Eldorado for the BBC as the world pays a fortune to watch its flops

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The Independent Online
IN BRITAIN they were among the biggest flops in television history. Names such as Eldorado and Rhodes; shows made on budgets that dwarfed their viewing figures.

But for TV audiences around the world these are the creme de la creme. In Poland they cancel social engagements for Eldorado's sun, sex and sangria. In Latvia the ultimate TV dinner viewing is Seaforth, which the BBC axed after one series, and which took such a critical battering its star left the country to join an American cult.

Yesterday in Brighton, on the south coast, programme negotiators from around the world came to view the flops and fill the BBC's coffers by buying them. Certainly, they were also after the home-grown successes, from Teletubbies (the biggest seller of all time) through the corporation's array of natural history programmes to the evergreen Dr Who and Fawlty Towers.

But for buyers from markets as disparate as Romania and Mauritius, the best buy remains a BBC "turkey". It is ironic, as the very programmes that are exciting buyers were among those cited by the award-winning Kenith Trodd (the late Dennis Potter's producer) when he criticised the BBC for decisions taken by "uncreative people whose talent is keeping a shaky grip on stationery supplies".

In Latvia they beg to differ.

National tastes are difficult to predict. Who could have guessed, until they stampede towards the viewing booths, that the Benelux nations have been consistently amused by Terry and June or that the Americans love Are You Being Served? (it has had periods of being shown nightly) and that Delia Smith is lionised in Africa?

Among the "turkeys", Seaforth was BBC Worldwide's bestseller in 1994, joined in the top 10 that year by A Year in Provence and Trainer. The failed soap Eldorado is more popular in Russia than Baywatch. All these programmes continue to do brisk trade.

During the four-day event at the Brighton Conference Centre, the BBC's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, is showcasing more than 1,500 hours of programming drawn from across its output - comic offerings such as Goodness Gracious Me and The League of Gentlemen, popular dramas Holby City and Jonathan Creek, as well as children's programmes, documentaries and natural history films. About the only series not on sale will be One Man and His Dog, something of a cult in Japan and guaranteed similar status over here now that the corporation has decided to pull it from the BBC2 schedule.

Programmes featuring strong dialects are more difficult to market around the world. Robert Carlyle's Edinburgh drugs drama serial Looking After JoJo needed subtitles when it was shown in Australia (the BBC's most lucrative market in terms of sales per head), while EastEnders' first sortie into the US 10 years ago was accompanied by a viewers' guide to cockney rhyming slang.

Anything with a strong sexual story-line or content fares poorly in the Middle East. The Michael Dobbs political drama House of Cards was turned down by many countries in the region as it featured political corruption and adultery, as was a natural history programme called Sexual Encounters of a Floral Kind.

The Green Man, which starred Albert Finney as a drunken owner of a haunted inn, was similarly cold shouldered in China, where ghosts are taboo - as, interestingly, are actors dressed in white, and snakes.

Although comedy works to varying degrees across the globe (Blackadder, 'Allo 'Allo and Absolutely Fabulous are selling well in Eastern Europe), costume drama and natural history are universally popular. Pride and Prejudice is the corporation's second bestselling programme of all time, while natural history and science account for five out of the top 10.

In cases where programmes in their original form relate too closely to Britain, it is often more appropriate to sell the format. That's Life has been sold to Germany, Pets Win Prizes to Scandinavia and, most celebrated of all, One Foot in the Grave to the US, where Victor Meldrew's sour curmudgeon was transformed into something altogether more cuddly by Bill Cosby.

The BBC Showcase is both a throwback to the sort of cultural imperialism that once permeated its Empire Service and a nod ahead to a future in which the corporation must find alternative sources of income to the licence fee. Although the BBC has been granted licence fee increases above inflation to fund its move into digital technology, it is still under financial pressure, as the costs of sports and film rights, and the talent, spiral.

Hence the significance of fund-raising exercises such as the Showcase.

It is central to the corporation's sales and distribution activity, which currently generates about pounds 130m a year. BBC Worldwide has pledged to quadruple its cash flow to the BBC over the course of the current charter period.

Rupert Gavin, chief executive of BBC Worldwide, says: "The Showcase is critical because of the revenue, but also what it does for the BBC brand. The television programmes are the powerhouse that translate the BBC's values across other forms - books, magazines and records."

The most successful example of this by a long way has been the Teletubbies, now watched again and again in 120 countries. Far from being a barrier to global adoption, Tinky Winky, Dipsy, La La and Po's collective inability to say much beyond "eh oh" has proved a boon. The only significant alteration has been the employment of an Asian baby to become the face in the sun in the Far East.

HOW TO SELL A TURKEY TO AN INTERNATIONAL AUDIENCE

RHODES

The dramatised story of Cecil Rhodes and the founding of Rhodesia. The eight-part serial followed his departure from England to the diamond rush as an 18-year-old through the next 25 years, in which he became one of the world's wealthiest men and had a country named after him.

