“It’s a Very Curious English Thing”: Failed Pilots for American Remakes of British Television
Iain Robert Smith / Roehampton University
In my previous column, I explored the private BitTorrent filesharing communities which share rare and unreleased media online. For my follow-up, I would like to turn my attention to a specific type of bootleg that is often shared by television fans — namely unaired pilots. Related to the interest in ‘what-if’ projects such as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ill-fated adaptation of Dune, these unaired pilots provide a glimpse into an alternate reality in which Joel McHale plays Roy in The IT Crowd or Craig Bierko takes on the role of Lister in Red Dwarf. As these examples would suggest, it is these failed pilots for American remakes of British television that I find particularly fascinating.
With much of the discussion of cross-cultural format adaptation focused upon the relative success stories such as The Office or Yo Soy Betty, La Fea, I would therefore like to consider what we learn from the failed pilots for American adaptations of British shows such as Spaced, Red Dwarf and The IT Crowd.
There has already been some useful academic work written on U.S.-U.K. adaptations such as Albert Moran’s TV Formats Worldwide (2009), Carlen Lavigne and Heather Marcovitch’s edited collection, American Remakes of British Television: Transformations and Mistranslations (2011), and the various articles and chapters that have appeared on the U.S. adaptation of The Office. Indeed, Alexandra Beeden and Joost de Bruin’s article on the success of that adaptation is emblematic in that they consider “how television format adaptations work through articulations of national identity, and suggest that the success of an adaptation may be linked to its ability to reflect and interpret its new context.”1 This methodological approach to adaptation as a form of translation considers the role that national identity plays in the success of a cross-cultural adaptation, with The Office often held up as an example of a British series which was successfully adapted for the American context.
Conversely, given that I am interested in shows which failed to travel across the Atlantic, the focus would logically shift onto the ways in which the failure of an adaptation can be attributed to its lack of success in adapting to the new national context. I am wary of using a comparative textual approach to establish this, however. There is a danger that I simply end up attributing the failure of these adaptations to some vague notion of Britishness (or, indeed, Americanness) that I identify in the text — an approach that runs the risk of being both reductive and essentialist. Instead, I plan to utilise the methodology used by Tejaswini Ganti in her work on Bollywood remakes2 to consider how this imagined difference is constructed by the cast and crew who worked on the U.K. series. As Ganti (herself drawing upon Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson) argues, such an approach allows us “to turn from a project of juxtaposing pre-existing differences to one of exploring the construction of differences in historical process.”3
Perhaps the most notorious failed pilot was the 1992 attempt to make an American adaptation of the cult British science-fiction series Red Dwarf. Produced and written by Linwood Boomer — who would later go on to great success with Malcolm in the Middle — the pilot had Robert Llewellyn reprising his role as Kryten, along with a new cast consisting of Craig Bierko as Lister, Chris Eigeman as Rimmer, Hinton Battle as Cat, and Jane Leeves (of future Frasier fame) as Holly4. Response to the pilot was far from positive with even Craig Bierko later arguing that this was “a horrible Americanisation of a truly brilliant British show.”5 What interests me here is not so much judging whether Bierko is correct in his assessment, but rather considering the reasons that have been put forward for this failure. Craig Charles, whom Craig Bierko replaced in the role of Lister, suggests that the failure came down to issues of national identity, arguing: “It’s a very curious English thing, Red Dwarf. It’s… very rooted in the British class system… Rimmer aspiring to be officer class and Lister is just a greasemonkey, sort of working class, and that doesn’t quite translate to America really.”6 Similarly, Chris Barrie, who played Rimmer on the U.K. series, argues that the reason for the failure was that “Lister and Rimmer are very strong English types”7, again implying that the central character dynamic is nationally specific and could not successfully translate to an American series. I am not trying to establish whether these were the actual reasons for Red Dwarf’s failure to get picked up, but rather attempting to consider how these discussions construct imagined distinctions between British and American television around national identity.
