Soap that cleans up all over the world: Only the title, the actors and the language have changed . . . Martin Wroe on a global drama
Wednesday 14 October 1992
The same woman and the same teenager, played by different actors, have already enacted this domestic dispute in the Netherlands, in a Dutch kitchen with a Dutch newspaper. And before that, more than a decade ago, the original pair had their disagreement in an Australian kitchen.
This is because what 2 million Germans are currently viewing five times a week as Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten (Good Times, Bad Times), Dutch viewers, two years further on in the storyline, are also avidly watching as Goede Tijden, Slechte Tijden (Good Times, Bad Times again). While between 1978 and 1982 Australian viewers were glued for more than 800 episodes to the same stories of a group of young people recently out of high school, embarking on adult life. Aussies knew it as The Restless Years.
But in Berlin in 1992 Grundy Worldwide, maker of Neighbours and Prisoner Cell Block H, is - in television jargon - 're-versioning' The Restless Years for a German audience. This involves making soap operas for one country not from scratch - see Eldorado - but from the ingredients of a soap that has already been a hit in another country. Reg Grundy, the founder of the Grundy organisation, which makes 50 hours of programming a week worldwide, calls it 'parochial internationalism'.
The soap is so thoroughly rewritten, re-shot and generally reconditioned that Mike Murphy, Grundy's vice-president responsible for serial drama in Europe, who is masterminding the Berlin operation, believes that even the original Australian actors in The Restless Years would not recognise the new version.
There is nothing novel in soaps being bought up by broadcasters for airing in other territories - the Scandinavians have bought Eldorado from the BBC, Dallas goes out in Eastern Europe, Emmerdale Farm in the US, Coronation Street in Spain, and the Mexican drama The Rich Also Weep is currently enthralling huge numbers of Russians. But what is happening here on a nondescript film lot in Berlin is something radically different, with greater risks but with far greater profits in store for the lucky winners.
The global soap opera has been called the Holy Grail for which all producers are searching. But to date, internationalising soaps has involved dubbing or subtitling, which is cheap and fills schedules but rarely attracts huge audiences. Grundy predicts that re-versioning is the route to success.
The scale of its investment is evident from the fact that Mr Murphy and his right-hand man, Eddie Pyrlinski, sitting in an unglamorous office 10 minutes' drive from the Brandenburg Gate, are the only two non-Germans out of more than 100 now employed full- time on the studio site producing the five-nights-a-week soap.
In May - just months after Grundy Worldwide set up a joint production company with Ufa, the television and film production subsidiary of the Bertelsmann media group - the new soap was launched on RTL-Plus, Germany's leading commercial channel, as the country's first daily drama serial. The pace of the operation has not slowed - it is a frenzied business to make five half-hour episodes of drama each week.
As you walk through the huge warehouse-turned-studio, all the necessary scenes peek from the darkness - a bar, a restaurant, a clutch of kitchens, a hallway and staircase, several living rooms and bathrooms, and a pub with fake greenery opposite to convey the great outdoors when the budget will not stretch to location filming.
The budget does not stretch to much at pounds 30,000 an episode, but there are economies of scale when the broadcaster has made a minimum commitment to 230 episodes. A week's worth of half- hour programmes are recorded in one week, edited the following Monday to Wednesday, and by the end of the next week are ready to broadcast.
Grundy is expert at instant, ready-to-consume television - cheap, cheerful and popular. Mr Murphy says the soap is the ideal genre for re-versioning: 'Soaps are about characters and storylines, it's not that important where they are set. They all come back to the basic human drama about love affairs and burglaries, petty crime and marriage problems. Whether it's EastEnders, Coronation Street or Neighbours, it's about a group of people leading ordinary lives
in which improbable things happen to them far more often than they happen to other ordinary people.'
In Los Angeles the Grundy organisation has a team of scriptwriters who will rework, say, 10 scripts from a Grundy soap, with a view to enticing a particular European broadcaster. If the broadcaster bites, Grundy sets up a joint venture with a local production company and recruits local scriptwriters to rework the soap for that particular country and culture. Late Seventies Australian chauvinism is dumped as is, for example, a storyline about a girl having an abortion ('Who cares about that these days?'). Teenagers who formerly messed about with LSD today experiment with Ecstasy.
The rewriting is made simpler by another aspect of the Grundy philosophy - no current political or social themes are used in the storyline. 'We figure people see enough of Aids, homelessness and child abuse in documentaries and news,' says Mr Murphy.
Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten may be made within marching distance of the site of the Berlin Wall, but no character so much as whispers anything about unification: 'It's boring to Germans, they are sick of it, they hear about it all the time,' says Mr Murphy.
But if the story and characters are ripe for re-versioning, it is easier said than done. So far the series has not set German viewers alight and has been savaged by critics as viciously as Eldorado in Britain. Mr Murphy says its
10 per cent share of the ratings needs to be turned into 15 per cent by the end of this month. He lays part of the blame for the slow start at the door of German actors with classical backgrounds who are not used to the compromises of making soap. 'They have to do what's on the paper, to remember the lines,' he says bluntly. 'It's not Shakespeare. It's a daily serial.'
Meanwhile the internationalisation of soaps moves on. Granada is offering Coronation Street in blocks of episodes, a Belgian company has plans for a Belgian version of EastEnders, and with the success of Goede Tijden, Slechte Tijden, new soaps are set for the Netherlands - a pilot of The Bill has already been made.
Grundy is pinning its hopes on finding the broadcasters' Holy Grail within its own archives of television dramas from bygone eras. Mr Murphy believes that Prisoner Cell Block H is another prime candidate. But first he must turn his Australian baby into one that the Germans see as their own. Then he can take his soaps to test the water in other countries.
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