It's not unusual for television producers to adapt successful British sitcoms for an American audience. For example, Three's Company, Sanford & Son, and, of course, The Office all started as British shows. It is unusual, though, for British television to adapt an American show. And when they do, the result is rarely a hit with UK audiences. Here are the stories behind 10 attempts to translate American laughs into British humor.
1. Days Like These
Growing up in the 1970s is pretty tough for Eric Forman. Between his overbearing father, Ron, his doting mother, Kitty, and his girlfriend, Donna Palmer, trying to keep everyone happy is sometimes more than he can handle. Thankfully he has his friends – clueless Michael Mcguire, ditzy Jackie Burget, burnout Dylan Jones, and good-natured foreign exchange student Torbjorn Rasmussen – by his side to help him through.
Although some of the names and cultural references were changed, the 1999 Britcom Days Like These was virtually a word-for-word remake of the popular American series That 70's Show. The original producers created the British version, and they got Bob Spiers of hit British comedies like Absolutely Fabulous and Fawlty Towers to direct, so they had high hopes that their show would translate well for a British audience. It didn't. Often called one of the worst British sitcoms ever, Days Like These was canceled after only six episodes, though another four aired later on to little fanfare.
Compare the Days Like These pilot, above, to the pilot of That 70's Show.
2. Married for Life
By the end of its 11-year run in 1997, the Fox Network hit Married...with Children had lost a lot of steam with American audiences. However, even today the show is incredibly popular in syndication across the globe, and has been remade for foreign markets in places like Russia, Hungary, and Argentina. One of the first countries to hop on the Married... remake bandwagon was the UK with Married for Life, which debuted in 1996.
On paper, Married for Life should have been a hit. In typical fashion, the British version changed the names of the characters – Al Bundy became Ted Butler – and replaced American phrases with British ones, but otherwise they used the original show's scripts. The cast was also pretty solid for a sitcom. Julie Dawn Cole, who got her start as Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, had been on British television for 25 years when she played Judy Hollingsworth, the Butlers' next door neighbor. Married for Life also starred famous funnyman Russ Abbot, who had hosted two popular British sketch comedy shows in the 1980s. But Abbot couldn't save this stinker – the show only ran for one series of seven episodes before being canceled.
Thankfully one member of the cast came out of the experience unscathed – Hugh Bonneville played Steve Hollingsworth, but he is now known as Lord Grantham on the hit ITV series, Downton Abbey.
3. Brighton Belles
Short-lived sitcom Brighton Belles, a UK version of The Golden Girls broadcast on ITV, premiered in 1993, a year after the American version ended its seven-season run. Despite an attractive cast of funny, older women, Brighton Belles was doomed from the start, because Golden Girls was already wildly popular in syndication on rival broadcaster Channel 4. Treading over familiar territory, the show never found an audience, but managed to stay on the air for nearly two series, ending its run after 11 episodes.
4. Nobody's Perfect
It's well known that the groundbreaking American sitcom All in the Family was a remake of a British sitcom called Till Death Do Us Part. Of course the Bunkers were a success in their own right and spawned a number of spin-offs, including 1972's Maude starring Bea Arthur as an outspoken, liberal woman in suburban New York City. Maude was also a big hit, lasting for five full seasons and a partial sixth before Arthur decided she was done in 1978.
In an unusual move, British television remade Maude in 1980 as Nobody's Perfect, starring Elaine Stritch, known today as Jack Donaghy's mother on 30 Rock, and Richard Griffiths, who played Harry Potter's uncle in the successful film franchise. The show only aired for 14 episodes between 1980 and 1982 before it was canceled.
Elaine Stritch and Bea Arthur's careers would cross paths again a few years later, when Stritch was the producers' first choice to play Dorothy on The Golden Girls, a role described as "a Bea Arthur type." However, Stritch blew the audition when she nervously inserted expletives into the script, so the producers had no choice but to actually approach Arthur for the role.
