They took the drink away from Fitz, the fags away from Patsy and stopped the men behaving badly. So whatever will the Americans do to Basil and Sybil?

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The Independent Online
BASIL would be livid. Fresh from taking the bad behaviour from Men Behaving Badly, excising the drinking, smoking, drugs and jokes from Absolutely Fabulous, American television has its heart set on ruining another British comedy classic.

Because CBS is planning a remake of Fawlty Towers.

The Seventies series is set to star American sit-com actor John Larroquette, who is best known in Britain for his part as a grasping lawyer in the Eighties comedy Night Court.

The pilot is yet to be made, but the omens are not good. Without the demented windmill that was Cleese's Basil Fawlty; without Prunella Scales's Sybil - "A laugh like someone machine-gunning a seal," according to Basil - and Andrew Sachs's innocent Manuel, the show looks likely to be less funny than a wet weekend in Torquay.

Despite once declaring that the show was so perfectly formed he would only make the 12 existing episodes, the format has been sold by John Cleese and his former wife Connie Booth, who wrote the series with him.

The new version will be made by USA Networks Studios and written by two writers who, rather worryingly, created a comedy called Something So Right. This was a comedy of manners about a couple with a number of previous marriages behind them.

Fawlty Towers has long been a hit on American television thanks to eternal repeats on Public Service Television and the cable channel Comedy Central. Twenty years after it was made it remains the BBC's best-selling comedy for overseas sales and every year appears in its top-ten best-selling programmes list.

It is not the first time the Americans have made an attempt on this piece of comedy history. In 1983 a short-lived series called Amanda's, which rather missed the point of the Watery Fowls title jokes, tried reversing the gender of the bad tempered hotelier.

The history of more recent comedy format acquisitions is not much better. Roseanne Barr bought the rights to Absolutely Fabulous, but was told it could never be allowed on air in America with so much drinking and smoking. The re-made clean version was called High Society and managed a meagre 13 episodes - which is about half a series in America - before being canned. The watered-down American version of Men Behaving Badly managed one and half series before being cancelled.

Not only comedies suffer when they cross the Atlantic. The lead in Fitz, the US version of Cracker, goes easy on the the alcohol and gambling, and is never seen drawing on a cigarette, unlike the Fitz played by Robbie Coltrane.

"They like to buy our series ideas because it gives them an already-made product to put in front of a network, a star or a team of writers," says Colin Jarvis, head of format licensing at BBC Worldwide. "It gives producers a kind of short cut through the system."

Mr Jarvis denies that watering down British jokes is causing American producers problems. "Perhaps that was the case when Men Behaving Badly was put on too early for the subject matter," he says. "But One Foot in the Grave with Bill Cosby is doing well. And in the past All in the Family and Sandford and Son, which came from Till Death us do Part and Steptoe and Son, did very well. I think its just that its a tougher market now and shows don't get long to prove they work."

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