News

British Invasion

2/28/2011 12:01 AM Eastern

The British are coming.

In January alone, three scripted series based
on hit shows from the United Kingdom premiered
to respectable ratings and big buzz on
American U.S. channels.

In its first week, 3.6 million viewers tuned in
to Showtime’s Shameless, about a dysfunctional
working-class clan headed by William H. Macy as a derelict
dad. The series, adapted by executive producer John
Wells (ER), has become the top-performing freshman series
in the network’s history.

Cover_Story_Image_2/28MTV’s Americanized version of the teen series Skins
pulled in 3.3 million viewers its first week, while History’s
U.S. translation of Top Gear — an off beat unscripted series
that revels in automobiles and driving — was watched by
an initial 1.9 million viewers.

Sunday-night show Top Gear — hosted by comedian
and car buff Adam Ferrara, champion rally racer Tanner
Foust and racing analyst Rutledge Wood — has already
been picked up for a second season. Production on its
sophomore season begins this spring.

Syfy’s Monday-night launch of Being Human, the story
of three roommates — a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost,
trying to live as everyday mortals — was the channel’s
most-watched winter scripted premiere since 2005, with
1.96 million tuning in. It was also the highest-ever scripted
original on the channel with female audiences — 58%
of the 1 million adults 18-49 who watched were women.

And the Feb. 1 premiere of Lifetime’s maternityward
docuseries One Born Every Minute was that network’s
most-watched unscripted series debut. It more
than tripled the year-ago viewing figures for its time
slot on Tuesdays at 10 p.m., averaging 740,000 adults
18-49 and 577,000 women 18-48, according to Nielsen.

“In the U.K., they have a robust infrastructure to come up
with interesting content on television,” History senior vice
president of development and programming David McKillop
said. “We’re taking some of those ideas that we think we can
work and we’re adapting them to our specific brands.”

Lifetime president Nancy
Dubuc added: “They always
need to be redone. It’s not easy
just to import the U.K. show
into a U.S. market and expect it
to perform.”

Of course, the idea of adapting
U.K. favorites into U.S. hits is
not new. Since the ’60s, American
audiences have enjoyed
such adaptations as All in the
Family
(from Till Death Do Us
Part
) to Sanford and Son (from
Steptoe and Son) to Three’s Company
(Man About the House).
Th e most recent U.K.-spawned
megahit is NBC’s The Office,
adapted from the Ricky Gervais-
created BBC series of the
same title. And several U.S.
game shows and reality programs
were inspired by series
from across the Atlantic.

But the current wave of revisionist fare stateside has
increased significantly as cable executives look for more original
programming that embraces a wider scope of formats and
ideas. Because new shows are so expensive, working with a
team that knows a format’s requirements is a
production shortcut.

And increasingly, British production executives
are becoming more involved in the making
of U.S. remakes.

“In the past, you just replaced the producing
talent and said, ‘Now we’ll show you guys
how we do it in America,’ ” said BBC America
president Herb Scannell. “Now, some of the
networks are saying, ‘wait a second,’ and are
seeing the talent among executive producers
that need to be a part of what we’re doing over
here in America.”

Attitudes toward the U.S. TV industry have
also evolved on the other side of the pond, said
Jane Tranter, a longtime British television executive
now heading BBC Worldwide Productions.

“Over the past decade, Brits have woken
up to some of the most amazing television
that Americans have been making and thinking we can
combine our idiosyncratic spirit and some of our eccentric
charm and creativity to do things that are both quintessentially
English but have the ability to travel,” Tranter
said.
As executive vice president of BBC Worldwide Productions,
Tranter has crossed the cultural divide by “reforming” British
hits like Top Gear, Dancing With the Stars (ABC) and What
Not To Wear
(TLC), as well as developing such new programs
as Torchwood: Miracle Day (coming to Starz in July).

Shot in Wales and the U.S., Torchwood: Miracle Day is an
original series from British writer Russell T. Davies, who created
the popular series, a spinoff of Doctor Who (whose earlier
iterations aired in the U.S. on BBC America). The series’
lead character, omnisexual time traveler Capt. Jack Harkness
(John Barrowman), returns to the series alongside new American characters played by Bill Pullman and Mekhi Phifer.

It’s the same series with more of an international context.
“We’re looking to reignite that pre-existing fan base
and dramatically expand upon it,” Starz Media managing
director Carmi Zlotnik said.

While broadcasters tend to be skittish about mature
themes involving class, race, politics or sex and sexuality,
cable is happily allowing producers to push the envelope.
It took John Wells, executive producer of such hits as ER
and The West Wing, two and a half years to negotiate the
rights for Shameless, a dark comedy with dramatic social
undertones about America’s economic class system, based
on a U.K. series with the same name.

