When an international TV company are about to make a local version of The Office, they get in touch with me. As a ‘flying producer’ for BBC Worldwide, part of my job is to look after any international adaptations on behalf of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.
Amazingly, The Office celebrates its 10th anniversary on Saturday. Not only is it recognised as a classic here in the UK, it has a resonance in almost every culture – BBC Worldwide has sold the original to over 180 territories globally. The show also lends itself well to localisation; we’ve licensed the format to Canada, Chile, France, Israel, Russia, and most recently Sweden. It’s worked well in all its various incarnations, including the U.S., where their version has been a huge hit. Of course, the original first became popular there on our own channel BBC America, winning Golden Globe awards.
Adapting The Office is a delicate balancing act. The fun part is working with scriptwriters to make sure they embellish and add, while also keeping everything that’s good about the original. The goal is to make a show that works 100% in its own right, taps into the country’s humour, and has resonance with the local audience.
Curiously, most of the countries that acquire The Office love it so much they find it hard to change anything. For example, when I got the script for the first episode of the Israeli ‘Office’, it was very close to the original. So I encouraged them to push the envelope on adapting the plots and characters. The next script I got was for episode four. As soon as I picked it up I knew they’d got it right. It starts with the office in silence and everyone huddled round a TV: there has been an incident in the Gaza strip. The show deals brilliantly with the political situation and shows how sharp, often irreverent, observational humour can address issues where others might fear to tread – a proper localisation with all the DNA of the original still intact. Watch the video below to get a flavour of how The Office has been adapted in Israel, known as ‘Paper Office’ and broadcast on the Yes channel:
There are some wonderfully drawn characters in the original, and each country has added to the core cast. In Chile they have Caesar – a hypochondriac, Jesus – an intellectual Peruvian, Nana Maria – a cleaning lady with a persecution complex, and Teresita – a religious zealot. You can imagine what sparks fly and embarrassment ensues when you add Manuel, the Chilean Brent, into the mix!
The ongoing battle between Gareth and Tim works differently in every country, and in Chile it manifested itself beautifully when the Gareth character (Christian) is duped by ‘Tim’ (Diego). Diego offers to help write a speech for Christian who ends up reciting it verbatim, not realising it contains some spectacularly stupid Pinochet quotes. The best of these is probably “Chile is on the edge of a cliff! So we need to step forward!” Another example of great localisation. Although I have also heard that line attributed to an American president!
Attention to detail is always important, and I knew that the French had embraced this as soon as I stepped onto the set. Located in just the wrong part of town, Le Bureau is set in Villepinte: a very good counterpart to Slough. Although created from scratch in a disused office block, it was a real office in every sense. On set, the company logo was on stationery, filing cabinets, and office planners, and every single desk was personalised with cups, toys, photos and ornaments; all brought in by the actors playing the parts. The art department had even hired an articulated lorry and plastered the side of it with a giant company logo. They parked it on the street so that in the occasional shot it was visible through a window in the background. So the whole fictional environment felt very real. Nicolas and Bruno who directed and adapted the series even set up a spoof website for Cogirep – the French fictional Wernham Hogg.
Character names can be fun. David Brent in Chile is Manuel, in France Gilles, and I really loved the idea that in Canada they chose to call the lead character David Gervais. Gervais may be a common Canadian name, but it was a nice homage to Ricky.
Sweden is the most recent version to be made; the shoot is now over and the edit well underway. The team in Sweden sent me a rough cut of the first episode last week and I loved it! There were some serious laugh out loud moments, so I attracted some odd looks as I sat chuckling away to myself in the office with my headphones on watching the show – quite an achievement as I don’t speak any Swedish. It is totally relevant and bang up to date, with a clever subplot about an iPad.
Ove, the Brent character, is actually borrowed from another comedy series in Sweden called Sunnyside, where he has a minor role. It’s the first time that this has been done and, with Henrik Dorsin playing Ove with excruciating brilliance, I cringed with an almost masochistic pleasure. The warring between ‘Tim’ and ‘Gareth’ achieves new heights, and again there is fun with their Swedish names (or it may just be my British perspective) – they become Erik and Viking! I can’t wait to see more shows as they roll out of the edit.
I was talking to some mates the other day, and they all said they could clearly remember seeing the UK ‘Office’ when it first aired – and even where they were at the time! We knew we were watching something very special and groundbreaking back then, but who would have thought that ten years later we’d have David Brent incarnations in every corner of the world – I’m sure there’ll be more to come, and I look forward to watching them…
In the meantime, click here to see a special, never-seen-before-in-the-UK-until-today, interview with show creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant in which they talk about the success of The Office and its various international incarnations.
BBC Comedy are also celebrating the 10th anniversary with an exclusive selection of online extras featuring Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, and the rest of the team:
And here’s another, in which Ricky and Stephen have chosen their favourite clips, alongside some of the original online extras: