Media: Out-of-date Essex girl jokes hit Istanbul: Just what do Turks make of 'Drop the Dead Donkey'? Owen Slot looks at the global appeal of the Emmy award-winning programme
Wednesday 20 January 1993
But what on earth do Israelis and Icelanders, who are among the programme's purchasers, make of jokes about the Calcutt report and Fiona Armstrong's smile? And how do Essex girl jokes go down in Turkish?
Drop the Dead Donkey maximises laughs in Britain by updating the script and shooting new footage even on the day before the show is broadcast. But if the Turks see the show five months later, surely wisecracks about Shetland wildlife on its last legs will have lost their bite, even for those Turkish viewers who heard about the Braer disaster.
'The programme's also going out on Star TV,' says Andy Hamilton, one of its two script-writers. 'I don't know what that is, but I got a Christmas card from them, I think it's in Asia. God knows what they make of it there.'
Mr Hamilton has written for the mostly news-based Spitting Image, which sold abroad (a Dutch TV company rang up each week to ask who half the characters were) but never thought Drop the Dead Donkey would follow suit, even though it is less news-based.
The key to television comedy that crosses borders is usually slapstick. Benny Hill is Britain's best-seller; in Angola you may catch his inimitable visual style. Likewise Fawlty Towers sold well, not only because it was one of the best sitcoms made, but also because foreigners didn't need subtitles to see the funny side of Basil Fawlty beating the hell out of long-suffering Manuel.
Slapstick travels because it does not rely on words; Drop the Dead Donkey does rely on words, and topical words at that. 'It isn't an easy sell,' says Frances Berwick, programme sales manager at Channel 4. The programme's topicality is to some extent marketable to Australian and Canadian TV companies, which have a copy of each show recorded, flown over and broadcast within the week.
But news value cannot be the secret of the show's popularity in Reykjavik and Istanbul. Nor is it what won the Emmy last November for the best international popular arts programme.
The episode that won, an office Christmas party, was seen by the judges when its Robert Maxwell gags and its William Rees-Mogg references were 10 months out of date and when its Yugoslavia jokes were passe and verging on bad taste. Other British entries - One Foot in the Grave and Sean's Show - lost nothing in the time warp but did not make the Emmy short-list.
What made the episode a winner, says Mr Hamilton, was that 'it had less topical dialogue than any other episode, probably about two minutes' worth, whereas normally it's about four.' And part of that two-minute input - about a John Major-a-gram, when a man in a suit enters a room, is not noticed and then goes away again - was a fairly timeless gag anyway.
The episode's strength was not in its topical one-liners but in the characters' situations; the innovative format had developed to within half a giggle of everyday sitcom. And this may be the key to the programme's developing international success.
The award-winning episode reflected the steady evolution in Drop the Dead Donkey, from the original high concentration of topical references to today's more character-based comedy. The first episode, in August 1990, opened straight into a 90-second sketch about Saddam Hussein and had worked in 25 topical jokes/references before the half-hour was up. Last week's episode pulled the impressive stunt of having two politicians - Sir Teddy Taylor and Ken Livingstone - appear in person, but still contained fewer than half the number of topical references, none of which was sustained for more than half a minute. Likewise, in the first episode, sketches about the show's characters would barely last half a minute as they were as yet unestablished. In August 1990, George, the news editor, was just contracting his first sinus problems and Damien, a roving reporter, was busy paying a farmer to plough him a corn circle. Now George is a manic hypochondriac, Damien is infamously amoral, and a sketch on either could be sustained for 90 seconds.
'In the first series, when the characters weren't so well established,' says Mr Hamilton, 'you'll see the shows were more gaggy and less good. They were good for a series that was just starting, though, and surprisingly confident. But they were a little overwritten.
'We probably underestimated the appeal of the characters and the stories. Once we realised how good the acting was, we let the characters take it. Once the characters are well defined, the mine is quite deep with storylines.'
The programme has become, as Mr Hamilton concedes, a conventional sitcom. And the reason for its success must be that George, Damien and the others display traits that are just as familiar and risible to Israelis, Icelanders and Turks as they are to us.
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