The people who run telly would tell you that what they really love is a new idea. Some of them probably even believe it when they say it, bless them. But what people who run telly really love is something that has already proved successful. After all, trying to come up with something original can be disastrous. Just ask the people who commissioned Flockstars. If you can find them. The chances are, they’re now working on a travelling circus in Central Europe.
As a result, there’s very little that’s really new in television. That’s why we have such a ceaseless stream of cookery programmes, hospital/ambulance documentaries, and talent shows. Because people who stick their neck out tend to find that after a while the guillotine of financial and creative pragmatism has worked its gruesome task. In one way or another, most TV is a remake, a tweak of something that has gone before. And if you can find something that has been a success, either in another country, or another era, and bring it back for a new audience, you’re already limiting your risk. No wonder TV execs love a remake so much.
Sometimes, of course, they’re a disaster. Nobody who saw Mel and Sue’s 2018 version of The Generation Game has really recovered from the experience, and anyone who watched the Knight Rider reboot in 2008 will carry a degree of emotional scarring for the rest of their days. But when they’re good, they can be very, very good, as this list of the best TV remakes gloriously attests.
Poldark started life as a 1975 TV series starring Robin Ellis. Well, technically it started life as a series of novels by Winston Graham, but this is a TV column, capiche? The original Poldark ran for two series, which managed to pack in the stories of a not unimpressive seven of Graham’s books. The series was an international smash, and sold to over 40 countries. Fast forward to 2015, and the BBC had decided the world was ready for a new Poldark, albeit one whose shirt had a nasty habit of falling off. Aidan Turner and his razor-sharp abs starred as Ross Poldark, and has been setting Sunday night screens-a-smoulderin’ ever since. The fifth and final series is currently airing on BBC One. Fun fact: Original Poldark Robin Ellis has a small, recurring role in the series.
If ever a comedy show seemed quintessentially British, it was Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s magnificent mockumentary series set in the suburban backwater of a paper company in Slough. So the idea of the show being remade in America caused almost as much mirth as the original series itself. Such derision was somewhat diluted by the reasonable success of the first series, but it was in series two that The Office (American version) really hit its straps. Relocated to the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company in Scruton, Pennsylvania, and with Steve Carrell in the starring role, the American reboot went on to record 201 episodes and garner a host of awards. Not bad, considering the British original only ran to 12 episodes.
Ask my seven-year-old self what was the best TV show ever committed to celluloid, and I’d have not hesitated before telling you it was this cheap-for-TV Star Wars knock-off, the tale of a ragbag fleet of human refugees battling for survival across the cosmos against a ruthless cybernetic enemy, the Cylons. Glen A Larsen’s 1978 classic was remade for a new audience in a 2003 mini-series, which then ran as a regular series from 2004-2009. The premise of the show was the same, but things were sexed up a bit. Hedonistic fighter pilot Starbuck was now hedonistic female fighter pilot Starbuck, and some of the Cylons were now capable of turning themselves into beautiful women, which I suppose is more likely to pull in the viewers than a bloke covered in tin cans pretending to be a robot. The new series was also more political, and starred Mary McDonnell as the President. Different from the original series, yes, but still highly watchable, it matched its source material in every aspect apart from the theme tune. The theme to the original Battlestar Galactica is surely the best ever written.
The first two series of Homeland were so unbearably tense there was a frequent temptation to watch through your fingers. From behind the couch. With your head in a tea cosy. The riveting tale of Claire Danes’ bipolar CIA agent, convinced that former Al Qaeda hostage Sgt Nick Brody (Damian Lewis) has been turned and poses a threat to National Security, ended up running for 84 episodes across seven series. But the original idea actually came from a 2010 Israeli show, Hatufim (‘Prisoners of War’) that ran for two series. The series was also picked up in India, where it ran for just one series. Having said that, the series was the small matter of 110 episodes long…
Clocking in at roughly 7,000 episodes and counting, Countdown has had more episodes than any other British show. But it is a pathetic, mewling stripling of a show compared to that which spawned it – a French show called Des Chiffres et Des Lettres, which has racked up well over 20,000 shows across the Channel. Originally called Le Mot le Plus Long when it debuted in 1965, the original didn’t have number rounds. They changed its name shortly afterwards, to Des Chiffres et Des Lettres (Numbers and Letters). They certainly didn’t waste too much time thinking about the titles, then… The British version of the show was the first programme ever to go out on Channel 4, back in the days of dear and much-lamented richard Whiteley. But in fact, it had made its debut before that, on Yorkshire TV, as Calendar Countdown, a run of eight shows presented by Whiteley.
