Le Bureau, France's answer to The Office, loses something in translation

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French television viewers have discovered life in Slough-sur-Seine - the first episode of a French remake of the triumphant BBC sit-com The Office was broadcast last night.

The drab, overlit offices of Wernham Hogg just off a roundabout in Slough became the not-quite-so-drab, overlit offices of Cogirep, in Villepinte, near Charles de Gaulle airport, north of Paris.

David Brent, the compelling monster of sweaty, hypocritical, jokey, British middle management became Gilles Triquet, a sweaty, hypocritical monster of jokey, French middle management. Brent's irritating beard became a tiny, Gallic strip of unshaved hair on M. Triquet's chin.

The characters in Le Bureau, on the Canal Plus cable and satellite channel, were the same. The plot was the same. The spoof documentary style was the same.

And yet, somehow, the first episode flopped miserably. The translation of suburban, white-collar Britain to suburban, white-collar France was too literal. The characters and situations were too British. Cogirep, "the third largest paper distribution company in France", did not feel like France at all. It felt like a British suburban office, played by French actors. What Le Bureau missed most of all was the presiding genius of Ricky Gervais, the creator and central character of The Office. Without him, despite valiant efforts by his French alter-ego, François Berléand, the whole thing slipped back into being just another sit-com.

Gervais WAS David Brent; Berléand was much too actorly as Gilles Triquet. Brent's sly glances at the documentary "camera" become lingering, self-justifying appeals by Berléand, who is older than Brent and not so bizarrely likeable.

He captures the annoying, French middle-management tic of breaking self-consciously into English: "Il y a no problem." All the same, he ends up being neither French nor English but stranded somewhere in mid-Channel.

The one triumph of the night was the performance of Benoit Carré as Joel Liotard, the equivalent of the overgrown boy-scout Gareth in The Office. Although dressed better than Gareth (suits slightly too large, not three sizes too large) Carré captured the same empty-headed, military- obsessed, vacuous, incompetent ambition. Those qualities, at least, seem to cross the Channel with no trouble.

To be fair, having seen some of the later episodes of Le Bureau, in an initial series of six, they are much better than the first.