Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Parochial Contempt

A few years ago I was working in North Carolina, USA with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. And being the hospitable Southerners that they were, they insisted that I be taken out for a good ol' time most evenings. It was while eating lobster tails and buffalo meatloaf up at some place called the Rocky Mountain Grill that I found myself having a conversation about US and UK culture. My chowing-down companions were both police officers; one was born and bred in North Carolina, the other grew up in neighbouring Tennessee. We'd got onto the subject of them coming over the pond to visit me when I discovered that neither man - both in their 30s - had ever owned a passport.

I had heard that this wasn't uncommon. I just hadn't realised how uncommon. According to figures from the US State Department in January 2011, the number of US citizens who own a passport is 114,464,041. Sounds a lot doesn't it? However, the country’s population is around 307,006,550, so the percentage of people with passports is about 37%. That's nearly two out of three Americans without a passport. A recent innovation has been the introduction of a 'Passport Card' that allows travel to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean and Bermuda, but they can't be used for international air travel. Even with 3.5 million of these cards in circulation, that's still only around 1% of the population.
I asked my police colleagues why this was. One explained that, for him, it was cost. He said he'd love to travel abroad but bringing up young kids made it impossibly expensive. As he explained, he had to pay for all of his medical care and his children's future higher education. Our UK kids may be rioting in the streets over this very subject but in the USA, parents have always had to scrimp and save for their childrens' 'college funds'. And pay for every cut and bruise and broken bone their kids receive. The other police officer made another interesting point. He said 'I can't afford it either. But at least we have all we need here. America is so big that I can have snow, desert, mountains, beaches, forests, cities ... anything I want.' That is a compelling argument. As Missourian reporter Katy Steinmetz recently wrote: 'The logic behind criticising Americans for not having passports is also kin to the maxim that if you haven't racked up a nice, long list of countries that you've stepped foot in, then you're not well-traveled. The 50 states may share a federal government, but that doesn't mean they're not as culturally and geographically disparate as many European countries. There are Innuits bearing the cold in Alaska and people who only speak Spanish in sunny California. There are teetotaling Mormons in Utah canyon lands and maple syrup farmers in mountainous Vermont. People are cooking Creole dishes in boggy Louisiana, and wranglin' cattle in the deserts of Texas. (Etc., etc., etc.) It doesn't break the bank for Jo(e) to drive to a neighboring state.'
So why am I mentioning this? Basically to dispel the myth that all Americans are parochial rednecks who cannot see beyond the limits of their own vast country. Just like the silly idea that 'Americans don't get irony' (All except Alanis Morrisette - and she's Canadian anyway). It's one of those ridiculous generalist urban myths that people use to fan the flames of US bashing rhetoric. By all means have a go at US foreign policy. Please do continue to be disgusted by their gung-ho gun laws. But don't tar every American with the same brush as xenophobic and insular because they're not. Unless they're the head of a TV or film studio that is.

In recent years, studios have become obsessed with re-making British films and TV shows as American versions and I just cannot fathom why. Death at a funeral was a perfectly respectable and funny film and did not need a re-boot in an all American style. Americans are not stupid. They would have laughed at the gags in the British original. They might even have enjoyed some of the uniquely British nuances to the film. After all, the US TV companies make no concessions in their shows and films before exporting them. They quite often contain cultural references - the names of products or TV personalities - that I don't recognise but that doesn't stop me enjoying the movie or show. And, guess what? If I really want to know what a Twinky is or who Dan Rather is, I can look them up on the internet. We didn't need a British version of Friends or Frasier or Dexter or The Wire in order to enjoy them. Can you imagine a British Die Hard or Wall Street? Good grief, no. So why do it? The differences between Britons and Americans are not that pronounced.

