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Wednesday, 20 September, 2000, 01:52 GMT 02:52 UK
Auntie's family fortune?
Robert Lindsay and Zoe Wannamaker
Will the audience share the joke?
My Family is a sitcom with a difference: British stars but an American writing style. The BBC's head of comedy is banking on a much-needed pre-watershed hit.

As a recent poll of television executives highlighted, the 1970s and '80s were glorious years on the rickety sets of British sitcoms.

Dad's Army, Blackadder, Yes Minister and Only Fools and Horses all figured in the top 50 programmes. No-one was surprised to learn that the show voted Britain's all-time favourite was Fawlty Towers.

By contrast, only one '90s sitcom made the top 20 - Absolutely Fabulous with Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley.

Geoffrey Perkins
Geoffrey Perkins is under pressure to deliver
Conventional wisdom has it that by some freak of comic nature, the baton of quality sitcom crossed the Atlantic in the last decade, delivering a string of mega-hits like Friends, Frasier, Seinfeld and Spin City.

Britain did not give up trying, but our hits were vastly outnumbered by misses.

Now the BBC has set out to try and regain some of its lost ground, and this time it has delved into the Americans' armoury for inspiration.

Tuesday night witnessed the launch of a new British sitcom, My Family, on BBC One.

Behind the scenes

A mere glance at the TV schedules, and it's hard to see what the fuss is about: a comedy "following the trials and tribulations of a harassed dentist and his family," said the Radio Times.

But behind the scenes there has been some radical thinking, chiefly by the BBC's head of comedy, Geoffrey Perkins.

Robert Lindsay
Robert Lindsay's most famous sitcom: Citizen Smith
Instead of relying on the traditional British approach of one or two script writers bashing out some gags before handing it over to the production team, Perkins opted to follow the Americans' lead.

Thus My Family, which stars Robert Lindsay and Zoe Wanamaker, is the first British sitcom to be written, re-written and re-written again by a team, united in the belief that five heads, working at full creative steam, are funnier than one.

This Darwinian approach - only the best jokes survive - helps give the edge to the razor-sharp ripostes of Joey, Monica et al in Friends.

US talent

Perkins says: "There are times on British shows that you get the script and it doesn't change. With this it continued to improve all the way."

Writing style is not the only debt My Family owes to the American Way. Its creator and chief overseer is Fred Barron, whose credits include Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show and Caroline in the City.

Seinfeld team
All smiles: Fred Barron was one of the brains behind Seinfeld
Barron came to Britain after failing to sell his idea for the show, which is based on his late father, an embittered and argumentative dentist, in the US.

"He found it more creative working here," says Perkins, believing the try, try and try again attitude can go too far.

He says: "He found there was less pointless editorialising. He didn't have 23-year-olds saying 'you've got to take that out, although I'm not sure why'."

Looking for its roots?

Yet with such a strong American pedigree - three of its five writers are from the US - the show risks forfeiting any home-grown appeal.

"I absolutely hope that this will not come across as an American show. By the end, it was impossible to tell who wrote what," says Perkins.

Zoe Wannamaker
Echoes of Butterflies: Zoe Wannamaker plays a poor cook
In his five years as head of comedy Perkins has overseen a crop of highly praised shows, including The Royle Family, Gimme Gimme Gimme, Men Behaving Badly and League of Gentlemen.

But his difficulty has been in pleasing pre-watershed audiences.

"[My Family] is in one of the most strangely risky areas for comedy. As pre-watershed that avoids being bland, it has to be consistently funny and well played - it's very, very difficult."

Fearless on subject

While its 8.30pm slot means the language must be clean, it does not shy away from risqué subject matter, he says. In one episode the father, played by Robert Lindsay, must come to terms with the fact his school-age daughter is not a virgin.

The contrast between American and British approaches to "creating" comedy, is nothing new. So why did Perkins wait so long?

Money is the main reason. The difference in writers' pay is "colossal", he says.

Barron's motives were primarily creative, which is good news for the BBC's bottom-line. While Jerry Seinfeld was commanding $5m (3.5m) a show, here the average writing fee is £6,000-£7,000 for a 30-minute script.

But if My Family is the hit Perkins naturally hopes it will be, he is confident Barron will not price himself out of the British market to co-write another series.

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See also:

05 Sep 00 | Entertainment
Fawlty Towers tops TV hits
13 Sep 00 | Entertainment
Sitcom star Olsen dies
21 Jul 99 | Entertainment
Friends in the money
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