On Air: Reinventing the Seventies

A new sitcom is trying to portray the decade that taste forgot, but does it even come close?
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Think of some words that you would associate with Britain in the Seventies. Grey - perhaps beige? Strife... yobbishness... strikes. Dingy... dowdy... terrible clothes. Three-day weeks... Winter of Discontent... party sevens... Led Zeppelin... Ford Cortinas.

What you are perhaps unlikely to think of is sunshine. The sun is always shining in ITV's new sitcom, Days Like These, the British version of the hit American sitcom, That Seventies Show. That's partly because it's all filmed in a studio (weirdly, the most Seventies thing about this paean to all things Seventies). But it's also because this is a relentlessly cheery version of that decade. It's a Happy Days for the Nineties - a nostalgia theme park full of Spacehoppers, lava lamps and bell-bottoms.

The year is 1976 - admittedly the year of the great heat wave - but the light is not a British light - it's American. It is set in Luton, where the central characters are all coming of age and hang about in a garage that has been converted into a den. Does anybody in Luton, now or then, hang about in garage-dens? This isn't Luton; it's New Jersey or Marin County, California.

If this were really what the Seventies was like, Margaret Thatcher would never have become prime minister; Ronald McDonald would have. ITV's British adaptation of That Seventies Show (Finnish and French versions are apparently in the pipeline) is overseen by the US comedy producers Carsey Werner, who make the original in the States, but adapted for British audiences by two British writers, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong. Former writers-in- residence at Planet 24 (they script the gags for The Big Breakfast), Bain and Armstrong are in their mid-twenties. They would have been just out of nappies in 1976 - and here, perhaps, lies part of the problem. Days Like These is a sitcom about Britain in the Seventies based on US scripts and adapted by two Brits who were barely sentient at the time.

"It wasn't a problem," insists the show's British producer, John Bartlett, a comedy veteran who produced Goodnight Sweetheart for the BBC. "There were enough people on the staff of the show with personal memories of the Seventies, so if anything seemed wrong, we'd correct it."

David Liddiment, director of programmes at ITV, is dismissive of the idea that the show should be a slavish re-creation of the ambience of Callaghan's Britain.

"It's a sitcom - it's not seeking to be a social document," he says. "We're seeking to have fun about our collective memories of the Seventies. It's slightly unreal, but I like that. Doesn't the sun always shine on the past?"

Liddiment calls the show "affirmative without being soppy" and argues that it doesn't ignore all the social realities of the times. The father of the central teenage character, Eric, is a car worker on short-term working (there's a brief scene in this Friday's opening episode where he expresses his feelings of guilt about having just purchased a Japanese car) - but the realism is immediately undercut by some peculiar casting. While Eric's mother (played by the Philadelphia Cream Cheese girl Ann Bryson) and father (Trevor Cooper) are skilled working class, their son (Max Wrottersley) speaks with a public-school accent. For the record, this corner of Bedfordshire suburbia also contains a Yorkshire teenager and a German exchange student. The show's weird sense of dislocation is similar to ITV's original - and highly successful - attempt to anglicise an American sitcom, The Upper Hand. The British version of the US sitcom Who's the Boss?, it starred Joe McGann as the ex-Tottenham Hotspur footballer who finds himself housekeeping for Diane Weston's glamorous businesswoman. The show's British "re-versionists" (as they say in the trade jargon) were American, and the supposed setting of Henley-on-Thames was pure Connecticut.

Audiences didn't seem to mind at all, however, and ITV's next attempt to import and localise a US sitcom (again with Columbia/Tri-Star) was Loved by You, an almost word-for-word transposition to London loftland of the hit New York-set show Mad about You. It starred John Gordon-Sinclair and Trevyn McDowell in the Paul Reiser/Helen Hunt roles, and was plausible but anaemic.

"It didn't get off the ground," admits Liddiment. "Mad about You was sassy and very Jewish. Loved by You was more laid back."

Liddiment denies that ITV's "re-versioning" of American comedies is part of some grand design - a "third way" between the BBC's devotion to home- grown, one-man-and-a-typewriter sitcoms, and Channel 4's and Sky's taste for the importing the real thing, lock, stock and chain-smoking writing teams.

"I'm not doing this because I think that the future of comedy is adapting US successes," says Liddiment. "If we are to find pre-watershed comedy success - and this goes for all the channels - we are going to have to start thinking differently, in longer runs than six or seven. The American system guarantees 22 episodes a year. Their producers do it better than anybody else.

The comedian Graham Lineham, one of the writers on Big Train and Father Ted, remains sceptical. "ITV has had something of a record for giving shows away, like Men Behaving Badly, or stopping shows half-way through runs," he says. "Few sitcoms ever arrive fully formed; they need time and space to develop.

"I think the standard of comedy is incredibly high at the moment - there's The Royle Family, I'm Alan Partridge and Goodness Gracious Me. It's a bit of a golden age. Bringing in American producers may work, but it is an act of desperation when no desperation is needed."

`Days Like These' is on Friday, at 8.30pm, on ITV

british sitcoms an important influence on us tv

TIME WAS when the Americans couldn't get enough of our sitcoms. Here are five British comedies that crossed the Atlantic.

Sanford and Son The US version of Steptoe and Son ran from 1972 to 1977 and made the two junk-dealers black, presumably because an oppressed minority would be more likely to be running such a down-market business.

Three's Company The Americanised version of Man about the House, from 1977. The landlord/landlady couple Mr and Mrs Roper spawned their own show, The Ropers.

All in the Family The first British sitcom to be transposed to an American setting was Till Death Us Do Part in 1971, with Archie Bunker the US equivalent of Alf Garnett. A watered-down version of the British original, it was the top-rated sitcom for five years.

Men Behaving Badly Less raunchy than its British namesake, the US version of the laddish sitcom was scheduled at 8pm on a Sunday. It was cancelled after 28 shows.

Cosby One Foot in the Grave's US version had Bill Cosby and his Cosby Show wife Phylicia Rashad in the Richard Wilson/Annette Crosbie roles.

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