Britcoms Down Under


The odd world of Australian continuations of British TV sitcoms that had already run out of steam back home.

There is a long tradition of TV shows being adapted for local audiences, most often by American broadcasters who believe – rightly or wrongly – that while a concept is easily transferrable, local audiences won’t respond to an obviously foreign show, complete with accents, nation-specific jokes and unknown performers. And then there is the fact that British TV series usually ran for around six episodes, while a US series would have at least thirteen, and often twenty-four episodes per season. It proved easier to simply buy the format and remake it for local audiences, and while most have bombed, a handful proved huge successes in their own right – Sandford and Son (Steptoe and Son), All In The Family (Till Death Us Do Part), Three’s Company (Man About the House) and The Office, which somehow survived a name change.

Australia has more cultural connections to Britain, and there, the original UK versions of sitcoms would play on TV, often with huge success – so much so that when the shows were cancelled in their home country, new versions were made for the Australian audience. These shows would set themselves up as sequels to the original, by importing cast members to Australia and setting up some new story to explain their presence. They would then be joined by a new cast, often playing characters that were copycats of the original British characters, and everyone would bumble through a series or two of shows that made, say, the original Are You Being Served? look like Oscar Wilde material in comparison. These shows rarely left Australia, though some would turn up unexpectedly on late-night British TV as filler material. None are remembered especially fondly, even in their home country.

Are You Being Served? ran in Australia from 1980 – 1981, with John Inman making the journey from London to Australia, sent over by Mr Grace to work for his Aussie cousin in the Bone Brothers store. There is no logic to this, other than Australia having a shortage of camp men to sell clothes (which I guess was possible), and of course, things quickly follow the same pattern as the original series with almost-identical characters – Mrs Crawford (played by opera singer June Bronhill) is Mrs Slocombe, Miss Buxton and (in season 2) Miss Nicholls are Miss Brahms, Captain Wagstaff is Captain Peacock… well, you get the picture. The iconic theme tune is also replaced by Inman’s novelty song released to cash in on the original series.

Given that writers Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft had essentially run out of steam with the idea in the UK, it’s unsurprising that the Australian version feels rather forced, even if you overlook the duplicated characters. Watching it feels like entering a weird parallel universe, where everything is familiar yet slightly different, and what crude humour the original show offered is somehow lost here amongst a plethora of recycled jokes and third-rate performances. Inman does his best, but the whole thing smacks of desperation.

Recycled gags are the curse of these shows. Rather like the movie adaptations of British sitcoms that chose to remake several episodes rather than come up with a new story (Rising Damp being a prime example), they depend on the hope that audiences have not seen the original versions, despite the fact that the popularity of those shows is the very reason that these new versions exist. Admittedly, shows like Are You Being Served? essentially offered up variations on the same jokes throughout their run anyway, but seeing this being offered up by new actors somehow hammers it home. Just as the original show was diminished every time a cast member was replaced (Mr Grace’s secretaries aside), so the limitations of the comedy are suddenly exposed here when not delivered by beloved cast and characters.

The other problem with these shows is that they were generally written by the original British writers. British comedy generally differs from American comedy in that it is a writer-led project, with the same person or partnership writing every episode. At its best, that gives a show a consistent voice, but at its worst, it becomes repetitive – especially if a show has a long run and the writer runs out of ideas for their characters. British sitcoms, traditionally, have not had the depth and character growth found in US comedies – again, a positive in some ways, but a negative in others as the characters remain one-dimensional cartoon figures. But with the Australian versions, there was the additional complication of British writers suddenly transposing an idea to a country that they didn’t live in, and crowbarring a familiar character into a new situation.

This might have offered interesting possibilities in the case of Love Thy Neighbour, the notorious sitcom that was huge in the 1970s but is now seen as the height of ignorant racism. Which of course it is, to a large degree. Love Thy Neighbour was supposed to be an attack on racism, the bigoted character of Eddie Booth being shown as stupid, ignorant and the butt of jokes; but the show’s ham-fisted approach to the theme, outrageous racist language and the casual acceptance of it by most of the characters was ultimately its downfall.

Love Thy Neighbour was finally put out of its misery in 1976, but had a 1979 Australian spin-off that lasted one series, and saw Eddie – still played by Jack Smethurst – moving to Blacktown in Australia. Yes, that was the level of the comedy. There was an opportunity here to explore how the racist Eddie would cope when the shoe was on the other foot, in a country he was the immigrant and the outsider; but of course, this was lost as the show simply carried on as usual, with Australians added to the list of people that Eddie was prejudiced against, despite moving there (in this sense, the show did accidentally capture the spirit of many Brits who had relocated to Spain quite well). The Australian show, astonishingly, managed to make the British version seem sophisticated in comparison, with even poorer production values and more one-dimensional characters that its predecessor, and by 1979, the whole thing seemed woefully out of touch with society. This series, oddly, turned up on ITV in the UK in the graveyard slot, an ignominious end for one of the network’s biggest comedy hits.