It seems to me that the act of remaking a British TV series for US audiences shows a kind of parochial contempt for the audience. Aren't the studios essentially saying, 'Listen America ... we've seen this great British show called XXX. It's really good. But you won't get it. Hell, you don't even have a passport. So we'll remake it for you in nice, easy Yank-O-Vision and pack it with pretty people with splendid teeth and all will be well.' It's insulting and condescending. Presumably the studios must have loved the original Brit versions enough to stump up the cash for a remake ... so why do they think the American public would like it any less? To add even more weight to my argument, I should point out that most American re-boots fail dismally. Sci-Fi comedy Red Dwarf was hugely popular in the UK and on BBC America. When the BBC cancelled it here, the fans demanded more and a new series is now being made by digital TV Channel Dave. However, in 1992, for reasons best known to themselves, Universal Studios decided to make a US Red Dwarf. And it failed dismally. The reason why? Because it was no longer British. Let me explain ... Red Dwarf UK worked because of the interplay between the characters. There was almost no special effects budget and the show was meant to feel claustrophobic as these were the last living remnants of humankind adrift on a ship millions of miles and years from Earth. It was all about the players: Lister, the slobby Scouser who believed that he was God's gift to women; Rimmer the anal, procedure-obsessed loser who was resurrected as a hologram to keep Lister sane; Cat, a ridiculous, continually preening, shallow lifeform that evolved from Lister's pet; Kryten the uppity android; and Holly, the ship's computer driven mad by time and isolation. The formula worked so well. But the US version got it so wrong. Lister was now a good looking hunk. The Cat (played by Deep Space Nine's Terry Farrell) was gorgeous. When Danny John Jules looks in a mirror and says 'How am I looking? I'm looking good!' we laugh at his silly costume, gurning face and lack of self-awareness. When Farrell does it, we think 'Yup. You so are'. It was a disaster and never made it past the pilot.

Then there was Life on Mars. The success of the show was, again, the strength of the characters and the constant comparisons between 1970s attitudes and mores to those of the 21st century. Gene Hunt (great name!) was a comic parody of 1970s hard-arse cops like John Thaw's Jack Reagan in The Sweeney. But there was humour in the way Glenister played him. He was a caricature that was the perfect foil for John Sim's more serious and mature Sam Tyler. In the US Life on Mars, a lot of that was lost. I really thought that this one might work as there was a great opportunity to play off a modern day cop against the kind of 1970s cop we saw in Starsky and Hutch and Serpico. Instead, it was all played a little too gritty and straight and audience figures fell away quickly. Perhaps if Harvey Keitel had played Hunt more like Kojak it might have worked. Who knows. All I know is that when Life on Mars creator Matthew Graham, was asked his opinion on the US remake, he said, 'Have you seen it? It beggars belief, doesn’t it?'

They tried to do Doctor Who for the Americas. Despite a great one-off performance by Paul McGann, it crashed and burned. The film of Judge Dredd looked great but also tripped over the starting blocks because the producers failed to understand the appeal of the British comics (why do you think there are so many Brit comic writers and artists working for US comics companies?). Almost anything adapted from an Alan Moore comic has been ballsed-up; so much so that he's divorced himself from them. Don't mention the US version of The IT Crowd to creator Graham Linehan. And as for what Hollywood did to The Pink Panther and those wonderful Ealing Comedies The Ladykillers and School for Scoundrels ...

The Office is a curious anomaly in that the US version works really well. This may be because the producers haven't tried to remake the British version. What they've done is take the format only and written it all from scratch using writers with a proven success on shows like Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. They haven't tried to find an actor to reproduce Ricky Gervais' execrable David Brent. They've invested in the equally appalling Michael Scott, played very nicely by Steve Carell. And, as I said, it works. It's a very funny show and it may point the way forward.

Which may be good news for the latest US re-imagining: Being Human. I've just watched the two-part Season 1 opener and I was pleasantly surprised. Like The Office, the show's makers have made no attempt to replace George, Annie and Mitchell. Instead, we have Josh, Sally and Aiden; quite different characters from their UK counterparts. All that they share is the basic premise of a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost living together in a house (in Boston) and trying to be part of society. The menacing policeman/vampire Herrick in the UK series is replaced by the equally menacing (he has a gun) but quite different character of Bishop. If the series carries on working as well as it has so far, I can see it being a big success.

