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Gary Younge
Office intrigue attracts the US networks

No one can doubt how diplomatically close Britain and America are at the moment, but a difficult, cultural test has emerged for that "special" transatlantic relationship.

The BBC's award-winning comedy The Office hit US television screens last night to rave reviews from the critics, but also to fears that American audiences might not get it and that US networks will buy the format and ruin it.

"There's no question this is a huge risk," Paul Lee, the chief executive of BBC America, said. "But it's one we're delighted to embrace. We're going to put major marketing dollars behind it and see if we can win over American audiences."

Yesterday US newspapers carried headlines such as "British Office crosses the pond, but will it work?" and "Brits hope to win over Americans with a 'mockumentary' to 9-to-5 drudgery".

Mr Lee believes America is ready for more "sophisticated edgy shows which are pushing the barriers", citing two of the most popular programmes of recent times, Sex in the City and The Sopranos.

"When we set up four or five years ago they told us the only thing that would work out here is reruns of Are You Being Served? but American television has changed dramatically recently," he said. "Over the last four months the highest-growing show we have is Graham Norton. You don't need to know about Slough to understand broken dreams and office drudgery."

Critics have praised the subtlety of The Office. Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle described it as "Spinal Tap meets Dilbert, with a healthy dose of dry English wit", adding: "In fact, the only element that dims the comedy in The Office is the painful realisation that once American writers and network heads get hold of it, they'll ruin it.

"America might not get it because of the subtleties. We like the sledgehammer stuff."

Goodman also expressed the hope that the BBC would commission a third series before "NBC gives us good-looking twentysomethings in Manhattan, chewing scenery to the deafening tune of a laugh track".

It may be too late. Universal Television is already poised to buy the show and sell the format on to the US networks. The company's president, Sarah Timberman, believes that translating the programme should not present a problem.

"There's a subtlety to it and something that feels universal in terms of people who work in any sort of a company or organisation and have to work out different relationships with their colleagues," she said. "I don't see anything particularly British about it."

But while the content should translate, the humour may not. British formats, particularly comedies and quizzes, have performed well in North America in recent years, particularly The Weakest Link and Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

On Tuesday a new season of American Idol, the US version of Pop Idol, opened to an audience of almost 27 million, becoming the Fox network's most-watched night of entertainment ever. Only three Super Bowls and one World Series baseball game have had more viewers on one night.

Earlier this month the CBS network took its rival ABC to court in an attempt to prevent it showing the US version of I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. CBS failed, to the great relief of ABC, which was depending on the show to raise ratings to a level it has not enjoyed since it first screened Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

However, some previous efforts at revamping British formats for a US audience have failed miserably. There have been three attempts to convert Fawlty Towers, as well as unsuccessful efforts at remaking Men Behaving Badly and Absolutely Fabulous in which the characters' excesses were toned down.

NBC is working on an American version of The Kumars at No 42, although they plan to change the ethnicity of the characters from Indian to Hispanic and rename it The Ortegas.

Mr Lee believes The Office will stand without translation because of its quality. "It's like the Beatles," he said. "The Americans wanted a version of the Beatles and they came up with the Monkees. Now the Monkees made a lot of money, but they weren't the Beatles."

Seeing the funny side

'No contrived jokes, no laugh track. Just excruciatingly well-observed human behaviour. The Office doesn't sound like a laugh riot. But the show is almost addictively funny because of its uncanny feel for real' Detroit Free Press

'What makes The Office so special is precisely what American television is devoid of - subtlety. If you thought there were non-traditional storytelling gaps filled with silence in The Sopranos, look out' San Fransisco Chronicle

'Though the accents are British, any American will recognise the characters and their problems - from threatened layoffs to email gags gone awry' USA Today

'Imagine a television series about mid-level workers stuck in dead-end jobs. Now imagine producing it without big stars, laugh tracks, tidy endings or glamour ... It sounds, well, un-American, doesn't it?' Los Angeles Times

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