Found in Translation
When the third and final season of Gavin & Stacey begins this fall, fans of the BBC sitcom will finally discover whether young lovers from opposite sides of the tracks—Matthew Horne plays a well-to-do suburbanite from outside London and Joanna Page a girl from a rather run-down seaside resort town in Wales—can overcome their cultural divides. Created by the young English actor James Corden (who plays Gavin’s best friend, Smithy) and his costar Ruth Jones (Nessa, Stacey’s best friend), the show is an endearing tale about the collision of two similar but still very different worlds: the English look down on the Welsh, and the Welsh resent being looked down upon—while holding prejudices of their own. The show won a BAFTA award last year and routinely drew more than 1.5 million viewers in its second season, so it’s no surprise that the American network ABC has announced it’s developing a U.S. version, hoping to mimic what NBC did with The Office, originally created for the BBC by Ricky Gervais.
Hollywood may dominate the global box office, but the Brits win the prize for exporting blockbuster TV shows—or at least the ideas for them. Long before Steve Carell stood in for Gervais as the obnoxious boss, Carroll O’Connor adapted his role as Archie Bunker in All in the Family from a British program called Till Death Us Do Part, set in London’s gritty East End. Even reality shows such as American Idol and Dancing With the Stars started off in Britain. More recent imports include the sci-fi crime drama Life on Mars and Queer as Folk. But as U.S. viewers grow increasingly savvy about the wider world, there are fewer reasons to retune British comedies for the American ear. For the past decade, BBC America has been broadcasting British originals straight to a growing number of U.S. family rooms—this year’s ratings have been the highest yet—and Gavin & Stacey has already played to critical praise in the U.S.
The British get their Americana as is, with an evening lineup that’s full of U.S. shows like CSI and Desperate Housewives.Friends airs for two hours every night, and American TV has even started to permeate British politics. Shortly after a marathon of The Wire kicked off on the BBC this year, the opposition Conservative Party used the show’s brutal depiction of Baltimore’s drug wars to rally voters behind its “Broken Britain” election campaign, which blames New Labour for the U.K.’s crumbling urban centers.
Europeans have been watching U.S. television and cinema long enough to feel they understand the place—a sensibility Americans have been much slower to develop about other parts of the world. One reason for such a lopsided balance boils down to pure economics. The American market is massive. For example, Sex and the City could have easily been recast for London’s posh West End, but the number of new British viewers would have been a mere fraction of the more than 100 million American households that ABC’s Gavin & Stacey will be after. The accent can be hard to decipher, too; BBC America airs Gavin & Stacey with subtitles, as British slang pronounced in a heavy Welsh accent can challenge even the most well-traveled ear. And many of Gavin & Stacey‘s funniest moments come when it pokes fun at other British celebrities who may be alien to American audiences.
Most Brits turn up their noses at American remakes. For them, the U.S. version of The Office resembles a bad high-school play adapted from a beloved masterpiece, and very few hold out hope for Gavin & Stacey either. Corden and Jones, however, are not among them. “Everybody says, ‘Oh, it won’t translate,’ ” says Jones. “But we were given a treatment [of the ABC version], and straight away James and I said, ‘Gosh, it’s fantastic, isn’t it?’ It seems to capture the essence of the British characters and Americanize them.”
The writers will find plenty of parallels in an America polarized by red states and blue states. And if past adaptations are any indication, Americans have a knack for translating Britain’s obsession with class into compelling narratives about race. Steptoe & Son, a British show about a white, working-class Englishman stuck at his father’s salvage yard who longs to join London’s upper crust, became Sanford & Son when it went stateside in the 1970s—one of the few programs at that time to deal with racial discrimination.
Ultimately, Gavin & Stacey‘s moral is simple: we can learn to love one another despite our differences. But all the fun in the delivery of that message lies in watching eccentric Brits act silly around each other. Their humorous idiosyncrasies—including outbursts of song and dance, and impersonations of Prince Charles and Camilla—are unlikely to fully translate to a U.S. version. Perhaps Americans should just learn to laugh at the real thing.