Lost in translation: British TV goes abroad

'Shameless' and 'Little Britain' are going to America, 'Life on Mars' to Spain and 'The Office' to Russia. But British humour doesn't always travel well. Alice Jones reports

The news that Russian television executives are on the look-out for a David Brentski of their own to star in their remake of The Office is just the latest in a recent line of mind-bogglingly unlikely makeovers for British television hits abroad. Only last week, Matt Lucas and David Walliams unveiled the new characters who will be spouting catchphrases (and, no doubt, bodily fluids) in the US version of their quintessentially British sketch show, Little Britain USA. And Paul Abbott is currently holed up writing an American version of his Manchester sink-estate comedy Shameless. According to early reports, in what may be the most audacious piece of transatlantic casting yet, its hero, Frank Gallagher, the "greasy streak of alcoholic piss" originally embodied by a lank-haired, snaggle-toothed David Threlfall, will be played by that all-American, tanned, bleached-smiling beacon of teetotal, organic living, Woody Harrelson.

Meanwhile Richard Curtis has co-produced a pilot of his The Vicar of Dibley for Fox. Renamed The Minister of Divine, it stars the voluptuous ex-Cheers actress Kirstie Alley as a preacher returning to the conservative Southern town of Divine, Georgia, where she misspent her youth. So far it remains at the pilot stage. And Barack Obama is unlikely to be delighted at the prospect of The Thick of It hitting American screens. The scintillating political satire, retooled to follow the antics of a low-level member of US congress, piloted on ABC last year, directed by Spinal Tap alumnus Christopher Guest and produced by Mitch Hurwitz and Richard Day of Arrested Development. Though it wasn't picked up by ABC, in these politically exciting times it's surely only a matter of time, with both HBO and NBC expressing interest in a series.

And it's not just the Americans who are lapping up our hapless comedy heroes. Earlier this year, Granada International sold the rights to the rom-com Cold Feet to TVN Poland, and the BBC has signed a deal to remake their time-travelling cop drama Life on Mars as Vida en Marte, set in post-Franco Spain. "We think Spanish viewers will love the mix of drama and comedy in the show," says Mercedes Gamero, head of acquisitions at Antena 3. "And the Seventies music was a big attraction." Though it hasn't gone down so well in America (see box, right).

Details on Ofis, the Russian version of The Office, are sketchy as yet, with Gervais revealing only that the search is on for "a middle-aged, slightly overweight unknown actor with a funny face" to play the capitalist clown. Quite how the subtle humour of embarrassment will translate to a country whose television comedy tends to favour the broader brush remains to be seen.

It's nothing new, of course: Britain has long exported its comic creations for the amusement of the rest of the world – with varying degrees of success. One of the earliest was Steptoe and Son, remade for American television as Sanford and Son in 1972. In the American version, the rag-and-bone men were black junk dealers living in an LA ghetto, with much of the humour centred on race relations rather than class distinctions. Less successful was Beane's of Boston, a remake of Are You Being Served?, starring, bizarrely, John Hillerman of Magnum, PI fame. Unsurprisingly, the classic sitcom based on the British obsession with class didn't fare well abroad and the 1979 pilot never aired.

The last decade is littered with the corpses of comedies that have unsuccessfully tried to make the journey across the Atlantic. The Grimleys, Coupling and Men Behaving Badly all faced the axe early on in their runs. Reality TV concepts and game-shows, on the other hand, have flourished: Pop Idol, Strictly Come Dancing, Wife Swap, Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, The Weakest Link, Antiques Roadshow, and How Clean is Your House? are among the ratings-winners exported in the last few years.

It was the immense success of The Office, a surprise winner of two Golden Globes and two Emmy nominations for the broadcasting minnow, BBC America, in 2006 that refocused American television executives on Britain as a rich mine of comic potential. The US version, which has also won a clutch of Emmys and Golden Globes, moved the workplace from Slough to Scranton, PN, replacing Ricky Gervais' cringe-inducing David Brent with Michael Scott, played by comedy loser par excellence Steve Carell. "I think people are always going to be wary of a remake," said Gervais before the first US season aired. "But this remake is aimed at the 249 million Americans who didn't see the original TV show. There's not going to be many Texas farmhands going 'Eccch, not another version. I can't believe it...'"

So perhaps the first lesson to any would-be adapter should be – know your audience. For Little Britain USA, set to air on HBO in September, Walliams and Lucas have invented a new slate of characters for their American viewers, including Tom and Mark, a pair of muscle-bound hunks, Ellie-Grace, a "misguided child beauty pageant hopeful" played by the roly-poly Lucas, complete with pushy mother (Walliams), and Bing Gordon, the unfortunate "eighth man on the moon". They've also roped in Friends star David Schwimmer to direct some episodes and Rosie O'Donnell to make a guest appearance alongside FatFighter Marjory Dawes.

Also crucial to a successful adaptation is keeping the original writers on side. In 2005, Fox commissioned a pilot for an American version of Channel 4's brilliant Peep Show. It failed to make it beyond the pilot stage, probably because it removed the crucial element of the "point-of-view" filming that is its unique selling point. Spike TV has since commissioned another version, originally to be written and directed by Curb Your Enthusiasm executive producer Robert Weide. It's now back under the control of the original British writers, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain.

So it's probably a good sign that Abbott is involved in Shameless's US makeover, however tricky he might be finding it. "There are restrictions left, right and centre," he has said of the project. "You can show a 14-year-old kid blowing three people's heads off with a gun, but you can't show him lighting a cigarette. And they get in a complete state about anything to do with sex." Whatever the changes, its spirit will remain the same, according to John Wells, producer of ER, who was reportedly so taken with Shameless that he began negotiating to make the American version even before it was seen in Britain. "It's very funny and honest about the way very many people are living hand to mouth and just trying to survive," he said in The New York Times. "What goes on in Shameless is part of England and much more part of the American norm than we'd like to admit."

How these latest translations will fare is down to the viewers. Just so long as the American Frank Gallagher doesn't clean up his act and the Russian "David Brentski" doesn't become a model of Stakhanovite efficiency – that really would be no joke.

What the critics thought

Life on Mars

An American pilot, set in Los Angeles has been scrapped and writers are now working on a new interpretation to be set in New York. But a Spanish version is likely to get in first.

Queer as Folk

The American series of Queer as Folk (right, written by Ron Cowen) was a big success and ran to five seasons. It lacked the gritty social realism of the British series but was a first for its showing of explicit gay sex scenes on American television.

Coupling

This American reincarnation was cancelled after four episodes. It remained close to the British script but all the humour was lost in over-exaggerated performances. Described by reviewers as "disappointingly flaccid".

The Grimleys

Due to be shown on the Fox network in the US, The Grubbs was scrapped before the first episode after early previews described it as "the worst sitcom ever".

Men behaving Badly

Described by The New York Times as "execrable piffle", the US remake of Men Behaving Badly never achieved the success of its British counterpart. The antics of two men interested in "booze" and "birds" did not translate and the series was scrapped after two seasons.

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