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16 March 2015updated 19 Aug 2021 4:59pm

How not to adapt a British sitcom in America

For every successful American remake of a classic British comedy there is a handful of dreadful clangers that never make it beyond a pilot.

By lea a-donovan

Whenever an American remake of a British sitcom appears, you can almost hear the cry resounding on both sides of the Atlantic: “Why not just watch the original?!” In the age of BBC America, iPlayer and box sets, you do start to wonder. British sitcoms have been remade in the US for about 45 years now, despite wide awareness of the British originals across the pond, despite many failures in the attempts, and despite the most glaringly obvious fact: we all speak English. This begs the question: why bother to even remake British shows – particularly sitcoms – at all?

The reasons for failures of modern-day British sitcom remakes in the US are varied: some struggle for commercial reasons, other problems are narrative, cultural, or personality-related. Others founder purely because broadcasting has changed so much since the practice began.

Usually, failure occurs because of a combination of the above, along with that peculiarly American failure to appreciate the subtle differences between our cultures. When the first successful adaptations occurred in the 1970s, there were only the “big three” commercial TV networks in America: ABC, NBC, and CBS – contrast that now with our web-connected, multichannel age.

The first successful adaptations were brokered by Beryl Vertue (now producer and chair of Hartswood Films) between her then-clients, writers Ray Galton with Alan Simpson, and Johnny Speight. This collaboration resulted in Steptoe and Son (Sanford and Son) and Till Death Us Do Part (All in the Family), respectively. Norman Lear produced these shows in the US, and each took long, hard-disguised-as-soft looks at social issues such as racism, classism and bigotry. These adaptations are remembered for holding up mirrors to US society and challenging its social attitudes, as are their original versions in Britain. This was only possible because there were very few channel choices in both countries, meaning that the audiences were large and perceptions could be materially altered.

Often contrary to British broadcasting’s business model, American TV is also beholden to advertisers. This has a knock-on effect on the content, episode length, number of episodes in a series, and sometimes, potential spinoffs. Original British sitcoms that may have had a finite beginning, middle, and end, with 8 or 10 episodes a season, get stretched out into multiple seasons of 18-22 episodes each, with a duration of 22-24 minutes, rather than a full 28 or 29, as with the non-commercial BBC.

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However, as in Britain, if something proves popular with audiences, a show can be spun off into separate pieces. All in the Family spun-off or inspired numerous shows: Archie Bunker’s Place, Maude, and The Jeffersons, to name a few. When Man About the House was remade in the US as Three’s Company, its spinoffs Robin’s Nest and George and Mildred were also remade as Three’s A Crowd and The Ropers.

Cultural and historical events have inspired the narrative situation of the comedy in Dad’s Army, with the threat of Nazis literally in the back garden, as well as The Vicar of Dibley, with the Church of England allowing women as vicars for the first time in its centuries-old history. The remake of Dad’s Army, titled The Rear Guard, attempted to use the USA Civil Defense as the equivalent of Britain’s Home Guard, but with the enemy geographically so far away, there was no genuine possibility of a short-notice attack on domestic US soil, nor were there veterans, by necessity, protecting this home turf while the young men were away fighting, as with the beloved-in-Britain original.

The Rear Guard, a US Dad’s Army remake that never made it past the pilot. Video: YouTube

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When The Vicar of Dibley was remade in the US as The Minister of Divine, Kirstie Alley’s main character became one with a questionable past, rather than just a very likeable, fallible female leader of a small village church. The US does not have a state church. Many American Christian church denominations allow women in the leadership position, and the US is a much younger nation, without the church as a focus of secular and sacred life in a small town. Thus, there was no pervasive state church changing its centuries-held social position, removing the context and impact of the British original. The Rear Guard pilot was broadcast in 1976 on ABC, and the TV movie pilot of The Minister of Divine was on FOX in 2007 – neither went to a full series.

Americans and American free-to-air networks also have different cultural attitudes toward, and accepted business practices about, the inclusion of profanity, sex, or violence on TV. Some offensive material that is broadcast in the UK in post-watershed timeslots still doesn’t make it past the US’s traditional networks censors at any time of day. More recently, British shows have been remade for American pay-premium subscription networks like HBO, which do not fall under the same rules of censorship as do the free-to-air networks. There is an assumption that if the US viewer has paid for these channels, s/he knows that the content can be much more controversial. This allows the likes of Armando Iannucci to replicate the satire, intrigue, and notoriously foul-mouthed political spin doctors in The Thick of It with Veep. Veep only happened after a more direct, would-have-been remake of The Thick of It for the free-to-air network ABC failed. You wonder how different the comedic content of the ABC version was to the HBO version, and how US viewers would have reacted to what was likely a watered-down look at the biting, no-holds-barred political intrigue of The Thick of It. And this is one of the only sitcoms which may genuinely justify a remake in the US, due to the different political system.

Veep is the successful US version of The Thick of It, avoiding a toothless version on ABC. Video: YouTube
 

US broadcasting also relies much less on only one or two writers – most shows are written by a team, meaning there’s far less of a sense of proprietorship over the material (especially as media conglomerates often own the finished product). Writer Steven Moffat has publicly commented about what he viewed as a terrible experience with the then-head of US broadcaster NBC, Jeff Zucker, who courted him to remake Coupling for NBC after watching the original on BBC America. Once the remake was going ahead, however, the sole writer of the original had little influence despite his protests. The US version of Coupling was cancelled after four episodes – arguably because it was both made and perceived as a poor clone of Friends.

It’s also a big mistake to attempt to remake sitcoms with a cult fan following, especially without the input of the original writers. In the case of Spaced, the writers, Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes, had no input whatsoever into the US remake. A cut-throat industry like Hollywood is clearly not going to bother involving the original writers unless forced to by a contract. It’s better to work with the original writers if you’re after US success, if for no other reason than Britons consume huge amounts of American TV and have a firm grasp on what would work well in the US (unlike the other way round). Fans of the original Spaced openly condemned the remake once the news broke, and the US version never made it past a pilot. Other cult shows such as Red Dwarf have similarly failed with two different pilots, and there have been no less than four failed remakes of iconic British sitcom Fawlty Towers.

Episodes is a show that sends up how UK entertainment can get lost in translation in Hollywood. Video: YouTube

All of these instances inspired Episodes, which is co-produced by, and broadcast on, a US pay-premium network, Showtime. The plot follows American TV executive Merc Lapidus (John Pankow), who tells the British writer couple Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) how much he loves their British show, and that he wants to remake it in the US without changing a thing. But he and his unbelievably bad choice of a star, Matt LeBlanc (Matt LeBlanc!) are so American and so egotistical that they and their executive colleagues don’t even realise how they are screwing up what made the original British version so good in the first place. Then poor, hapless British writers have to go along with whatever the American self-proclaimed hotshots tell them to do, a move which takes a huge toll on their professional and personal relationship. It is a very astute satire of something that the producer of Episodes, Jimmy Mulville of Hat Trick Productions, has had professional experience of – he is the producer of the British and American versions of comedy improv favourite, Whose Line is it Anyway?.

If British sitcom remakes never succeeded in the US, nobody would bother with them. But it’s a massive risk for all the reasons stated above, and seems an obsolete process. If you are going to do it in spite of that: do get talented people who respect the source material and its writers, avoid cult shows, find the best social and situational equivalents in the narrative, and don’t let the self-important Hollywood jerks grind you down. Finally: do be prepared for audience backlash in both nations, because if Saturday Night Live can have a sketch featuring Martin Freeman as a hobbit in a parody of The Office called The Office: Middle Earth, remember that many Americans will have seen the British original and will be comparing and contrasting in detail.