The Great American Re-make Debate


Ok, I’ve spent enough time and effort recently ranting about the sad state of American re-makes of classic British comedy over the years that, to be fair, I should highlight the two series in modern history that have been considerably better than their British counterparts in my opinion. Admittedly, we’re talking 40+ years ago so the track record for success isn’t stellar, but it’s something. The genius behind both American shows was Norman Lear, who was also responsible for a number of other successful 1970’s comedies. One of his greats of all-time was a personal favorite, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.

Steptoe and Son

This BBC series, which ran from 1962-1974, was the first BBC situation comedy to employ actors as opposed to comedians in lead roles. Steptoe and Son were “rag and bone men”, a British phrase for junk dealers. The 1972 American remake, Sanford and Son followed the same premise with Redd Foxx starring as Fred Sanford, an antiques and junk dealers whose money-making schemes would, unfortunately, backfire causing trouble for son, Lamont.

‘Till Death Do Us Part

Originally airing as part of Comedy Playhouse, this BBC series ran from 1965-1975 and centered around the East End Garnett family, headed by Alf Garnett. The series was re-made as a highly successful American sitcom in 1971, All in the Family, starring Carroll O’Conner. As was the case with the re-make, ‘Till Death Do Us Part had storylines that dealt with very controversial reactionary topics, given the times, including racism and politics. Both series featured the long-suffering spouse (Else in ‘Till Death and Edith in All in the Family).

To be honest, I think in both cases, the American versions are light years ahead of the original Britcoms, but I’m sure there will be those that totally disagree. By no means does this give American production companies the carte blanche to do more. All I need to say to you is Red Dwarf, Fawlty Towers, Absolutely Fabulous, Coupling, Kumars at No. 42, Vicar of Dibley, etc. Should I continue? Am I wrong here? Other than The Office, I don’t think so.

  • Back in the day we didn’t have KERA, BBC America, the Internet, and the video store as a source of British comedy. I don’t mean to discount Lear’s genius at all. He took those concepts and completely remade them to suit American audiences. Plus, they’d never have gotten off the ground had it not been for the strong casting and continually excellent writing. Gosh, how many spin-offs did All in the Family have?

    There IS one other recent import that was a success over here: Whose Line is it Anyway? The producers had the brains to NOT dumb the concept down for American audiences, and it worked. Again, they brought in the right people – some of which had also participated in the UK version. It was a fun show, and it sparked an interest in improv in a lot of school-age kids. Not a bad thing at all.

    • @Julie: You are absolutely correct. I had forgotten about Whose Line. Great show and I agree with your point that you don’t have to dumb it down for this part of the world helped immensely. Bringing over the talent involved in the UK version was the smartest thing also. I think it also had to do with it not being a true “sitcom”, but more of the improv comedy sketch program that made it successful. Plus, adding the likes of Drew Carey and Ryan Stiles, etc. at the height of their series was smart too.