Formatting Femme

NAME: Beryl Vertue

DESCRIPTION: U.K. producer who created the original Brit version of “All in the Family.”

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: The First Lady of formatting is back.

NEXT PROJECT: A U.S. version of the BBC’s “Men Behaving Badly.”

Nobody but Beryl Vertue would accuse Beryl Vertue of being clueless, but that’s what the veteran English film and TV producer claims when asked why American television suddenly stopped formatting hit British shows after the 1970s – or why the practice has just as suddenly started again.

Vertue might be expected to know. After all, she started the trend in 1971, when she formatted her British series “Till Death Us Do Part” for CBS as “All in the Family.” The U.S. show, which redefined the sitcom, ran for more than a decade and was the first hit for Norman Lear; his second hit came a year later, when Vertue turned the U.K.’s “Steptoe and Son” into America’s “Sanford and Son.”

In those days – when she was also producing TV movies with stars like Kirk Douglas – Vertue virtually lived at the Beverly Hills Hotel for six months every year. But interest in U.K. shows waned stateside and the former agent withdrew from Hollywood to work mostly in England, where she currently has three hit series on the air.

Lucky for Vertue that the Beverly Hills Hotel has just reopened. She’s back, and this time she’s formatting her BBC hit “Men Behaving Badly” for Carsey-Werner – which has also licensed a U.S. version of the British show “One Foot in the Grave” to star Bill Cosby for CBS.

Vertue, who describes her age as “just over 60,” speculates U.S. networks soured on the formatting game after a few failed efforts. “People began to pick up anything vaguely successful and format it,” she recalls. “I thought someone would do the 9 o’clock news. But you can’t do just anything.”

She hit on the idea of formatting “Till Death” while musing on the universality of intolerance. “Your prejudice and bigotry are different from ours, but it’s still prejudice and bigotry…. (The British show) had a lot of jokes about the Church. I remember seeing ‘ All in the Family’ and wondering, What are spics?’ “

She recalls her first pitch meeting for the show at CBS: “CBS was worried about the show’s controversy but they said, ‘ We do “The Smothers Brothers,” so we know how to handle controversy.’

“I said, ‘ Well I’ve seen “The Smothers Brothers, ” and that’s not what I call controversy.’ Then I thought, I really can’t sell this show to a building. Then I met Norman Lear.”

Vertue says Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner are the ‘ 90s equivalent of Lear: “They don’t develop 20 things at once.”

“Men Behaving Badly” is written by Simon Nye and based on his book about a pair of unreformed chauvinists. Vertue and Nye were in Hollywood recently to meet with potential writers of the U.S. show. As with “Till Death,” Vertue believes “Men Behaving Badly” addresses universal themes: “After all, men behave badly in every country, don’t they?”

Vertue, a divorced mother of two daughters (both are London-based producers), says much has changed in Hollywood during her long hiatus- including her favorite room at the Beverly Hills Hotel, which she laments is now a hallway. “In the ’60s and ’70s, I felt the networks were the most powerful things in the world. I don’t feel that now, because there are all these other opportunities” for programming, from cable to syndication.

And she marvels at how the content rules have been relaxed. “Your TV is really quite cheeky, and it never was before. I was the first person to get ‘ bastard’ on the air (in “The Entertainer,” a 1975 TV movie starring Jack Lemmon), and that was quite a fight.”

It’s too soon to tell if Carsey- Werner’s efforts will start a new wave of formatting – or if U.K. channels will reverse the trend and format popular U.S. shows for British auds, as happened with “The Golden Girls.”

Vertue cites NBC’s “Seinfeld” and “Friends” as shows with U.K. format potential.” ‘ Friends’ would work,” she says. “But of course our people wouldn’t behave like that.”

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