Cross-cultural exchange yields hits — and misses

Road to the Emmys 2012: The Writer

It might be the rose-tinted world of post-Edwardian England as depicted in “Downton Abbey” or the smart, contempo rebooting of “Sherlock,” but wherever you look these days U.K. shows are enjoying a high profile on U.S. programming grids.

This latest incarnation of the British invasion also embraces adapted formats based on tried and tested U.K. originals. Think of laffer “The Office” and high-concept drama “Being Human,” which sit alongside the period pieces and other acclaimed U.K. fare such as “The Hour” and “Luther.”

“What you’re selling is Britishness. ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Sherlock’ are both very British,” says Steven Moffat, the U.K. scribe who co-created “Sherlock.” “It’s like James Bond. When you are selling Britishness the Americans will happily take it.”

But are there other reasons that help to explain the appeal of these shows to Yanks and why they tend to score at the Emmys?

Julian Fellowes, the writer of “Downton Abbey,” a ratings hit and cultural phenomenon that has become part of the national conversation in the U.S., identifies the influence of the great NBC dramas in how he wrote his story of masters and servants in early 20th century England.

“At the moment Americans are in the vanguard of TV,” Fellowes says. “The revival of interest that we’ve seen in TV in the last seven or eight years started in America with shows such as ‘ER’ and ‘West Wing,’ which brought a new dynamic to TV drama. With their fast-paced, multi-narrative storytelling, they reinvented the TV drama.

“We (the Brits) have adapted that style of storytelling and made it our own. ‘Downton Abbey’ owes a lot to the format of those American dramas by having lots of plotlines unfolding simultaneously. ‘Downton’ is completely different to the single narrative costume dramas of the 1970s.”

One of the pioneers of selling British TV to the U.S. is Beryl Vertue, topper of Hartswood Films.

She exported sitcom “Steptoe and Son” to the U.S. in the early 1970s, and NBC remade it as “Sanford and Son,” with Redd Foxx. Skein ran from 1972-1977 on the Peacock.

By that time, producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin already had transformed Brit sitcom “Till Death Us Do Part,” into hit “All in the Family,” while “Upstairs Downstairs” was reworked as “Beacon Hill” in 1975.

Hartswood’s latest hit is “Sherlock,” but, of course, not everything the shingle does turns to gold Stateside.

Hit U.K. comedy “Coupling,” which NBC thought might be another “Friends,” flopped when it was remade for the U.S. Comedies, in fact, often have a difficult time transitioning across the Pond, with “The Office” being the notable exception.

“We shot 10 and NBC showed four,” Vertue recalls of “Coupling.” “It was a fiasco. The original show then went out on PBS in America and was a success. I remember the DVDs flew off the shelves.”

Another Hartswood sitcom, “Men Behaving Badly,” also failed to stick when it was adapted for Stateside auds. Skein ran for just over one season (1996-97).

“I never thought it was very good. From the beginning the cast was wrong,” Vertue says. “The Americans didn’t understand what made the show work. British comedy is very authored. That is what makes the format strong. Americans buy the format and adapt it with the hope of turning the show into a long series and often it doesn’t work.”

The Brits and Americans may speak the same language, but often the two nations remain far apart in terms of what is considered acceptable. Clearly, “Skins” creator Bryan Elsley learned that lesson the hard way.

The show will close its U.K. run next year after its seventh season, but the series only lasted a single season on MTV. There were several protests by the Parents Television Council that led to advertisers to cancel their ad buys and the Viacom-owned cabler felt the pressure to end the show. And, of course, less than stellar ratings didn’t help the show’s case either.

“It was a victory for the forces of reaction in the U.S.,” says Elsley. “We toned it down for the U.S. Compared to the U.K. version it was extremely mild. The U.S. TV market is very volatile and complex. One of the good things about it is that when something doesn’t work they move on quickly.”

“The timing was just wrong for our show.”

Road to the Emmys 2012: The Writer
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