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.
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess
What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.
Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.
Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.
Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.
Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?
Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.
Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife
Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.
Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.
Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.
Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.
What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.
Famous guest stars?
The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.
Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.
Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.
Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.
The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.
Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.
Classic TV Revisited: The Royal
The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.
The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.
Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.
Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.
Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”
A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.
First broadcast: 2003
Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden
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