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Some Americanized British Shows Nosedive

October 29, 2003

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Americans have been watching British TV shows for years, even if they haven’t realized it.

When British television is interested in an American show, it usually just buys and broadcasts the original. U.S. television, meanwhile, has a long history of translating British shows into Americanized versions _ although the results have been mixed.

Lost in translation so far has been NBC’s ``Coupling,″ about six friends negotiating their love lives amid a sea of ex-lovers.

The original BBC series is critically acclaimed and preparing to start its fourth season, while a DVD collection of its second season went on sale Tuesday in the United States. The original is also shown regularly on the cable channel BBC America.

But NBC’s ``Coupling″ has met with tepid critical and fan reaction, and it temporarily has been pulled from the air _ a sign of waning network confidence.

Even from the start, the show faced changes by crossing the Atlantic. Some of the spicier sex jokes were cut, and the half-hour episodes were shortened eight minutes to inject commercials.

``It’s easier doing it over here,″ laughed U.K.-based producer Sue Vertue, who collaborates on the BBC’s ``Coupling″ with writer-husband Steven Moffat. ``We don’t have the same ... I think `interference’ is the wrong word. But there are just an awful lot less people here.″

The independence that many British writers enjoy at home may account for their edgier humor, which appeals to U.S. networks thirsting to inject prime time with something fresh _ while endless executive tinkering may sap that same liveliness.

British television has occasionally adapted American shows, including a hit 1990 remake of ``Who’s the Boss?″ while U.S. television has succeeded recently with reality programs such as ``Dog Eat Dog″ and ``American Idol,″ which originated in Britain.

A few successful translations from the 1970s include ``Sanford and Son,″ a remake of a U.K. show about a junk-dealing father-son pair called ``Steptoe and Son,″ and ``All in the Family,″ adapted from the British comedy ``Til Death Us Do Part.″

Some of the short-lived failures: the remake of ``Men Behaving Badly,″ which starred Rob Schneider as a layabout bachelor, and two renditions of John Cleese’s revered 1975 British sitcom ``Fawlty Towers″ _ 1983′s ``Amanda’s,″ starring a miscast Bea Arthur as the comic foil, and 1999′s ``Payne,″ with John Larroquette in the lead.

``It’s wrong to assume that everything that works well in the U.K. is going to work well here,″ said Beryl Vertue, Sue’s mother and a pioneer in bringing British shows to America in the 1970s. ``There are some series that do and should. Some get a bit lost in the translation, we have found.″

She was responsible for ``Sanford and Son″ and ``All in the Family,″ and said much of the success of those shows resulted from the strong solo vision of producer Norman Lear.

Things have changed since then for scripted shows, she said. ``There’s a huge reliance on ratings and focus groups and far, far too little reliance on a gut instinct, and I think that’s a pity. And ultimately, I think it’s a mistake,″ said Beryl, who works as a producer on both the U.S. and U.K. versions of ``Coupling.″

Whatever happens to ``Coupling″ in the United States, British television is still providing fodder for new American shows.

``The Office,″ a mockumentary about a smarmy, pompous middle manager and his team of browbeaten drones, also is being converted into an American sitcom.

The show recently began its second season on BBC America and a DVD of its first season became available Oct. 7.

Ricky Gervais, the British star of ``The Office,″ who co-wrote and directed the series, pointed out that the working styles of British show business and the more elaborate Hollywood industry make it hard to replicate each other’s hits.

U.S. networks place more importance on photogenic stars, and U.S. finances are astronomical compared with British television.

Writers and producers work under much stricter deadlines because usually 22 episodes are shot each season (compared with six or nine for British shows). Notably, innovative U.S. cable programming such as HBO’s ``The Sopranos″ and ``Sex and the City″ operate on a model similar to British television.

``There’s certainly a lot more pressure than we have on us,″ Gervais said of American network shows. ``That’s the reason (the BBC) let a nobody stroll into their office. I hadn’t written before or directed before. I was this fat, mid-30s bloke who wanted to do his own sitcom. The reason they let us do everything ourselves was, it was a low risk.″

The U.S. version of ``The Office″ will be high risk if it turns up on a network, however, and Gervais predicted one big change for the lead role _ a sex symbol.

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