This emphasis on nationally specific characteristics is further articulated in the response to the American adaptation of Spaced. Produced in 2008, this remake of the cult British comedy was made without the involvement of its creators Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes. Executive produced by McG (leading some commentators to dub this version McSpaced), the pilot cast Josh Lawson and Sara Rue in the lead roles as strangers who pose as a married couple to rent an apartment. The American pilot actually followed the scripts for the first British show fairly closely, but writer Pegg felt that this was ultimately unsuccessful: “I think that the people that made it completely, utterly misread what the original was about.”8 Clarifying this, Edgar Wright, who directed the U.K. series, proposed that an American remake was actually impossible for the “same reason that it couldn’t be a film”, arguing that “part of the charm of Spaced is [that] it’s people in north London acting out stuff from American films.”9 In other words, the cultural dynamic would be lost if it was actually Americans acting out scenes from American films.
Finally, we have the 2007 American remake of The IT Crowd. Like the Red Dwarf pilot, the U.S. producers decided to retain one of the principle cast members — Richard Ayoade as Moss — and keep much of the script of the original series. Indeed, for series creator Graham Linehan the lack of an attempt to ‘translate’ the series for the U.S. context was the reason for its failure. According to Linehan, “The IT Crowd is a very British show in the sense that it comes from a tradition of surreal sitcom that doesn’t really have an equivalent in America. The only point in a mainstream U.S. network taking on a show like this would be to reinvent it from the ground up.”10
What we have in all three cases is the suggestion that there is something intrinsically British in these shows that wouldn’t work in the American context. In other words, the discourse around these failed pilots constructs certain ideas about what is distinctive about British television, such as the British class system, the tradition of the surreal sitcom, or even the cultural dynamic itself between Britain and America. Reflecting Beeden and de Bruin’s assertion that “the success of an adaptation may be linked to its ability to reflect and interpret its new context,” the creative team in each example are suggesting that the failure of these adaptations may be the result of a failure to sufficiently transform the show for its new context.
So, in the interest of opening this up for further discussion, I would like to end with a few questions: What do these failed pilots tell us about the distinctiveness of British television? Are these characteristics related to specific industrial histories? Can we identify these differences textually without simply reproducing essentialist and reductive notions of national identity? I look forward to discussing this further in the comments.
1. The IT Crowd
2. Red Dwarf
Please feel free to comment.
- Alexandra Beeden and Joost de Bruin, “The Office: Articulations of National Identity in Television Format Adaptation” Television & New Media 11:1 (2010) p1 [↩]
- Tejaswini Ganti was attempting to move away from studies of Bollywood remakes which would simply compare the Hindi film with the Hollywood original by instead studying the ways in which Hindi filmmakers think about and construct their audiences through interviews and field research. [↩]
- Tejaswini Ganti, “And Yet My Heart Is Still Indian: The Bombay Film Industry and the (H)Indianization of Hollywood” in Faye D. Ginsbury et al Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain (New Jersey: University of California Press, 2002) p282 [↩]
- It should be noted that there were actually two U.S. pilots for Red Dwarf produced with the second pilot featuring a pre-DS9 Terry Farrell in the role of a female Cat while Anthony Fuscle takes on the role of Rimmer. [↩]
- Craig Bierko [interview] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnWxdbW9tXY [↩]
- Craig Charles [interview] in Dwarfing U.S.A. (2004) [↩]
- Chris Barries [interview] in Dwarfing U.S.A. (2004) [↩]
- Simon Pegg (as cited in) Pegg: ‘Spaced USA was painful to watch’ http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/tv/news/a211132/pegg-spaced-usa-was-painful-to-watch.html [↩]
- Edgar Wright [interview] Spaced on Stage – BFI Spaced Reunion [↩]
- Graham Linehan, “Notes on The U.S. IT Crowd” http://whythatsdelightful.wordpress.com/2007/10/18/notes-on-the-us-it-crowd/ [↩]
I know this is not exactly relevant to the above but I am interested to know your thoughts on shows making it to Australian Television, being originally a UK show and then being remade as a US version, then screening in Australia. For example, the hit series The Office, Australian TV first saw the US version and i don’t think we ever had UK version televised ?
Your right the problem to begin with is that none of these shows were particularly universal in their appeal. There taget audience existed within the national sphere, each show has some emblematic intuitive national element from which the comedy is derived from, thus the scope was narrow. The situational familiarity or ones ability to relate is reduced as the comedy relies on ones experience not knowledge of said culture. There is no equivalent for this type of ‘in joke’ humour thus these shows have a limited ability for successful translation.
