A good format is a good format, so it’s easy to see why the attraction is there when it comes to remaking overseas shows for a local audience. Here we take a look at a quintet of British sitcom classics remade for a US audience, some with huge success and some not so much.
Till Death Do Us Part into All In The Family
The best Brit-American translations have no doubt come from producer/director Norman Lear, who began by adapting the groundbreaking Britcom Till Death Do Us Part.
The original series dealt with the adventures of one Alf Garnett, played to perfection by Warren Mitchell. Alf was a satire of a ranting bigot and by rummaging around his narrow-minded world-view, writer Johnny Speight gleefully butchered many sacred cows.
There was a similarly profound effect when Lear took the character of Alf and added a few characteristics of his own father to create Archie Bunker of Queens, New York. He also created television history.
All In The Family proved that there was an audience who didn’t mind being challenged. During its long run, All In The Family dealt with rape, race relations, wife-swapping, abortion and other thorny issues, but never forgot that its primary mission was to make us laugh.
Steptoe and Son into Sanford and Son
Lear enjoyed another tremendous success with his translation of Steptoe and Son. This story of a Cockney rubbish collector and his son (played by Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H. Corbett) was reset in Los Angeles and the main characters became African-Americans.
It took Lear a while to get this one right. He made two pilots that went unsold, but it was only when he changed the race of the main characters and hired “blue” comic Redd Foxx to play the lead that the series took off.
Lear’s translations are successful for a number of reasons, but underpinning it all is the strength of the original concepts. Plus, the shows made some serious points while featuring some genuinely funny characters. Lear, like his British counterpart Johnny Speight, was not afraid to court controversy, and so made a lasting impact on American TV.
Not The Nine O’Clock News into Not Necessarily The News
When HBO was still a fledging cable channel, one of its first attempts at original programming was a news spoof based on the British classic.
The main difference here was that the US version lacked the strong cast of its UK counterpart. Not The Nine O’Clock News had Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys–Jones. On the writing staff were the likes of Richard Curtis, who would go on to write Blackadder, Vicar of Dibley, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Notting Hill.
On the other hand, most people would be hard pressed to remember anyone from Not Necessarily The News, with the possible exception of Rich Hall, who went on to be a cast member of Saturday Night Live for a brief time.
Nevertheless, the writing and satire were right on target and in its prime, Not Necessarily The News easily rivaled Not The Nine O’Clock News in terns of quality.
Man About The House into Three’s Company
There were many reasons for the success of Three’s Company, most of which can be attributed to the show’s likeable cast and the bombshell factor provided by Suzanne Somers.
Interestingly enough, this show, which relied so heavily on innuendo and broad humor, was actually written by some of the people who had worked with Norman Lear on All In The Family.
Like the British version, which lasted for six seasons, the popularity of Three’s Company led to a couple of spin-offs. Three’s Company became Three’s A Crowd and followed the exploits of Jack Tripper as he found true love as well as trouble with his true love’s father. In Britain there was a similar spin-off, entitled Robin’s Nest.
Fawlty Towers into Amanda’s/Payne
What happens when you try to outdo the all-time classic British sitcom? You learn quickly that you should have left well enough alone.
Between her stint as Edith Bunker’s cousin Maude and her role on The Golden Girls, Bea Arthur starred as Amanda Cartwright, the demanding owner of a hotel called Amanda’s By The Sea. During the course of this series she had to deal with fussy guests, travel-guide writers who needed extra attention, and a confused bell- hop of foreign extraction named Aldo.
Sound familiar? Well, ABC never actually admitted that this was based on Fawlty Towers, but the comparison was obvious. Amanda’s lasted from February to May of 1983 and, unlike its Brit counterpart, was quickly forgotten.
Ditto Payne, the CBS series with John Larroquette as a character named Royle Payne. Short-lived and ultimately forgettable, this series had neither the wonderful scripts nor the talent of John Cleese to make a go of it.