Martin Flavin, creative director at launch specialist agency Five by Five on relaunching classic shows for modern audiences.
60 years since the birth of the sitcom, the BBC is celebrating by remaking some of the classics. Are You Being Served, Porridge, Keeping Up Appearances and Up Pompeii are all making comebacks this September. And ITV, not wanting to miss out on the nostalgia rush, is bringing Cold Feet back to our screens after 16 years off the air.
The question on everyone’s lips is: will it work? Can a TV show beloved by its audience decades ago rekindle the spark that made it a classic? The skill lies in understanding the elements of the original that worked and that are universal, and adapting the story for a modern audience.
We’ve seen this in the spectacular success of TV relaunches such as Doctor Who, where modern writers have brilliantly captured the spirit of the show and catapulted it to global fame.
But bringing back a much loved classic is fraught with risk and difficulty – to the point that the Star Wars producers hesitated to even use the word “remake” during their marketing efforts. Nothing is worse than seeing a show you loved be brought back, only for it to fall apart on the screen and get slated by the reviews. Yet that residual brand nostalgia that classic shows possess can be gold dust in the right hands.
So how do you spot a TV show that is ripe for relaunch? Actually, you don’t.
You won’t have much luck digging through the television archives looking for something good, then bringing it back and expecting it to succeed on its own merits. Nor will finding a classic show and asset stripping it to create a convoluted story that wouldn’t fit with neither its original nor contemporary audiences.
You don’t find a show to relaunch any more than you find a good marriage. You build it, taking only the core foundations of the original series to create something ready for the modern world.
The revamped Battlestar Galactica bore no resemblance to the 70s TV show beyond the very basics. It became gritty, scary, dramatic, allegorical and deeply intelligent. The modern Doctor Who’s main characters are perfectly contemporary, even when they’re aliens. These shows weren’t afraid to break their old rules to survive today.
Listening to the right people is key. When you’ve got a cult following like Red Dwarf, you’ve got to be careful not to get sucked in by the demands and enthusiasms of the loyal fans. While you must win them over, the much bigger task is appealing to those who haven’t seen the show before. The writers of Red Dwarf have done an excellent job balancing the two.
And when you don’t have a huge cult following, as is the case with Are You Being Served, you need to be deeply imaginative if you want to avoid bad reviews. There are parts of a show that belong to the era which cannot work today. And there are parts that are universal, that will delight any audience if done correctly. The BBC failed to distinguish the two with Served: to discover why it was successful, understand how it made audiences feel, and figure out where it fits today. Only then can you give an old classic a new life.
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