While British TV audiences are more used to seeing Idris Elba prowl east London as DCI John Luther, a recently-announced remake of the show in India will see a completely different actor stalking his prey on the mean streets of Delhi or Mumbai.
The show is the latest BBC drama series to get the remake treatment in a foreign language.
Luther has already been remade in Russia, under the guise of Klim – a Detective Chief Inspector working for the Serious Crime Unit in Saint Petersburg Police.
In South Korea it’s called Less Than Evil, where actor Shin Ha-kyun plays Woo Tae-suk, “a tough and unscrupulous detective with the highest arrest rate”.
But while Luther has made a list of the top five BBC scripted dramas which have been remade for other TV markets (excluding The Office, the success of which has been well documented), it has been topped by two dramas which premiered in the UK more than 10 years ago.
The list, compiled by BBC Worldwide, is dominated by time-travelling cop drama Life on Mars.
The series, originally starring John Simm as a time-travelling police officer, has been remade in no less than five different markets (Russia, Spain, Czech Republic, China and South Korea)
The most remade BBC dramas
- Life on Mars – Russia, Spain, Czech Republic, China, South Korea
- Mistresses – Slovakia, Russia, US (not licensed by us), South Korea, Japan
- Luther – Russia, Georgia, South Korea, India (not announced)
- Doctor Foster – France, India, South Korea
- Criminal Justice – US, India
Number two is Mistresses, which premiered in 2008 and followed the lives of four female friends and their often complex relationships.
Director SJ Clarkson has been involved in both dramas, directing most of the first series of Life on Mars and co-creating Mistresses.
“I think you make something and you hope it’s going to find an audience,” she says. “And when you hear it has travelled so far, it’s a little overwhelming. And, of course lovely to hear.
“I think at the time when we made it, Lowri (co-creator Lowri Glain) and I felt that there was nothing on telly for us.
“You know, nothing was really doing it for us. I think we felt that we wanted to kind of explore female friendship and love in the 21st Century, and relationships and secrets in a really honest, truthful way.”
The mobile phones may have changed shape in the 10 years since its premiere, and some of the fashion choices may even raise some eyebrows now, but those themes of love and friendship appear to have endured.
According to Sumi Connock, BBC Worldwide’s creative director of formats, the remaking of scripted dramas is a major growth area in the industry internationally.
“If you are a broadcaster and you pick up the scripted format, you’ve got proven success. Drama is so expensive to make and develop. With a scripted format, then you know that it was already successful.
“You’ve also got the BBC’s reputation when it comes to drama and a huge heritage and pedigree when it comes to crafting those sort of complex and interesting characters. Plus you’ve also got the advantage of working with some of the best script writers in the world.”
India’s new version of Luther is yet to go into production but producer Myeeta Aga, BBC Worldwide’s senior vice president for South East Asia, stresses the new version won’t be “sanitised” or its gritty dark themes water down for a domestic audience.
It’s still in its early stages, and Aga says it is key to find an actor who can bring similar qualities to the role as the UK’s Idris Elba.
“If we could get Idris to learn a bit of Hindi, he would be the first choice,” she laughs.
“We agreed on a format some time ago and agreed finding the right casting choice will be challenging. We haven’t found him yet.
“We’ve had some names in conversations that could be very, very exciting but casting is absolutely key and I would not produce this series unless we find the right person to play the character.”
Producer Sameer Nair is the CEO of Applause, which commissions scripted formats in India and then sells them on to platforms like the digital broadcaster Hotstar. He will be working with Aga on the new production as well as Indian versions of Criminal Justice and The Office, both of which premiered this year.
“The first step in selecting a show for adaptation is to test it with a very direct translation of the original material.
“If the core idea and plot travel well, then the next step is to adapt it to a local setting and colour it up with local nuances, tastes, cultural cues and language, without sacrificing the original idea.”
“Shows like Criminal Justice, The Office and Luther have stories that are universal,” he says. “Characters, situations, predicaments – they travel very well. When cast with powerful local actors, set in domestic milieus and written in the spoken dialect of the region, these shows become our own for the audiences.”
“We want producers to stick to the original DNA of what the story is and the characters, but also we allow them to localise it, because they know much more about, you know, culturally, the differences and how that will manifest,” says Sumi Connock.
