American networks discover a taste for the anarchic Britcom

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The Independent Online

Julian Clary has become a cult hero in New York where, on Friday nights, small groups of gay men are donning their best Julian Clary outfits and making their way to Julian Clary parties.

Paul Lee, a boss at BBC America, is in part responsible. He has put Clary at the heart of a new Britcom Zone television schedule, allowing the camp comedian's fans to watch All Rise for Julian Clary en masse, before they get on with the next part of the evening - re-enacting the show. "When you sit and watch the programme," says Mr Lee, who is British, "it is not like watching it in England - it is just different".

The strange way in which British comedy looks odd, exotic or particularly off-the-wall in an American context has long been seen as a problem for British broadcasters trying to sell innovative comedy shows in the US. But, over the past year, says Mr Lee, everything has changed and the oddness of British comedy has become its strength. Hence the Julian Clary parties, massive cult success for League of Gentlemen and the imminent launch of The Royle Family on American television. "We market Britcom as comedy featuring people with no plastic surgery, no money and bad teeth", says Mr Lee.

The approach is causing a stir. The Los Angeles Daily News rated League of Gentlemen as one of its top five shows of the year and USA Today named the BBC America cable channel as its "number one highlight" in the schedules.

BBC America was launched by BBC Worldwide and Discovery 18 months ago and has already overshot its targets. It is in 12 million homes and aims to reach 50 million within 10 years - which would put it in a position to make US stars of British comedy performers.

BBC America's performance has prompted its cable rivals, Bravo and Comedy Central, to scout around for new Britcom talent. In October Bravo signed a three-year deal with Channel 4 for Smack the Pony, which won an International Emmy in November. Comedy Central is on the point of announcing that it has signed up Channel 4's Trigger Happy TV and Spaced.

The origins of the new Britcom trend lie in research that the BBC did a couple of years ago before it launched BBC America. The corporation found that Americans identified Monty Python with the BBC brand, ahead of drama and news - a quite different perception from the rest of the world where BBC news leads the way.

But Monty Python is strange, quirky comedy, and Mr Lee quickly came up against the conventional view that Monty Python was an aberration. What Americans want from British television is masterpiece theatre, and traditional chintzy comedy like One Foot in the Grave and Keeping up Appearances - both of which were doing well in niche markets.

"Its weird," says Anthony Uttley, director of distribution for BBC Worldwide, "but in Kentucky people rush home to watch old episodes of Are You Being Served. John Inman is a hero there."

Mr Lee decided to take a risk. If Americans like Monty Python above all else, he figured, wasn't it worth giving them a heavy dose of other eccentric British comedy? The gamble appears to have paid off. The more disturbing and odd the comedy is, the more America seems to like it.