5. The Fosters
Not only did Maude inspire a British version, but it also had a spin-off of its own, Good Times, starring Maude's housekeeper, Florida Evans, played by Esther Rolle. Good Times was on the air from 1974 until 1979, depicting the day-to-day struggles of a middle class black family in Chicago, and was itself a ratings success for much of its run. During its peak in 1976, it was remade in Britain as The Fosters, which used scripts from Good Times but changed names and shuffled characters around slightly to differentiate itself. The show ran for 27 episodes, but was never a big hit with audiences or critics. In fact, although it featured the first all-black cast on British television, many felt it actually reinforced racial stereotypes, a critique often leveled at Good Times as well.
The Fosters was the first major role for Lenny Henry, who played Sonny Foster, the British equivalent of Jimmie Walker's Good Times character, J.J. Evans. Henry has since become a respected actor, writer, and comedian, appearing on numerous British TV shows, comedy specials, movies, and plays.
So, to summarize, a British sitcom (Till Death Do Us Part) was remade as an American sitcom (All in the Family), creating a spin-off (Maude), which inspired a British remake (Nobody's Perfect) and an American spin-off (Good Times), which was then remade as a British show (The Fosters). Despite this tangled web, the British versions were not connected in any way.
6. The Upper Hand
Widow Caroline Wheatley is a career-minded single mom doing her best to raise her nerdy son, Tom, in the English countryside. Her man-hungry mother, Laura, can occasionally lend a hand, but what Caroline really needs is a live-in housekeeper. Much to her surprise, Laura hires Charlie, a former professional soccer player sidelined by an injury who will do just about anything to get his daughter, Joanna, away from the rough London neighborhood they currently call home.
If this sounds familiar, that's because The Upper Hand was a British remake of the long-running American sitcom, Who's the Boss?. Unlike many British remakes, though, this one was actually very successful, receiving seven series for a total of 95 episodes between 1990 and 1996.
While the original counted two veteran sitcom actors in the cast, Taxi's Tony Danza and Soap's Katherine Helmond, and made a star out of friend-of-the-Floss Alyssa Milano, The Upper Hand had a former Bond girl and star of The Avengers, Honor Blackman, who played the feisty Laura. The remake got a shot of American star power when Helmond made a cameo appearance as a carnival psychic named Madame Alexandra during the series four finale.
The show borrowed quite a bit from the original, but it went where Boss? was afraid to go when Charlie and Caroline tied the knot at the end of series six. However, as with so many sitcom romances, when the sexual tension went away, so did the audience, and the show was canceled after the seventh episode of the seventh series.
Compare the pilot for The Upper Hand, above, to the pilot for Who's the Boss?.
7. In with the Flynns
Some British shows aren't direct adaptations of American shows, but they're similar enough in tone or concept to draw comparisons between the two.
8. Lead Balloon
The BBC comedy Lead Balloon, which ran for four series between 2006 and 2011, took its cues from the long-running HBO hit, Curb Your Enthusiasm. The show starred comedian Jack Dee as fictional comedian Rick Spleen, who is constantly putting his foot in his mouth, then tries to find a way out of his predicaments, usually in the most self-serving ways possible. Spleen is surrounded by his kind and polite wife, Mel, and his sometimes-polite friend, Marty, who try their best to keep Spleen's bile in check.
9. Saturday Live
Between 1985 and 1987, the UK had their own version of Saturday Night Live, called simply Saturday Live. Although they didn't reuse the scripts or characters from SNL, the format – a guest host, musical acts, and a live broadcast with a studio audience – was clearly, and admittedly, influenced by the long-running American sketch comedy show. Saturday Live was short-lived but influential, helping to launch the careers of comedians Harry Enfield, Ben Elton, and the comedy duo Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.
When Coupling debuted in 2000, it was impossible to dodge the comparisons to America's Friends. Both shows followed a group of young people as they supported each other through the trials and tribulations of love, life, and careers. Over four seasons, Coupling was able to distinguish itself by featuring more experimental narratives and directorial choices from current Doctor Who showrunner, Steven Moffat, but the label "The British Friends" will always haunt the show. In an odd twist, as Friends was winding down its run in 2003, NBC tried to retain the same audience with an American remake of Coupling, which only lasted four episodes before it was canceled.
Compare scenes from the first episode of the British Coupling with scenes from the first episode of the American Coupling: