If, like us, you’re often sceptical of Australian TV comedies then consider this: is it better to give comedy a try and not always succeed, or to give up entirely and just import it? All too often we get defeatist about it and chose the latter, but down that path dangers lies, for history tells us that when there isn’t much original, locally-made comedy on TV not only do we get lots of imported shows, but local re-makes of British shows – and is that actually what we want?
Even now when there are a number of original local comedies made each year we still make plenty of re-makes, none of which ever seem to set the world on fire. Recently there has been TV Burp and You Have Been Watching, whose producers failed to either understand why the original worked or to adapt to the show successfully for the local market (probably both); Good News Week, which has been adapted from the British original Have I Got News For You but lost its way by morphing into an over-long variety show; and Balls of Steel Australia, which is an automatic fail simply for giving the world more Balls of Steel.
But if you think those shows were kinda pointless imagine a world where there was even less in the way of original local comedies, but lots in the way of re-makes of crap British sitcoms. Shows like Love Thy Neighbour, Father Dear Father, the Doctor series and Are You Being Served? were all re-made by local broadcasters in the ’70s and early ’80s. The formula was that one or two of the stars of the original shows were brought over, the original scripts had all the obvious British references substituted for local ones, and the cameras started to roll.
Should you ever sit down to watch any of these shows, and almost all available on DVD, the big question is “Why did local broadcasters bother”? Are You Being Served?’s Australian incarnation (now available if you know where to look) is particularly, startlingly, pointless as a piece of television. The premise, such as it is, is that Mr Humphries (John Inman) of London’s Grace Brothers department store has moved to Melbourne to take up a position (oo’er!) in the menswear department of Bone Brothers (which is owned by Young Mr Bone, the Australian cousin of Young Mr Grace), where his new colleagues bear a striking resemblance to his old ones and he finds himself in some very familiar situations (the co-writer of the original series, Jeremy Lloyd, adapted some of the British scripts for this remake, “an experience he claims not to have enjoyed” according to the book Are You Being Served? The Inside Story).
If you think local re-makes of British panel shows failed to make themselves relevant to Australian audiences, then let us assure you this version of Are You Being Served? eclipses them all. And it’s not so much the British humour that is out of place in Australia (who amongst us can resist a pussy joke), but the gags based on the British class system, which are such a key part of the show (and indeed many British comedies of the era). Indeed, for gags about the British class system to work even slightly in an Australian context most of the cast have to adopt pseudo-British accents, so Reg Gillam as Captain Wagstaff (Frank Thornton as Captain Peacock in the original) sounds more like a graduate of Sandhurst than a graduate of Puckapunyal, and musical star June Bronhill virtually copies Mollie Sugden’s Mrs Slocombe in the role of Mrs Crawford. Only Shane Bourne as young sales assistant Mr Randel (Trevor Bannister as Mr Lucas in the original) uses his native accent, as do all of the lower-status characters (apart from maintenance man Mr Cocker, who is played with a Cockney accent by English migrant actor Reg Evans). To say this show portrays no Australian department store, or workplace, or social situation that has ever existed puts it mildly – this programme must surely have been the last bastion of the cultural cringe.
Having sat through such an obvious failure as the Australian version of Are You Being Served? (although to do it justice it ran for two series, so perhaps had some resonance 30 years ago), and the more recently re-made British shows previously mentioned, it’s hard to understand why any Australian broadcaster thinks that making a local version of an overseas comedy is a good idea. OK, it’s clearly much cheaper and easier to do a re-make of a successful overseas show than to come up with something original, but when the ultimate result of a re-make is always a show which doesn’t quite work then why wouldn’t you try and come up with something developed locally which might work? Why does there always seem to be an assumption than an overseas success will work better than an untried local idea? And if all you’re aiming for is something competent then Australian comedians have proved time and time again that they can do that.