We tend to import American television as seen — comedies and cop shows, mainly — whereas they create their own versions of ours: The Weakest Link, The Office and, perhaps apocryphally, a Fawlty Towers which omitted the Basil character because he was too offensive.
Now we make our own American hits. Take The Bafta Awards (BBC1), which tried to bring some glitz and pizzazz to this little island. The organisers hope that the Baftas might one day challenge the Oscars as the world’s greatest entertainment awards show. Not on this evidence. It was dull. Too few Hollywood stars had bothered to make the trip. The frocks weren’t bonkers enough. Stephen Fry is our new national master of ceremonies (surely he’ll have some role at Charles’s and Camilla’s wedding. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, will you be most deliciously upstanding…’).
His welcome to the guests was just plain odd. ‘You busy bees have filled our lives with so much movie honey. Let us smear ourselves with that movie honey!’ When he said, ‘Will you welcome an actress whose first name rhymes with the capital of Austria — Siena Miller!’ I wondered just what was in that honey. The Oscars are safe for a few years yet.
The Apprentice (BBC2, Wednesday) is a British version of the US reality show that had Donald Trump as the tycoon offering a million-dollar salary to the most successful salesman among 14 entrants. Except that our unlucky victor will get only £100,000 for a year’s work. ‘The contestants will stay in an eight-bedroom luxury house on the banks of the Thames in west London — a first glimpse of what the winner can expect!’ Not for a hundred grand, he can’t; those houses cost millions.
And the British version doesn’t have Donald Trump — absurd, over-the-top, and possessed of a sense of interior décor that would have made Louis XVI run away screaming — but Alan Sugar, of Amstrad computers. Mr Sugar tries to be a complete bastard, but only makes himself curiously endearing. Anyone who says: ‘Here’s a bit of a warning. Never, ever, ever, underestimate me!’ must be terrified someone is going to see right through him. Whereas Trump is all face scrub and unguents, Sugar looks like an anxious loofah.
The thing lacks glamour. The contestants, meant to be the finest potential entrepreneurs in the land, resemble the kind of people that discourage most of us from ever going into a branch of All Bar One. Those who aren’t bossy are grumpy. Instead of gliding to Trump Tower in a limo, they are flogging flowers around the roadworks at King’s Cross. Instead of working out business strategies, they bicker. It’s all rather naff, a bit too small, too drizzly, not exciting enough — too British.
But the traffic is both ways. Joey (Five, Sunday) is a spin-off from Friends. The joke there was that Joey was an affable but stupid guy living with sharp, smart people. Now he has moved to Los Angeles, where everyone has to be a little weird in order to fit in. I couldn’t quite figure out the pilot episode, shown first, until I realised that it was essentially a British sitcom set in California, with not very good British sitcom jokes. Joey’s sister has had silicon implants and invites him to feel them. ‘I’ll touch them up in the car, I promise,’ Joey says. Compare that to the boob joke in the last episode of Friends. Rachel has lost her boarding card but whispers to the guy on the gate, ‘I’m in 34C. I can remember because that’s my bra size.’
When he still refuses to let her on, she replies angrily, ‘We wouldn’t be having this conversation if I was seated in 36D!’ That’s witty; the Joey gag is merely embarrassing.
Gosh, there are some clunky lines. ‘My show is dead. People thought it was disgusting. Sheez, you just defecate on one corpse!’ Or, ‘Now I’m the guy who turned down Nurses. In real life, I’d never turn down a nurse.’
A blonde tells him in the pool, ‘I can see your pee-pee.’ Knob jokes on prime-time American television! How British can you get? But if this were a British sitcom, it probably wouldn’t be recommissioned. To be fair, the second episode was markedly better than the pilot, but at £450,000 a show, Five must be quite worried.
Something you’d never see on American television was a documentary like Michael Howard — No More Mr Nasty (BBC 2) in which Michael Cockerell turned the Tory leader on a spit, like a doner kebab. Why do his victims think they’ll stay in control and won’t reveal themselves? There were cherishable moments, such as when he pretended to enjoy Rory Bremner’s depiction of himself as a vampire. No American politician would ever have to suffer that.