“There was a large sense within the community of people
that we showed it to that this world didn’t exist in the
United States, which I took exception to,” Wells said. “This
only changed in a substantive way when the recession hit
and people started to feel like, ‘Oh, there are going to be a
lot of people struggling now.’ ”

Wells consulted with Paul Abbott — creator of the British
series and an executive producer on Showtime’s version — to
ensure the right tone. Happy to have a producing partner who
understood his material, he was even more thrilled when he
knew the U.S. cast got it, too.

“I remember one day vividly walking in and realizing
that the actors knew fully what thet were handling, and
realizing it was a bigger product that they were building,”
Abbott said. “So watching their excitement and the
mischief on their faces was wonderful, because I knew
why they were smiling like that.”

While there is certainly no formula for
making a hit adaption (just ask the U.S. producers
of Coupling, NBC’s hastily cancelled
2003 adaptation), there are some guidelines.

“I think being too slavish to the original
can be a trap,” Showtime Entertainment
president David Nevins said. “Although the
pilot (for Shameless) was incredibly close to
the British one, John has made it feel very
intrinsically American. The further you get
away from the pilot the more I think it veers
off of the British show.”

Rob Pursey, executive producer of the
BBC’s version of Being Human, said he’s
found a great partnership with Syfy and his U.S. executiveproducing
team, Michael Prupas (Pillars of the Earth), Jeremy
Carver (Supernatural) and Anna Fricke (Everwood).

The challenge for him came in translating the format.
American series typically run for 22 episodes, while in the
U.K., shows typically run as six-episode serials.

“I was intrigued to see how that would work in a new
cultural environment and I felt pretty confident that that
writers needed to work out which stories to tell within that
prism,” Pursey said.

Syfy president of original programming Mark Stern
added: “There’s also a challenge with adaptation to understand
where the success of the import is coming from
[whether] it’s the concept and the premise or is it from the
chemistry of that group of people, and in any successful
series, I think it’s both.”

While adaptations are growing in popularity here, it’s
rare for American shows to be reimagined in England. Th e
first, Law & Order: UK premiered successfully on the British
telly in 2010 based on original scripts from Dick Wolf’s
mothership series. The U.K. L&O now runs on BBC America,
where it’s found fans among U.S. viewers and TV critics.

“I suspect the reason Law & Order: U.K. does well in
the U.S. isn’t because we reinvented the wheel,” said head
writer Chris Chibnall, “but because Dick Wolf’s original
idea and the way in which all the L&O production teams
realized it was brilliant and remains so today.”

“And I never forgot one of Dick’s first pieces of advice to
me,” Chibnall added: “Don’t f*** it up.”

COMING TO AMERICA

“IT WAS A MISERABLE EXPERIENCE — AN UTTER DISASTER,” SAID
Beryl Vertue, the grand dame of British TV on her
attempt to bring sitcom Coupling to NBC in 2003.

The high-profile failure followed another letdown
at the same network, which had tried and failed to
adapt Men Behaving Badly in 1996. But Coupling
was the last straw.

“We haven’t
done anything on
American television
since,” she said.
“It’s too frustrating.”

She’s had her
share of frustrations
with American
broadcasters. In
1967, the former
agent first jetted
to the U.S. to sell
the British sitcom Steptoe and Son. A deputy
chairman of the Stigwood Organisation, she had
already sold the format in other parts of Europe
and decided to give the U.S. market a try.

A pilot was shot for NBC, but the series went
nowhere “because they didn’t understand the
core of what made it work,” she said.

Several years later, she’d gotten word that
a then-film producer named Norman Lear was
interested in her series, Till Death Do Us Part,
for CBS.

“For want of a better word, I kind of auditioned
him a number of times during our meetings,
and the more I talked to him I thought, if
he didn’t get it right, then no one would,” Vertue
said.

Lear’s adaptation — which debuted on CBS
on Jan. 12, 1971, as All In the Family — was an
instant hit. She later sold Steptoe and Son to
Lear, which debuted in 1972 on NBC as Sanford
and Son
.

Vertue now heads up Hartswood Films, which
she founded in 1980, and has produced numerous
comedies and dramas including Upstairs,
Downstairs, which had a 13-episode run on
CBS as Beacon Hill in 1975, and the small-town
game show It’s a Knock Out, which ABC ran as
Almost Anything Goes from 1975-76.

She runs Hartswood with her daughters Debbie
Vertue and executive producer Sue Vertue,
whose husband, Steven Moffat, created Coupling
and Sherlock and is the current executive
producer of the iconic British sci-fi series Doctor
Who.

A member of the Royal Television Society
Hall of Fame, Vertue was honored in December
2010 by the Women in Film and Television and
received a 2004 BAFTA award (the British Emmy
equivalent) for her contributions to television.

In recent years, she’s become a fan of U.S.
cable programs such as Mad Men and The Tudors.

“I’m quite impressed by what the American
cable networks are doing — they’re quite keen
to take risks and I just get the feeling from what
I’ve heard from other writers, there’s not quite
so many people helping,” Vertue said.

Would she consider any of her series for an
American makeover for cable?

“Provided we had something that we had
something that was really right for them,” she
said.

September