Soap that cleans up all over the world: Only the title, the actors and the language have changed . . . Martin Wroe on a global drama

The scene is a German kitchen in a German house in a German town. A glamorous blonde in her thirties is having an argument with a long-haired, impudent teenager. They speak in German and the newspaper on the table is German, but the scene has had a previous life in another country and another language. And another life even before that one.

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.

(Photograph omitted)

The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
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

Head of Finance - Media

£80000 - £90000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: Working for an International Mul...

Business Development Manager

£25000 - £27000 per annum + Bonus: Sauce Recruitment: Within your role as Busi...

IT Graduate

£15 - 20k: Guru Careers: We are looking for an eager IT Graduate / Technology ...

Ad Director / Sales Director

£55 - 65k + 25% Y1 OTE + Fantastic Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an e...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?