US vs UK sitcom remakes – who does them better?

August 19, 2013 1:48 pm

Every so often you hear of plans to take a gem of British TV across the pond in the hope that some of its magic will rub off on a proposed American remake of it. Sometimes it rubs off well, like with The Office. The Ricky Gervais-penned hit spawned a U.S. version which has lasted nine seasons, nearly 200 episodes, countless Emmy nominations and a show both Brits and Americans can enjoy.

The_InbetweenersSometimes not even the presence of a genie could transfer a little of the magic over, like with last year’s U.S. version of The Inbetweeners. Granted, MTV probably had great intentions. But while all TV offerings should be shared and enjoyed by millions all over the globe, some just ultimately aren’t meant for transatlantic regeneration.

Whatever the outcome, the Brits often become irked at the prospect of American remakes. Phrases like “they just can’t keep their hands off” are banded around with little consideration for the fact that the remake in question might just succeed. Admittedly I occasionally allow the “hands off” notion to briefly enter my head whilst pondering over proposed U.S. remakes. But British TV lovers (myself included) could do well to remember that not only do the Americans sometimes pull remakes off in spectacular style, it is actually a two-way street and we have no right to talk. As a nation we are just as guilty of ‘paying homage’ to TV shows across the pond by creating our own versions. And the results are equally as varied too.

Remember ‘Loved by You’, the short-lived U.K. version of America’s hugely successful vehicle ‘Mad About You’? No? I thought not. The latter lasted seven years, more than 150 episodes and an endless stream of awards including Helen Hunt’s four year ownership of the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress (Comedy Series) category. ‘Loved by You’ on the other hand lasted 13 weeks – ouch, unlucky. Or maybe ‘The Brighton Belles’, which was an ill-judged attempt at recreating the phenomenally successful U.S. sitcom ‘The Golden Girls’. Despite the inclusion of the formidable Sheila Hancock in the cast, she and her co-stars were no match for their U.S. counterparts Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Betty White. The show performed so poorly in the ratings it was pulled mid-way through its first run in 1994 after 11 episodes.

thunderbirdsBut sometimes we get it right. And oh boy do we get it right to the point where certain shows inspired by U.S. counterparts can reflect a chapter of your life even several years later. I was reminded of this notion recently during a discussion with friends about which TV shows we all enjoyed during the 90s. For me there were many. As a toddler it was ‘Thunderbirds’. Okay, I’ll admit it – even now at 26 if on the rare occasion I have the flat to myself and a repeat of ‘Thunderbirds’ is on, you shouldn’t expect me to answer my phone for the next hour. The joy it gave me was equivalent to the stress it gave my poor mother as she anxiously sought out a Tracy Island during the widespread shortage of Christmas 1992.

‘The Big Breakfast’ was a staple in the kitchen of our family home before school each morning. For years the antics of Gaby Roslin and Chris Evans and later Johnny Vaughan and Denise Van Outen temporarily made millions of children forget they’d be at school within the hour. But in terms of family viewing, there was one show that really stood out as one the whole family could sit down in front of the fire and enjoy together.

From 1990 to 1996 families up and down the country watched the classic sitcom ‘The Upper Hand’. People were engrossed in the lives of advertising executive/single mum Caroline Wheatley and her will-they-won’t-they relationship with her handsome ex-pro footballer turned housekeeper Charlie Burrows. Played by Diana Weston and Joe McGann respectively, the show was a huge hit and lasted seven series and 93 episodes. You may be wondering if it spawned an American version. The truth is in fact the opposite. ‘The Upper Hand’ was actually adapted from the hit U.S. series ‘Who’s the Boss’ and was six years behind its American predecessor when it started in 1990. Also starring Honor Blackman as Caroline’s vibrant man-eating mother, the cast was completed by Kellie Bright (Charlie’s daughter Jo) and William Puttock (Caroline’s son Tom).

the upper handThe quintet was perfect and whether it was their banter, the idyllic Henley home they all lived in or something else, the show was a winner. The home was at the heart of a scenic village and seemed almost too picturesque to be real. Even with today’s high-speed World Wide Web, I haven’t found a TV/film location website or fan forum that reveals its location. For work reasons I’ve occasionally found myself in Henley for a few hours. Despite my beady eye the house never popped out in front of me. As the interior scenes were filmed in a Nottingham studio I doubt the exterior scenes shot outside the house were actually done at a Henley home but you never know! Maybe it was too picturesque to be true after all.

After Charlie and Caroline finally got it together in series 5 viewers were treated to their wedding at the end of series 6. The show later ended on a happy note with the couple expecting a child in the final episode of series 7. Is it completely out of the question for it to return for a one-off Christmas special? ‘To the Manor Born’ successfully did it in 2007 after 26 years away and with ‘Birds of a Feather’ set to return after 14 years, maybe it’s time to resurrect another old favourite. The affection for the show is still there are there’s something about old-fashioned, warm and cosy Christmas TV that’s hard to resist. Diana Weston, Joe McGann and Kellie Bright are all still working actors. Even at 87 Honor Blackman still accepts the occasional role.

Though what ever happened to William Puttock aka Tom?? His IMDB page lists ‘The Upper Hand’ as his only role and there appears to be very little to no information about him since. Wherever he is, whatever the chances of a festive special are and however many years have passed, ‘The Upper Hand’ was a shining example of how whichever side of the pond you’re on, transatlantic TV adaptions can sometimes work out exceptionally.

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  • I personally prefer American sitcoms e.g TBBT, HIMYM however thunderbirds did work exceptionally well. I absolutely agree with you on The Inbetweeners. Even though it was a hit in the UK, it unfortunately failed to leave a mark across the pond. Great article!

  • John Barkworth

    I’m not sure whose comedy I prefer. I think potentially UK comedy. The Inbetweeners plays upon awkward/cringe humour which us Brits love but the Americans aren’t so keen on. Having said that, the office isn’t too different a genre but I think there is something that really separates Americans and Brits when it comes to humour. I don’t mean the cliched “American’s don’t understand sarcasm” (despite the fact that many don’t, although I’m sure it is the same in the UK..?) but rather that there are just different ranges of humour on which the general interest of our populations differ.

    Nice article, thanks for sharing. 🙂

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