinion, that the BBC were recently willing to go halves on the production of Episodes. This sitcom in which a British couple are brought to America to remake their BAFTA award winning (but entirely fictional) show ended up being rather lukewarmly received, possibly because the character’s cynical whining reminded its viewers that actually, adaptation does sometimes work.
Early in Episodes, Matt le Blanc convinces the writers to change his character, the name and premise of the show. ‘Lyman’s Boys’ becomes ‘Pucks’, and Matt Le Blanc’s character goes from being a Headmaster to a Hockey Coach. It’s an extreme parody version of various stateside transformations, but it doesn’t work because, by far the worst adaptations have been those that have merely painted Hollywood onto the cast and sets of a show that is still, on a fundamental level, identical to the original. One example that TV geeks will often wheel out is the pilot of Red Dwarf. The main problem there was that the script was virtually identical to the original British pilot. The show was recast to appeal to American sensibilities, but the all too attractive Craig Bierko wasn’t the analogue for Craig Charles’ space vagrant that the script clearly required. Not that American television producers weren’t painfully aware that the pilot was awful: it never even aired.
Some of the best adaptations of British works are virtually unrecognisable as deriving from the original. The earliest are among the best: Till Death Us Do Part became All In The Family and Steptoe and Son became Sanford and Son. These trailblazers established the template that too few adaptations have followed: keep the basic essence of the show intact, but find effective parallels to the British social situation, rather than simply dumping British archetypes into America.
The translation of Alf Garnett into Archie Bunker retained the controversy of the original show, but the racial and social prejudices each show satirised were appropriately tailored to their markets (reflecting for instance, the difference in immigration patterns in both nations). Whilst the Sanfords were broadly ‘antique and junk’ dealers, they were still not exactly analogous to the utter poverty of ‘rag and bone’ men. And the still stratified British social structure was far more resonant when it was changed to deal with changing racial opinions (poverty was less pronounced in both Sanford and Son and All in the Family). But Sanford and Son was ultimately about the father-son bond and conflict, and the son’s continued failure to better himself. These were both shows that remain groundbreaking and distinguished US comedies, despite their British origins.
Perhaps the saddest thing about (and reason for) UK prejudice against US remakes of their shows, is simply the low exposure the remakes get when re-exported. Sanford and Son isn’t known beyond its Quincy Jones theme song in the UK (and then only as a piece of music in a Simpsons gag). And for a contemporary example, you need look no further than the American version of The Office. Widely praised, this remake has lasted well beyond the life of the UK original and Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant enjoy a far closer relationship with the adaptation team than previous originators ever have. This is without even mentioning the fact that Steve Carell is practically a household name in the UK. Yet, this is a quality show relegated to broadcast on digital only channels in the extended ‘ITV’ family in the UK.
Sure, an element of this is down to the simple fact that viewers don’t want to watch two versions of the same basic show. But I fear there’s a peculiar element of snobbery in British attitudes to American remakes.
Steph Wood is a 24 year old blog writer casting a weary eye on subjects ranging from Luxury Holidays to the latest Android phones.
- Shameless: Another U.S. remake that doesn?t ring true (theglobeandmail.com)
- Shameless, Skins and Being Human: Brits cement their place on US screens (guardian.co.uk)
- Meet the new Gallaghers (independent.co.uk)
- ‘Blade Runner’ Prequel/Sequel Rights Acquired By Warner Bros (slashfilm.com)