LOUIS BARFE explores the preference of TV executives to commission remakes of classic series rather than invest in original storylines
Viewers used to complain about repeats. Now, the tendency is to reheat, rather than repeat, with cautious commissioners keeping old favourites going long past their sell-by date and ‘rebooting’ the successes of the past.
Next year, the BBC marks 60 years since Hancock’s Half Hour moved from radio to TV with its Landmark Sitcom season. The classics will be celebrated and remade. If any of them get respectable ratings, you can bet that a series will follow.
One of the resuscitated shows is Porridge. Between 1973 and 1977, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais wrote 21 near-perfect episodes of the prison comedy, helped by Ronnie Barker, Richard Beckinsale and Fulton Mackay. They even achieved that rarest of things, an excellent feature film based on a sitcom.
This time, Norman Stanley Fletcher’s grandson will be in chokey for computer hacking. If anyone can pull it off, it’s Clement and La Frenais, but these revivals are a terrible idea, even when they work.
Take the reconstituted Auf Wiedersehen Pet. While it was nice to catch up with the lads (or what was left of them), it wasn’t a patch on the original.
With the principals all being dead, the microwaved Porridge will have none of that reunion warmth. Think more of the Shane Richie attempt at exhuming Minder. (I apologise for reminding you.)
“The idea that you can simply restage a success is ludicrous,” says comedy writer Jason Hazeley, “Without the original personnel, you end up with a Sealed Knot re-enactment.”
There’s no point in attempting a remake unless you can improve on the original. With Porridge, this would be impossible.
The same went for the rebooted Reggie Perrin with Martin Clunes in the title role. It had its moments, but compared to the original it was always going to fall short.
In Sickness and In Health was nice enough, but was it better than Till Death Us Do Part? Of course not. Also, if the original no longer exists, a remake is permissible, as Radio 4’s recent success in remounting lost episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour proved admirably.
There have only ever been two sitcom revivals that improved on the inspiration. With Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, the reason was in the title. Audiences clearly wanted to know more about Bob and Terry, and the situation of Bob being paired off with Thelma while Terry refused to grow up gave all concerned plenty to work with.
The other was Sykes, most of which consisted very simply of remaking the original scripts in colour. As they involved nearly all of the original cast, all was well.
In many cases, the original shows had a natural lifespan, dictated by the development of the characters, the death of the stars or the death of the writer. At 64, John Sullivan died far too young, but his demise drew a final long-overdue line under Only Fools and Horses.
Another of the proposed projects for the commemorative season is a prequel to Keeping Up Appearances, showing the appalling Hyacinth Bucket in her youth. This has potential, but only as a one-off. However, if it goes well, you can bet that commissioning editors won’t be able to resist stretching it out to a series.
I suspect that Roy Clarke still has no shortage of original ideas he’d rather get made, rather than revisiting this and Open All Hours, and that’s our loss.
The trouble is that many commissioning editors need a focus group, a compass and a powerful torch to tell them when to break wind. Hits of the past are a safe haven, while nurturing new shows takes patience and nerve. The lack of these qualities has already resulted this year in the cancellation of Paul Whitehouse’s series Nurse and Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s House of Fools.
There is no shortage of good writers with good ideas, but very few make it to the screen, and those that do are lucky not to have been killed by the stultifying nature of the commissioning process, with executives, many of whom have never actually made a programme in their lives, sticking their oar in rather than trusting the writers and production teams to get on with it. Every reheated sitcom from the past is a new show that’s not being made.
Hazeley says: “Every corpse they re-animate displaces the next Catastrophe or the next Detectorists – both gloriously funny series. Earlier this year, the BBC nixed People Time, a hugely promising sketch show after one trial episode.
“Meanwhile, there’s the budget and the will to reheat some leftovers that were put in the freezer decades ago. This looks a lot like institutionalised cowardice.”
Hazeley’s writing partner Joel Morris adds: “It’s insulting to writers and above all to the audience, as if they can’t cope with something they haven’t seen before.”
Television is eating itself. When Porridge was commissioned in the early 1970s, BBC executives weren’t looking at previous hits.
“With funds on the slide, the BBC should be finding The Beatles,” says Hazeley, “not funding The Bootleg Beatles.”