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Star Trek: The Next Generation
There will be those who argue that this isn’t a remake, but rather an entirely new series loosely inspired by the original Star Trek. Luckily, for me at least, this is my column, and I get to decide. (Believe me, if you met my wife you’d know that this is the one area of my life where I get to exercise autonomy). And I insist on including Next Generation, for no other reason than I loved it. I spent many a happy evening at University failing to write essays so I could binge on the latest Next Generation box set. The original 1966 series was ground-breaking and audacious, and famously featured TV’s first interracial kiss. (It also featured poodles dyed pink with horns strapped to them in an effort to make them look like aliens. It didn’t work). But for me, Next Generation was the better show. The Star Trek reboots keep coming (six, at the last count) but the peaks scaled by Jean-Luc Picard and his trusty crew have never been equalled. Funny, philosophical, and with a profoundly optimistic view of humanity, this was sci fi at its best.
This may be the only instance on this list where more readers have heard of the foreign original than the British show it spawned. The 2011 Danish-Swedish collaboration, The Bridge, was a global smash. It centred around the discovery of a body in the dead centre (no pun intended) of the bridge linking Denmark and Sweden, thus falling into both countries’ jurisdiction. A British-French collaboration, The Tunnel, followed soon afterwards, representing the first ever fully bilingual drama on both British and French TV. The remake was criticised as being pretty much a direct copy of the original, with one obvious exception. If they’d wanted to set it on a bridge, they’d have had to build one between England and France, and frankly, that would have played havoc with the production budget.
Pride and Prejudice
Yep, okay, I get it. The 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice isn’t exactly a remake of the 1980 series. Or the 1967 series. Or the one from 1958, or 1952, or 1938. They are all adaptations of the book (at least, I’m told it’s a book – by some woman called Austen, I believe…) But you’re not telling me that producers didn’t have half an eye on the success of the predecessors, and had studied intricately what worked and what didn’t in its televisual forebears? Whatever they did, it worked, because the 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice set a new benchmark in costume drama. Adapted by the peerless Andrew Davies, and starring Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, and a soggy white shirt, the series garnered a Bafta for Ehle, and turned Firth into a bankable box office star.
As British as discussing the weather while standing in a queue to see Su Pollard in a Christmas panto, it will come as something of a shock for many to discover than University Challenge is actually an American import. The show College Bowl began life as a radio quiz in 1953, before moving to television in 1959. The format was essentially all-but identical to that with which we are so familiar, and in 1962 the show crossed the Atlantic, when the inimitable Bamber Gascoigne hosted the show for ITV, where it ran for 25 years. There followed a gap of seven years, before the BBC resurrected the show in 1994, under the occasionally-withering stewardship of Jeremy Paxman, making this technically a remake of a remake. Intriguingly, in 1978 and 1979, the British champions took on the American champions in a World Championship special. Naturally, the Brits won both…
House of Cards
It is easy, and indeed tempting, to overlook the American version of this show, thanks to the lurid and deeply troubling circumstances in which the show concluded. For those of you who have been hiding under a rock for the last couple of years, the show’s star, Kevin Spacey, faced multiple accusations of sexual misconduct, leading to him being dropped from the final series. But it should not obscure the fact that House of Cards took a genuinely excellent British TV series (yes, and novel) and turned it into something epic and extraordinary. Kevin Spacey reprised the role so ably played by Ian Richardson in the original, of a mendacious, scheming, ruthlessly ambitious politician (Francis Urquhart in the UK, Frank Underwood in America). As Underwood’s equally ambitious wife Claire, Robin Wright also excelled, and the show won countless awards in its six-series, 73-episode run.