Media: Out-of-date Essex girl jokes hit Istanbul: Just what do Turks make of 'Drop the Dead Donkey'?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

DROP the Dead Donkey, Channel 4's Emmy award-winning sitcom about a television newsroom, attracts audiences of 3.5 million every Thursday at 10pm with its up-to-the-minute jokes about what's in the news. Now it is following in the footsteps of Benny Hill and Fawlty Towers to become a popular national export.

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
Life and Style
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing company based i...

Ashdown Group: Content Manager - Publishing

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Guru Careers: Report Writer / Reporting Analyst

£25 - 30k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Report Writer / Reporting Analyst is nee...

Guru Careers: German Speaking Account Manager / Account Executive

£24-30K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A German speaking Account Manager ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own