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Monday January 26, 2004

'The Office' Takes on America

Before picking up two prestigious Golden Globe awards in Hollywood, we meet the star and creator of British sitcom The Office, as NBC prepares an all American version.

Millions of us have watched through parted fingers the cringe inducing antics of David Brent, the office manager from Slough.

Now the performance by Ricky Gervais has won him and the programme much coveted Golden Globe awards (for Best Comedy Actor and Best Comedy TV Series).

Gervais' accolade marks the first time a British actor has won the award, with the show building up a loyal audience on its American cable broadcaster BBC America.

But The Office has also caught the eye of the country's biggest network, NBC, who are producing a US version, complete with an American cast and setting.

However questions remain over whether this quintessentially British comedy can translate successfully to America audiences.

Its success on BBC America and at the Golden Globes has proven that many US cable viewers and industry insiders think it has a winning formula, but whether that formula still works with a new actor playing the hapless office manager is yet to be seen.

Ricky Gervais (aka David Brent), whilst not having a large input into the development of the US show, is set to see the pilot episode filmed this week. It's clear to him where the dangers lie.

"It's whether the networks let them get away with all that space, that breathing, that down time, the bits when there aren't jokes," he told us.

"Because as soon as they go to a focus group and there's a lull or they don't know why something's funny, they press a little button which says they would have turned over and the networks panic."

But NBC is banking on The Office leading the way with a new generation of situation comedies to replace outgoing stalwarts such as Frasier and Friends.

"I think there's kind of a rejection of the traditional sitcom," insists Ben Silverman, producer of the American show.

"People, I'm hoping, are ready to embrace this format. There's so many different places where the audience can find connection to the characters that I think it really has the promise to become an enormous hit."

Till Death Us Do Part was the last British sitcom to successfully make the transition to the States and that was 30 years ago. That programme's producer, Beryl Virtue, believes the reason behind subsequent failures to sell British sitcoms to the American public, is to do with the changes made to their original formats by US broadcasters.

"In some instances it does have to do with differences in humour," she argues. "Our comedy is more understated and throwaway, their's is much more gag driven ... it's mainly to fit in the adverts. They don't like long scenes, they get in a bit of a muddle with that."

Following on from successful adaptations of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and The Weakest Link, it remains to be seen whether this genre of British television can capture the enthusiasm (and the all important dollar) of the American audiences and advertisers.

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