Father Dear Father was another popular show in the 1970s that is now almost forgotten, and so news that it spawned a two-season Australian version might not so much raise eyebrows as much as a dismissive shrug. But this series was so popular at the time that – like Are You Being Served? and Love Thy Neighbour – it spawned a movie spin-off as well as an Australian sequel. This is another classic example of how the Aussie version simply recreated the British original rather than expanding it – a remake rather than a spin-off. We’re so used to seeing shows that take a character from one series and create something new – be they sitcoms or dramas – that these lazy imitations seem especially pointless. Imagine if, instead of simply cloning Are You Being Served?, the writers and producers had taken Mr Humphreys and given him a new life outside the English department store? Imagine if, in Father Dear Father, they had allowed Patrick Cargill’s character to escape his family confines instead of simply duplicating them?

In Father Dear Father, Cargill plays the put-upon divorced father of two teenage girls who live with him, with all the family misunderstandings that arise from that; he’s a successful writer, so the girls have a nanny – again, they are in their teens when the show started, and well in their twenties when it ended after seven seasons, yet need a nanny throughout – talk about infantilisation. In the Australian version, he heads down under – with the nanny, who he doesn’t seem to have a romantic relationship with, yet who follows him halfway around the world leaving her charges behind – to research a book, only to be asked by his brother (who is conveniently leaving the country ) to look after his two daughters. The St Bernard dog called H.G. Wells that was part of the original show is now replaced with two dogs of the same breed: G.K. (as in Chesterton) and A.C. (Agatha Christie). When the show can’t even be bothered to change the breed of pet dog, you know that it isn’t going to be pushing the boat out in terms of originality, and indeed this is business as usual, with a less appealing supporting cast and the faint whiff of desperation clinging to the entire project.

Doctor Down Under was something of an anomaly in the Aussie sequel stakes as it is arguably part of the ongoing collection of Doctor TV series that began in 1969 and ran through the next decade under various titles, based on Richard Gordon’s series of novels that had already inspired a long-running film series. Given that the show had already gone through five different incarnations at this point, Doctor Down Under could be seen as just another continuation of the theme, which – unusually for a British show – had assorted writers, and had changed cast several times. It might be for this reason that the new show was shown across the ITV network in the UK in an early-evening slot. The Australian version was, however, still a domestic product, made by the Seven Network. Robin Nedwell and Geoffrey Davies, who had starred in the last few UK series, relocated for the thirteen episodes in 1979, and as these things go, it seems less forced than the others – the doctors had already done a season aboard a ship, so why not in another country? But the concept was already feeling tired, the writers – who, in past series, had included John Cleese, Douglas Adams, Bill Oddie and Graham Garden – were now rather less impressive and the show felt rather dated. This was pretty much the end of the road for the series; the next – and last – Doctor series wasn’t until 1991 and was as much an unsuccessful reboot as a continuation.

As well as sitcom continuations, there were Australian versions of popular UK sketch comedies. 1977’s Benny Hill Down Under took the hugely popular comedian to Australia to essentially do exactly the same thing that he had been doing in the UK – ponderously long sketches, casual racism and scantily-clad girls. The only difference here from the UK shows was some unexpected nudity – in Britain, while Benny would chase and leer at girls in their underwear, there was the unwritten rule that there would be no topless content. The Australian show, however, featured one sketch in which a few girls were seen showing boobs ‘n’ bums in the shower. This was quite the scandal when the show turned up on British TV.

In 1979, The Two Ronnies were arguably at their peak of popularity – and not just in the UK. Viewing figures in Australia were huge, and so someone decided that what was needed was for Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett to head down under and remake their most popular sketches – which, of course, everyone was already very familiar with. Still, the show was successful enough for the whole thing to be done again in 1986, both shows tweaking the content to have some local appeal. Watching these shows is an odd experience. Clearly, sketch-based comedy can be recreated – look at the live shows by Monty Python and others, where they perform variations on their most popular skits to adoring audiences. But that’s a live performance – like live music, it takes familiar material and gives it the frisson and power of being performed in front of an audience. The Two Ronnies sketches instead feel like those albums where the original artists perform new versions of old songs for copyright reasons – it’s familiar, it’s authentic, but it’s never quite right.

The days of Australian continuations of hit British shows are, as far as I know, long over. Now, Australian comedy is remade by Americans (Wilfred, Kath & Kim) and Australian TV sells to UK broadcasters. The country’s broadcasters have reached the stage where they no longer need to ride the coattails of imported shows. A pity, as an Australian Early Doors or Father Ted, with leading characters transplanted to a new country, might be quite the thing.

DAVID FLINT

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2 comments

  1. Growing up in Australia, I remember all of these series. The channels broadcast the original versions and then (probably) felt they were onto a winner, seeing as in the 1960s, there were lots of £10 tourists (UK migrants) arriving. The BBC tried to make at least one series in Australia, sending Hugh Lloyd and David Croft to create “Birds In The Bush”. Hugh arrives in Australia to take possession of his inheritance, a farm in the Australian Outback, which is being run by numerous beautiful women. Standard comedy fare for the 1970s. I watched it, but it wasn’t funny.

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