With some tweaking The Office has this capability because its format is grounded on human or universal situations such as awkwardness etc, that are not solely reliant or fixed to a cultural or national ideas of a place. Characters are not based on national types but implied western types, swap the reference and the gags are largely the same. Thus The Offices scope is much larger and is suited for transnational reformation.
sorry for spelling mistakes in a rush
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Thanks Wil and Ash for your comments.
Wil, that is a very interesting point about the subsequent circulation of TV adaptations. I don’t have much knowledge of Australian TV scheduling so I can’t answer your point specifically, but there seem to me to be various options for exploring how and why a particular text travels. We could take a textual approach and consider whether there is something about the US version of The Office that allows it to travel to Australia in ways that the UK version did not. Alternatively, we could consider whether it relates to perceptions of differences between US and UK comedy held by TV executives in Australia. We could even look at industrial factors such as distribution arrangements between US studios and Australian TV networks.
These different approaches then resonate with Ash’s comment about how certain texts are more successful at travelling outside their national context than others. I have to admit that I am wary of ascribing this to something universal in the text itself although I acknowledge that the setup for The Office is a format which lends itself to being adapted within a variety of different national contexts. The key debate here is around the notion of ‘cultural discount’ where some texts are said to be too culturally specific to travel. While I have some problems with this type of argument (and would recommend Charles Acland’s work for a useful problematisation of these ideas) I think the notion of cultural discount is certainly underpinning the comments from the various industry figures I quote in my column.
Great article, and great finds with those old pilots, I think they raise a lot of interesting questions.
As a British transplant to America, I’ve always been intrigued by the logic behind the cross-cultural adaptation of popular UK formats, and whether it is relevant to consider the abstract notion of ‘Britishness’ when it comes to their success Stateside. I find it especially interesting, in the light of the recent examples of’ un-adapted’ British shows that have been popular with American audiences, why US producers and networks chose to adapt certain shows and not others. Why is it that Doctor Who is considered the right kind of fare for US audiences in it’s native form whereas Red Dwarf and The IT Crowd were deemed necessary to ‘Americanize’?
I personally think that the idea of ‘Britishness’ is irrelevant when it comes to the success of UK to US adaptations. Look at the recent example of Downton Abbey (and other period dramas before it) – it is so distinctly set in it’s historical and geographical context that it would be impossible to translate, but also it is the distinctly ‘British’ nature of the show that appeals to American audiences. ‘Look at the curious ways of these strange people entrenched in a system of strict morality and values so different to our own’. Craig Charles offered the explanation that Red Dwarf was ‘very rooted in the British class system…that doesn’t quite translate to America’, but I would argue that the machinations of the upstairs/downstairs divide in Downton Abbey are integral to the show’s narrative, and it doesn’t seem to put off American audiences unaware of the nuances of the British class system.
The most successful adaptations, however, from the British to American market have been those formats that are stripped of their national identifying characteristics, such as the wave of reality TV programs such as Pop Idol and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Silvio Waisbord talks about the concept of ‘McTV’ (1), or the creation of homogenized TV programs that are void of national color and identity that can be easily adapted by local programmers around the world. The efforts of producers who decide to adapt colorful British comedies for American audiences would appear to be a gamble against this formula.
One possible ‘X factor’ that made shows such as Red Dwarf, The IT Crowd, and Spaced so hard to adapt for American audiences could be the specific nature of the humo(u)r in those shows. Humor is so integrally linked to national references and tastes that it can be difficult to replicate them in an American context with the same effect. Take The American Office – it was only once the show started to stray from the original British scripts and create new episodes written by Americans that it gained popularity in the US.
In Red Dwarf, a lot of the comedy came from the difference between the foul-mouthed northerner Lister clashing with the uptight southerner Rimmer, with specific references to Lister’s Geordie heritage, jokes related to pronunciation of words or the characteristics associated with Newcastle. The absurd stoner comedy of Spaced revolved around British people mocking and recreating American scenes, as you mentioned, and it was their distance from the American counterparts that was emphasized.
Perhaps these shows might have fared better if they had been presented in their original format. Monty Python’s Flying Circus also dealt with an absurdist British point of view, often poking fun at America, including many references to the British class system, with great success. It transcended the apparent Transatlantic divide.