So maybe that's the secret? If you really must re-make UK shows and films for the US market, then take the basic format as a framework and re-write the innards completely from scratch; new stories, new characters. That way, you won't get the clumsy translations like Red Dwarf and Life on Mars. Or, better still, Mr Studio Executive, have some respect and faith in your audiences and let them watch the British versions in all of their glory. Your audiences are no more thick than they are terrified of the world outside their national boundaries.

Please please please don't let the execs EVER get their hands on Monty Python, Midsomer Murders, Fawlty Towers, Rebus, Blackadder, Morse, Father Ted, Downton Abbey, Black Books ...


Persephone said...

You're not mentioning the earlier hugely successful American remakes of British shows: the obvious one is All in the Family based on Till Death Us Do Part. Now, I'm not sure how big TDUDP was in Britain, but AITF was a landmark in American television history in its tackling of taboo issues. Everyone was talking about the latest episode the next morning.

Other big hits were Sanford and Son (based on Steptoe and Son) and Three's Company (based on Man About the House). I didn't care much for these two, but they were very popular, probably because, as you've mentioned, they weren't remakes, but genuine new takes on the original ideas.

I seem to be in the minority in this, but offer timidly that I actually enjoyed the American Life on Mars. The Seventies in the States simply weren't the same as the Seventies in Britain and I thought the show did a good job in reinventing the story. The cast, as in All in the Family, was very strong. Perhaps they should have renamed it as well and, like All in the Family, given the show a year to find its audience, but this simply doesn't happen any more; executives want instant hits.

Two quibbles, which you may ignore: a lot of Canadians do understand the concept of irony, and "Inuit" (also an aboriginal people of Canada) is spelled with one "n".

Stevyn Colgan said...

Thanks for that Persephone

'All in the family' was popular because of exactly the same reasons that 'The Office' works. It wasn't much like 'Til death us do part'.

Alf Garnett really was a one-off character. Johnny Speight was keen to defend his bigotry and racism and that he was ridiculing it in the show as Garnett inevitably lost evry agument. The same excuse was given for 'Love thy neighbour', an appalling show about a white couple finding themselves living next door to a black couple. Even though the black couple always managed to get one up on the white male character, it was awful to watch.

Having seen both versions of 'Life on Mars' I personally thought that all of the charm and humour of the original had been surgically removed in the US version - something I'm pleased to say hasn't happened with the US 'Being Human'. Mind you, I can only base that on 2 episodes so far.

As for the quibbles, the badly spelled 'Inuit' was a straight lift from the author's blog - perhaps I should have added a (sic). And of course Canadians get irony, just as much as Brits and Americans do. It was a (obviously unsuccessful)humorous comment on her song 'Ironic' in which many of the examples given aren't ironic at all.


Persephone said...

I was actually defending Canadians, not dear old Alanis. Bless her heart. "Many of the examples"? Did she actually get a correct example of irony in the entire song? I don't remember as I don't like to think about it. I did looooove Ed Byrne's classic Alanis/Ironic rant. I'm including the link, not because I think you haven't seen it, but in case any of your intelligent commentators and observers have missed this gem. Incidentally, did you know that Alanis started out as a child-star-come-pop-princess, much like Billy Piper? In the early nineties, she had a string of dance videos under the handle "Alanis". When she got "serious", she had a deal with MuchMusic (the Canadian equivalent of MTV) to not play her old videos. So guess what Jarvis Cocker requested when he was a guest on MuchMusic in the mid-nineties? Naughty man! Of course, they couldn't refuse him...

I'll shut up now.

muhammadrazzaq said...

A few years ago I was working in North Carolina, USA with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.