Martin Shaw. He chose this role to make people associate him with something other than The Professionals, the cop show in which he starred in the Seventies. Never plan your career that way. Virtually every review mentioned The Professionals, which proved much the more successful career choice.

Sunday Mirror said: "It took 10 years to make and now every episode seems to last a decade."

Neither in Rhodes, where the BBC might have expected the odd mistaken identity sale, nor in Zimbabwe, where it could be deemed politically incorrect. But it has gone down well in South Africa, Australia and Canada.

The scenery and locations are good, and with pounds 10m spent on making this drama, they were the genuine locations. And perhaps a rare celebration of a white colonist appealed to certain politically incorrect elements among the South African and Canadian viewers.

ELDORADO

Publicised as `sun, sea, sex and sangria' the makers of EastEnders tried to repeat their success with a soap opera set in southern Spain. It proved a misguided effort to cheer up recession-hit Britain with the lives of rich, unlikeable, tax avoiding ex-pats.

Actors Jesse Birdsall, Sandra Sandri, Polly Perkins and Leslee Udwin were not household names. And they were to have only a year to try to become household names.

The Guardian's Nancy Banks-Smith commented: "Eldorado goes straight for the young, drunk vote with a directness that leaves you winded."

So popular in Russia, that in parts of the country it's bigger than Baywatch. It has also done well in Poland. The big surprise is its popularity in Mauritius, where they have enough genuine sun, sand and sex to be able to spot a fake.

Popular in Russia because of its Chekhovian themes, unremarked upon by British critics. Families far away from home long to make the journey once again and wax lyrical about it over drink and unfulfilled relationships. The Russians also like the fact that it is a "complete soap opera,' which actually finishes, says the BBC. Now there's a good cultural reason for axeing shows.

A YEAR IN PROVENCE

British couple set up home in Provence. Based on the bestselling Peter Mayle novel. In fact Mayle and his wife had to leave their home after viewers took the story of genial hospitality too literally and descended on the Provence farmhouse.

John Thaw and Lindsay Anderson. A heavyweight coupling, they had both performed at the National Theatre as well as on TV: The Sweeney and Morse for him, GBH for her. Their French leave was a career low for both.

The Daily Mail wondered: "Did the production team get through the entire series without seeing what has since become clear to us all - that they had made one of the most calamitously terrible British TV series of all time?"

The BBC admit this has not done well in France. Perhaps they did not know whether to file it under drama or comedy. But the farther away from Provence you get the better it does. Big in Australia and Canada.

The setting is the selling point. The beauty of rural southern France is popular around the world, says the Beeb. Except it seems in Britain, or come to that France. In both places the series got the thumbs down.

TRAINER

Racecourse soap opera. The lives and loves of owners, trainers and jockeys. It was a formula that worked for Dick Francis. But the bookies' favourite, the BBC drama department, managed to lose its shirt on this.

Mark Greenstreet as the trainer was joined by David McCallum, Susannah York and Nigel Davenport. A reliable British cast with a redoubtable track record. But the stars complained of weak storylines and Susannah York demanded changes to her character.

"The Irish head stable lad can sing Jailhouse Rock. And sneering baddie Hugo is riding Yvonne in the 2 o'clock (am)... Perhaps they should rename it Learner. Better still, Slow Learner," was the Mirror's verdict.

Could be expected to do well in places where horse racing is big, such as Hong Kong, Dubai and South Africa. But maybe they know too much about the real thing there as Trainer's biggest success is in Poland - not on the Jockey Club circuit.

Viewed from Poland, racing in Britian must seem a glamorous world of melodrama, sex and sudden death. The Berkshire hills were alive with affairs, suicide, and date rape of a woman jockey. The Poles should try a wet afternoon at Plumpton.

SEAFORTH

Set in and after World War Two, it followed the rags to riches story of rogueish property developer. The 1940s family saga was dubbed `the Forsyte Saga of the Nineties' but didn't have the Forsytes' staying power. It was axed after just one series.

Linus Roache. This excellent Royal Shakespeare Company actor, and son of William Roache (Coronation Street's Ken Barlow) showed the most dramatic reaction to the trauma of a flop. After Seaforth he joined an American cult for 18 months.

The most telling criticism came from its star. Linus Roache said the 10-part drama "had four good hours in it."

In Latvia they talk of little else. Yes, Latvia is on the Seaforth hit list with - where else - Romania. When the stresses of poverty and political change make you yearn for light relief, buy a BBC drama flop.

Though Germany's minister of culture might accuse us of being obsessed with the war, they seem to be much more obsessed in eastern Europe. The war era setting is a big selling point for this drama, as is the rags to riches story.

Top Ten All-Time Bestsellers

Teletubbies (children's) : 120 countries

Pride and Prejudice (drama): 80 countries

Doctor Who (drama): 74 countries

Flight of the Condor (nat hist): 73 countries

The Living Planet (nat hist): 70 countries

Six Wives of Henry VIII (drama): 64 countries

Human Body (science): 60 countries

Life of Birds (nat hist): 60 countries

Fawlty Towers (light ent): 60 countries

Life in the Freezer (nat hist): 55 countries

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