“So in Dr Foster, [the issue of] infidelity, say you’re in Latin America, you’ll have screaming and throwing things around and being very dramatic, whereas in France, it might be much more subdued, because you don’t want the world to know your business. So we allow basically, we allow everybody to adapt it to make it culturally relevant.
‘A wolf who howls alone at night’
In South Korea, Less Than Evil is already proving to be something of a success. It was broadcast in December of last year and January 2019.
Shin Ha Kyun plays Woo Tae Seok, a ruthless detective who will stop at nothing. “He’s tough and reckless, but he also has a sensitive and fragile side,” he said at a press conference to launch the series.
“The stories are different from the ones on Luther. The episodes are similar, but the way that the stories unfold or the emotions the characters feel are different. He added, “The original character of Luther was more like a bear, but Woo Tae Seok is like a wolf who howls alone at night.”
Geo Lee, senior VP for North East Asia said the success of the show – which won four awards out of eight nominations at South Korean’s version of the Baftas – again came down to the casting of Shin Ha Kyun and the impact of his name getting the top billing.
“I think finding the lead actor was a very important because of his quality, he is one of the top actors in this country,” he said.
“He needed to provided two things – number one was quality acting, to convey that strong story.
“And number two, to attract the talent he needed to make this possible, including all the supporting actors and support on the network.
“His name was a good credential for the show. [Audiences] knew this was going to be good job, not just any drama or a remake but a good story.”
‘Cultural or emotional differences’
Jungmi Kim of Basestory is remaking another BBC drama, Undercover, for a South Korean audience. She says the original format and local remakes have “different charms”.
“The reason why Koreans are more interested in a remake than the original is because Korean drama consumption is dominant,” she explains.
“A remake can convey the essence of the subject and drama that may not be directly conveyed from the original, through localised stories and characters that greatly reduce cultural or emotional differences.
“Korea and the UK have different social systems and individual values,” she added, citing gender awareness, racial discrimination, marriage, family, and work life.”
Actress Lee Seol, who plays Less Than Evil’s genius psychopath Eun Seon Jae – based on the character of Alice Morgan [Ruth Wilson] said, she “does not have a lot of points in common with the Alice character from the original. We took the idea of a genius psychopath but created a totally different character.”
Sumi Connock says in those cases “the BBC will try to offer a solution rather than just say, ‘No, you absolutely can’t do that.'”
“It’s definitely a two-way process. So there’s got to be an element of trust, because it needs to be able to resonate with a local audience,” she continues. “We allow the freedom to adapt the characters so they feel as alive walking through the streets of Calcutta or Seoul, as walking down the high street in Peckham.”
SJ Clarkson, who directed BBC drama Collateral, Marvel’s The Defenders for Netflix and the Game of Thrones prequel says: “Whenever you create something, there has to be an element of allowing it to grow and become something else.
“Unless you’re going to be involved in it directly, they’ve got to have the freedom to take it where it needs to go because they’re making it with their own culture and characters in mind.
“If you stay too rigid to it, I’m sure it wouldn’t work.”
The success of recent international shows like Big Little Lies and Killing Eve, as well as the ongoing success of Mistresses is, says Sumi Connick, proof of the growing impact of female-led drama.
“Orphan Black (co-produced by BBC America) was one of our first titles made in Japan. For a long time, there was a focus on these male tortured characters, but recently we’ve seen a big rise in female-led drama.
“We’ve had a lot going on with women in the world, you’ve got the #MeToo campaigns which have brought women’s stories to the fore and I think there’s just some brilliant and complex characters out there.
“Plus female writers like Phoebe Waller Bridge and Marnie Dickins (Thirteen). I think it’s a good and positive change in attitude towards acceptance.”
Myleeta Aga says an Indian version of a series like Killing Eve would perform very well.
“Our TV channels are dominated by female-led drama. In prime time every day of the week, from 7am to 10pm, it’s female-driven dramas,” she explains. “But they’re conservative dramas like soaps, like EastEnders, things like that. With a limited series like Dr Foster, we’re having ongoing discussions.
‘I’m sure you’re aware that in India, representation of women in society and on TV and in Bollywood is a few steps behind the UK. So we would very much like to be producers that bring strong female characters to the forefront.”