Bound by a common language but divided by sense of humour, British sit-coms fare very unpredictably in the US. As Men Behaving Badly is about to be launched in the United States, BBC 2’s The Works takes a serious look at the funny business of selling top comedy to the Americans through the eyes of one of Britain’s most successful comedy producers, Beryl Vertue.. Over the next three months we’ll track the fortunes of M.B.B. in the States, and ask whether the grafting of British humour to American tastes exposes more about the two nations than just a different sense of humour.
No-one knows more about the comedy business than Beryl Vertue, the producer of Men Behaving Badly and a whole slate of very successful comedy dramas. Starting as an agent for comedians like Spike Milligan, Eric Sykes, Tony Hancock, Frankie Howerd and writers such as Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Beryl Vertue went onto work for the Robert Stigwood group in 1967 – pioneering the original concept of selling basic television formats to the European and then the US market. She found the American equivalent of Johnny Speight to adapt Till Death Do Us Part; Norman Lear’s hugely successful All In The Family was the result. She then offered him Steptoe and Son, again a major success as Sanford And Son. She was also the first British Producer to make a series directly for an American Network – Beacon Hill – based on Upstairs Downstairs for CBS. Today, she produces both Men Behaving Badly and Is It Legal? through her company Hartswood Films in London.
The key to all this success says Beryl is “gut instinct” and developing and working closely with a writer like Simon Nye. She has little time for the present obsession with market research and focus groups as the sure-fire way to a hit.
The programme follows the fate of Men Behaving Badly in America over the 13 episodes it has been given to be a ratings hit.
Beginning with the press hype generated as Men Behaving Badly is launched on September 18th, we’ll track its progress both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, Beryl Vertue and her prodigy – the writer Simon Nye nervously eye their baby’s progress in L.A. as they attend to the rehearsals and recordings of Is It Legal? in London.
M.B.B. has not escaped controversy. Accused of ridiculous laddishness and anti-PC behaviour over here, how will Gary and Tony’s behaviour be regarded in the States? We follow Beryl and Simon Nye to Los Angeles in October to see for themselves. Beryl takes us behind the scenes to see how Studio City, the home of hit shows like Friends, Cosby and 3rd Rock From The Sun, as well as Men Behaving Badly, swings into action as they take the show to air, with teams of writers and TV executives “sweetening” the script. The boundaries of what American audiences will accept and what works in Britain are quite different – will the “cup of semen” scene remain, and will American viewers get to see Gary and Tony chew on Dorothy’s appendix?
In Los Angeles we also talk to Caryn Mandabach who has bought the show. She is America’s most successful importer of UK formats and works for Carsey Werner – who makes Grace under Fire, The Cosby Show and Friends. We’ll film some of the rehearsals of her company’s adaptation of M.B.B. She’s an expert on the American Network Television jungle and will discuss other successes and failures like Ab Fab, One Foot in the Grave, Fawlty Towers, Till Death Do Us Part and Steptoe and Son.
The programme concludes at the end of December – has M.B.B. taken America by storm?