British version of ‘Law and Order’ a hit

U.K. audiences tuning into ITV1 series

LONDON — For more than a decade Blighty’s main terrestrial webs have invested in locally made primetime drama rather than buying it from U.S. studios.

But a local version of one of America’s longest-running TV crime sagas is breaking that mold.

The British adaptation of “Law and Order,” which bowed last month, is giving ITV1 a much-needed hit at a time when the cash-strapped broadcaster is cutting back on drama spending.

” ‘Law and Order’ has won its slot every week and is actually increasing its ratings,” says Yvonne Pilkington, NBC Universal’s London format head. “This is a unique arrangement. I can’t think of another example of a U.S. drama being re-versioned in the U.K. for British audiences.”

Created almost 20 years ago by Dick Wolf, NBC U owns the format rights to the show and its spin-offs.

Pilkington hopes the U.K. version will encourage broadcasters in other markets to adapt “Law and Order” for local viewers.

“What’s great about the British version is that it feels like a new show, but it’s also true to the spirit of the original,” she says.

Made by U.K. shingle Kudos with Wolf Films and NBC U, the 13-part series pulls together well-known local thesps and sets the action in London rather than New York.

Soap star Bradley Walsh stars as cop Ronnie Brooks, whose sidekick Matt Devlin is played by “Battlestar Galactica” actor James Bamber. Their boss is detective inspector Natalie Chandler, played by Harriet Walter, whose many credits include “Atonement.”

Also featured is former “Doctor Who” assistant Freema Argyeman as prosecutor Alesha Phillips and Bill Paterson as legal eagle George Castle.

The scripts are adapted from the U.S. originals.

“They’re great stories,” says producer Richard Stokes, “but the changes we needed to make with the second half of the show (when the narrative focuses on the courtroom drama) to make them work with the British legal system results in distinctive stories.”

With audiences topping 6 million and a 25 share, in normal times ITV1 would almost certainly re-order a second batch.

These, of course, are not ordinary times. As a result the jury is still out on whether the web, which recently reported record losses, will commission a second run on top of the original 13-part commission. It’s an unusually long series for a show in the U.K., where scripted fare tends to come in six or seven parts at most.

But it is not all bad news for NBC U.

Three seasons of locally produced “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” have been successfully broadcast in France on TF1.

In Russia, a third series of “Law and Order” made for NTV recently wrapped. And there is interest from Italy, Spain and Finland in doing their own versions of the show.

Whoever said crime doesn’t pay?