There is no significant barometer or yardstick for judging whether a British should be adapted or not, and whether it will be successful. What works like gangbusters in one culture may be too much for another. Skins was adapted but still considered too vulgar for both audiences and advertisers. Perhaps the future model will be shows such as Episodes, a comedy about British producers trying to make it in Hollywood, featuring both UK and US comedians and co-produced by BBC and Showtime. If the merger is made in pre-production, there is no need for adaptation.
(1) – ‘McTV: Understanding the Global Popularity of Television Formats’, Silvio Waisbord Television New Media 5; 359, 2004 (http://tvn.sagepub.com/cgi/con.....ct/5/4/359)
It’s impossible to know, but I remain curious what the reception for these shows would have been like if they had ever made it further in the production process. More specifically, I’d be interested to know whether any of them might have found fans within the circle of television critics.
I go down this route because the continual bashing of the American remake of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares has led me to wonder how American television critics generally receive American remakes of British television. So, to that end, I recently conducted a relatively informal experiment in which I gathered up popular press reviews of four recent remakes: Being Human, Life on Mars, Shameless and Skins.
The first interesting result to be seen was that ~75% of all reviewers made direct comparisons between the American and UK versions of the respective shows, revealing both that American critics watch a lot of British TV and that they think this comparison is relevant for their readers. The second interesting find is that 55% of those reviewers making direct comparisons between the show’s versions found the new American version worse (if not significantly worse). Meanwhile, not a single reviewer across the 60 reviews I looked at held the American remake in higher esteem than the British original. This is a little shocking because even if we acknowledge that American networks are more likely to adapt acclaimed British shows than mediocre ones, one might have thought there was some room for improvement with the new American shows.
From this small sample set (which may or may not contain all sorts of statistical biases), we begin to see that American reviewers might have strong anti-American remake prejudices each time a remake pops up. This begins to lead me back to your point that “What we have in all three cases is the suggestion that there is something intrinsically British in these shows that wouldn’t work in the American context.” In the case of American television reviewers, this type of sentiment might be the dominant mode of thought regardless of the texts at hand and television reviewers might never allow themselves to acknowledge a show had successfully adapted itself to a new context. That said, I would have to do further research to get a better idea of what types of claims these critics were making and how national context might fit in. I should also note that I mainly limited my little experiment to comedies and dramas. Oliver makes a quite true point that TV programs like game shows are an entirely different matter.
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People saying that British shows can translate well into US markets are usually forgetting these shows are rarely comedies. British humour is generally very different to that presented in most American made shows. The culture is different, so it’s no wonder that comes through in what people find funny and understand as humour.
There is often the liberal use of sarcasm, self depreciation and taking the micky out of others both friend and foe. US comedies tend to be more straightforward in saying straight out what the “jokes” are, and using slapstick. That’s fine and all, but trying to closely mirror an established brittish comedy (or in the case of Red Dwarf just ripping it off word for word in some places) it just won’t work most of the time as it starts to miss essential aspects in the translation, and in some cases like the red dwarf remake, never needed to even exist. (Why remake a show still running by mostly just recasting people with american accents? How was that supposed to make an already well produced show better? It wasn’t.)
Think about some well known british comedies and how poorly they’d translate into a US remake. Not just the ones listed, but Fawlty towers, Are you being served, Monty python, Allo Allo, Absolutely fabulous, Vicar of Dibley, Thin blue line, Little Britain, The young ones, Mr Bean etc. I’d argue, the only one on that list that would protentially make it as a remake (If they could find someone talented enough to do it which would be not terribly likely in the first place) would be Mr Bean, and this is because it relies on relatively straight forward, open humour that crosses cultural boundries. (BTW there was apparently a poorly received adaption of are you being served made in Australia showing that unnecessary remaking of shows can be attempted badly by any country.)
The US tried to make an American style Blackadder (1775) and it failed as well. Australian humour is different again, but often tends to be closer to UK and US in style (lots of self depreciation, taking the micky, black humour, sarcasm.) British shows in general, including comedies, are often well received there unless they’re really niche. We used to get a lot more British programming in Australia, unfortunately (IMO as a lot of British made shows are very good) outside of the national broadcaster US produced shows seems to be increasingly dominating.
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