When Hollywood killed the Kumars

The Americans have been remaking British sitcoms and then brutally dumping them. No wonder UK producers are turning away from the US and taking their formats elsewhere. Ed Waller reports
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The Independent Online

"I am," says the veteran British TV producer Beryl Vertue, "a glutton for punishment. Piloting a sitcom in Hollywood is a bit of a crap-shoot." She should know. As the woman who took the UK show Coupling to an ungrateful America, Vertue is well acquainted with the odds of the game: in the United States, just 10 per cent of pilots get made into a full series.

Even those shows that do manage to make it to screen often fail quickly: Coupling, promoted by NBC as a sexy new Friends, was axed after three episodes. A few years ago, Vertue attempted a similar re-versioning of Men Behaving Badly. That bombed too. She is not one for giving up: next up on her list is a US version of her 2001 BBC2 sitcom The Savages. Other producers, however, have gauged an unhelpful mood in Hollywood. British television - once fêted for creating Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, The Weakest Link and Pop Idol - is not, it seems, wanted for its sitcoms.

This has been a vintage year for British comedies going nowhere in the US. Fox produced its own version of ITV1's The Grimleys but binned the entire 13-part series before a single episode had aired. Then, both NBC and Fox decided that The Ortegas - the US take on The Kumars at No 42 - wasn't good enough for their autumn schedules. Holly Pye of the William Morris Agency, which arranged the NBC deal for Coupling, admits: "Coupling USA coming off the air has affected certain people's views on bringing over English programmes."

Though some British producers are still reworking their sitcoms for the American audience - The Office and The Royle Family are also lined up - many others have decided to abandon the United States and take their comedy formats to other territories instead.

Colin Jarvis is BBC Worldwide's director of programmes: it is his job to exploit BBC programmes overseas. "After years of selling game-show and reality formats such as The Weakest Link into Europe and the rest of the world," Jarvis says, "these places are now opening up for scripted comedy formats from Britain."

In fact, outside America, UK sitcoms are prospering all over the place. Germany, for example, is suddenly hungry for British formats. The country's biggest broadcaster, RTL, is developing two BBC sitcoms for its own audience: My Hero, which in Britain starred Ardal O'Hanlon as a clueless superhero, and My Family, the Zoë Wanamaker and Richard Lindsay comedy.

Other German broadcasters have also successfully adapted British shows such as BBC2's Big Train, ITV1's The Sketch Show and even the ropey series Hale & Pace from the 1980s. And, despite the failure of The Kumars in America, that show is now being adapted for a German channel, with an immigrant Turkish family.

"Two years ago there were no sitcoms in Germany," says Sabine Eckhard, head of series at the Potsdam-based UFA Produktion, which is adapting My Hero. "It just wasn't something we did. Now there's a boom, mainly thanks to UK formats." She is also remaking Channel 4's edgy Los Dos Bros, a series about a pair of dysfunctional half-brothers, aired here to little effect two years ago.

Eckhard stresses that UK formats need reworking before they become acceptable to German audiences. For a start, sitcoms without laughter tracks do not work in her country: "We can't afford to be subtle, otherwise the audience won't know when to laugh."

The original UK shows, laced with all that confusing irony, are banished to late-night slots where "more sophisticated" Germans can appreciate them, she says.

Other countries, too, are turning to UK comedy. For example, The Kumars has been successfully airing in the Netherlands for months, centring on a family from Surinam; an Italian channel is adapting Granada's Cold Feet; and a local version of the BBC's early-Nineties show Keeping up Appearances is a big hit in Portugal.

Sometimes the choices are surreal: believe it or not, a local remake of Thames TV's 30-year-old Man about the House has been the highest-rating sitcom in Poland for the past six years. The British company behind that deal, DLT Entertainment, is now translating its BBC show My Family for the same Polish network. "The growth of British sitcom formats in Europe reflects the declining interest in imported programming," says Don L Taffner Jnr, chief executive of DLT. Instead of Friends and Neighbours, stuffed with all those foreign names and faces, everyone now wants to see friends and neighbours. "People in Poland or Germany naturally want to see shows with Poles and Germans in."

However, some comedy will never cross the cultural divide, according to Jarvis. "It would be very difficult for some of our blacker stuff like The League of Gentlemen to make it outside the UK," he says. "The shows that tend to work as local productions are the more basic comedies. It might change in the future, but comedy in Europe is less wordy and more visual."

Reworking a sitcom for a European audience is not as easy as taking over a game-show or reality format, he warns. "The stakes are much higher, since it all hinges on finding the local talent to capture Basil Fawlty or Hyacinth Bucket.

"Anyone can present a game show, and if it gets cancelled, it's not that expensive. But if a sitcom is axed, it costs a lot more." He found that out when the German version of Fawlty Towers was dropped two years ago.

Taffner points out another problem - a quaint attitude to intellectual property in some countries. "A Turkish network we were pitching My Family to simply bought the videos and reproduced their own version, gag-for-gag," he remembers. "You often get that with game show formats but, before that, never with a sitcom. We sued, of course, but it kind of killed our project."

Beyond Europe, the love of British humour drops away quite quickly. Outside Australia, which has had its own version of The Kumars, entitled Greeks on the Roof, for a year, the biggest market seems to be India.

Local remakes of both Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister have fared well, and this month sees the launch of a Hindi version of Jarvis's stalwart, Keeping up Appearances. "The show hits a lot of buttons in India," he explains. In the caste-ridden Subcontinent, the tale of the übersnob Hyacinth Bucket "tells a universal story that works in many levels," he says. The name of the local show translates as The Crow Who Tries to Walk like a Peacock.

One of the more obscure Britcom remakes can be found in South Africa. Since 2000, a local network has been airing an Afrikaans version of the 1975 LWT sitcom, The Rag Trade, swapping the East End factory setting for a Cape Town sweatshop. Fishy Feshuns, as the show is called, has gone down so well that this year that the original writers, Ronnie Wolfe and Ronald Chesney, were commissioned to write new episodes.