TELEVISION / Over played, over here: Mark Lawson on the 'special relationship' between us and them

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The Independent Culture
A DEBATE is spasmodically revived in the theatre about the distinction between 'adaptation' and 'translation' of foreign plays. Christopher Hampton, a languages graduate, 'translated' Odon von Horvath from the German original, while the Anglophone (though Czech-born) Tom Stoppard 'adapted' Schnitzler from a basic English translation. Purists favour translation. Those writers who rework hit British sitcoms for the American market - or, increasingly, attempt the reverse switch - generally take the credit 'adapted by'. This, though, underestimates the extent to which the art is one of translation.

Successful humour transplants have been rare. John Sullivan's Dear John - a BBC sitcom about a singles' group, starring the late Ralph Bates - survived for several American seasons in an NBC remake, led by Judd Hirsch. But perhaps this was because, paradoxically, support-group culture had always been more naturally an American subject than a British one. In general, re-sown jokes fail to take. Michael Frayn's Noises Off, a comedy about a peculiarly British style of theatre, lost the roots of its humour when relocated in America for the cinema version. A British production of Neil Simon's American farce Rumors - moving the accent to Surrey and playing the text in English accents - played like a bad translation from a foreign language, which, the producers should perhaps have accepted, was what it was.

Ignoring the jinx, Carlton, in its Comedy Playhouse slot - eight one-off sitcoms all touting to be series - last night tried out Brighton Belles, an adaptation by Christopher Skala of Susan Harris's Golden Girls, seen here on Channel 4. It is easy to see what Carlton is attempting. Generally, in another illustration of the difficulties of humour-removal, shows which in America are mainstream hits transfer in Britain to minority channels: M*A*S*H to BBC2; Cheers and Golden Girls to Channel 4. So - the ITV network has clearly reasoned - keeping the structure and jokes and familiarising the setting should help an American comedy to crossover over into big-ratings territory.

But, as a matter of fact, Brighton Belles offers another demonstration of the gap between British and American gag-writing and playing, as well as illuminating more general cultural gulfs. Good jokes, the experiment shows, come from the heart of a culture: they draw on history and mores. You couldn't start with M*A*S*H, change the war and the characters and the country and end up with Dad's Army. Each of these army sitcoms grows from a different national history and comic tradition.

Susan Harris set Golden Girls, a comedy about rich widows, in Miami, a logical decision, as the city is the capital of the American gerontocracy. As his title reveals, Christopher Skala's translation has settled on Brighton as the nearest British equivalent. It is true that this permits script references to 'going to the beach' to survive unscathed, although the British golden girls sounded, to me, a little too confident about the weather. With regard to other local details, Skala has made some intriguing decisions. An American audience had Miami Vice as a point of comparative reference, but, although a British one has Brighton Rock, an old Susan Harris line 'Miami - where all the single men under 80 are either gay or cocaine smugglers' becomes 'Brighton - where the men either sell antiques or are antiques'. Oddly, however, the sixtysomething sexpot Bridget (Sheila Gish) is still given the pre-date line 'I wish I could get a face-lift before 8.30', although plastic surgery is still primarily an American obsession. The phrase-lift fails.

The most fascinating element of the translation, though, is the treatment in the British version of Josephine (Jean Boht), the outrageous 80-year-old mother of one of the widows. Josephine is upfront, vulgar, wisecracking. When the prim, dim Annie (Wendy Craig) is telling a lengthy story, Josephine interrupts with the line: 'How long is this story? I'm 80. I have to plan,' a lift from the American original. But would an English woman ever behave socially like this? Would she - as Josephine does - consistently tell people what she thinks? So the social improbability of Josephine's behaviour is explained by making her not only a Glaswegian, but the recent survivor of a stroke which, we are told, 'destroyed the part of the brain which censors what she says'. It is a fascinating cultural comment that the nearest conversational equivalent of an American was considered, by the makers of Brighton Belles, to be a brain-damaged Glaswegian.

The other characters, however, do not have Josephine's sound - almost Stanislavskian - excuses for sounding the way they do. There is something about American gag-writing that calls for fast, deep delivery. Spoken soft and slow by Wendy Craig, a line like 'My hunches are never wrong - Mrs Gandhi would be alive today if she'd taken my phone call' sounded half-witted rather than quick- witted. In-your-face dialogue is delivered tap-your-shoulder. Brighton Belles comes out sounding less like a domesticated version of an American sitcom than a black comedy about three deluded Brighton widows who enjoy pretending to be the Golden Girls from television.

It is further evidence that - for all the talk about a political special relationship between Britain and America - there is, between British and American humour, a special divorce.