All The Fun Of The Flares

If there ever was a happy medium between the ha ha ha ha look at the big telly like they used to have in school shhhhhhhh fingers on lips!! work night out lol abba are so retro banality of I Love The Seventies, and the WOOOOOOOOO MURDERS SCARECROW GIVES EXPERIMENTAL HALLUCINOGENS TO SOUTHERN TV TRANSMITTER INFORMATION CONTINUITY SLIDE tediousness of so-called 'hauntology', then it was a happy medium that fell squarely into mainstream TV sitcom-land in the late nineties.

Some time around 1991, the law that forcibly ringfenced all 'remembering' outside of wartime nostalgia to the fifties and sixties was finally overturned, and the all-pervading mish-mash of Andy Pandy, Miniskirts, 'Flower Power' and that thing where they shouted "OPEN THE BOXXXXXX!" or something gave way to an all-pervading mish-mash of Colour Andy Pandy, Hotpants, 'Punk Rockers' and that thing where they shouted "THE MONEY PROGRAMMMMMMMME" or something. It was a long and slow process getting from there to the point where seemingly every single advert for about three years used the Gallery music from Vision On, but nonetheless there were still some splendid scattered-yet-spangly platform-stomped rumblings earlier in the decade, from Denim's wittily personal debut album Back In Denim to Channel 4's hilarious Richard Allen-tastic one-off play The Token King, not to mention Richard Linklater's stoner-skewed hall pass slackery masterpiece Dazed And Confused wafting across the Atlantic on a cloud of suspicious-smelling smoke, all of which succeeded by virtue of treating the outdated reference points as something that informed the lives of real and believable characters rather than just as things held up to smirk at without even any actual tangible joke attached. It wasn't until the latter half of the decade, though, that seemingly everyone wanted to do The Hustle onto this Aztec Bar-fuelled Chopper Bike-shaped bandwagon.

When this wave of Patrick Mowermania finally took full hold, it gave rise to three very similar sitcoms making their debut at very similar times - That '70s Show, Days Like These and, of course, The Grimleys. Despite being wildly varied in terms of actual entertainment value, they all employed a markedly similar premise and indeed had suspiciously similar opening episodes. Well, not that suspicious when you consider that one was actually a direct remake of one of the others, but we have to get your attention somehow, and preferably without resorting to calling Bill Grundy 'an A Good Read goofball'. But which was best? Well, short of letting the respective lead characters battle it out with sharpened spacehoppers - which would be futile as Darren Grimley would inevitably emerge victorious - the best way is just to watch those opening episodes and compare them. So, crack open a bottle of Cresta, put down that copy of Shiver And Shake, and let's take a trip back in time...

...all the way back to 23rd August 1998, which was when That '70s Pilot, the all-too-obviously named opening episode of That '70s Show, made its first appearance on Fox. True, we would in fact have to wait a further two years to see it in the UK, but more on that in a moment. Made by sitcom heavyweights Carsey-Werner and created by 3rd Rock From The Sun maestros Bonnie and Terry Turner, if there's one thing that you can say about this pilot episode, it's that it doesn't mess about. There's a revving engine, a rattle of drums, a zooming retro logo, a caption placing us in Point Place Wisconsin on May 17 1976 (at 8:47pm, to be precise), and a belting opening scene set in Eric Forman's Basement, a den of guitars, speakers, discarded old board games and 'naughty' magazines wherein the straight-laced aforementioned Eric and his somewhat less upstanding teenage associates - wild-haired stoner conspiracy theorist Steven Hyde, gangling slacker Michael Kelso, and girl-next-door turned rad-fem Donna Pinciotti - concoct a wild scheme to 'liberate' some beer from Eric's parents' party, which is in full Captain And Tennille-soundtracked swing directly above them. Various quick-cut attempts at grabbing cans whilst avoiding vigilant parents ("Eric - don't use the 'ass' word!"), dodgy perms and predatory older female neighbours follow, before the hapless would-be beer thief is simply asked to take some surplus cans to the basement. In three minutes flat, we've been introduced to four distinctive yet likeable leads, had quick glimpses of their various parents, and enjoyed some tremendous gags about a fairly universal teenage experience. THAT's how you kick off a TV series.

You can see from those same three minutes just how and why That '70s Show captured America's imagination so quickly and decisively, and indeed how and why someone at ITV thought it would be a good idea to do an Anglicised remake rather than just buy the rights to show the original. Yes, the first that UK viewers would get to see of Eric and company was courtesy of Days Like These, an 'adaptation' that would become a notorious part of a long and inglorious tradition of transatlantic sitcom transfers, where for every All In The Family or The Upper Hand there was a Payne, a Brighton Belles, a Dear John USA, a Stand By Your Man, a Reggie, a You Again?, a What A Country!, a DC Follies, a My Guide To Becoming A Rock Star, a Married For Life, a wince-inducing Red Dwarf remount where the only good line goes to the imported Kryten, a sanity-flattening attempt at doing Dad's Army in the middle of America complete with the classic scene where Captain Rosatti says "don't tell him Henderson!", and most odiously of all, Bill Cosby playing fast and loose with the near-perfect scripts for One Foot In The Grave and replacing all the proper jokes with tedious wank about how while the women are doing the talking he will eat the cookies but the women, they have eaten all of the cookies. In fairness, rather than an outright airlift of the concept and format, Days Like These was at least co-produced by Carsey-Werner, and they had the good sense to bring in sitcom veteran Bob Spiers (whose credits, for the uninitiated, range from Fawlty Towers to Absolutely Fabulous and Press Gang) to try and make some sense of the ambitious venture, but it was a co-production with Carlton Television, which must already be setting off alarm bells for many readers, and while it probably wasn't where the problems started, it's almost certainly where the problems cemented themselves as problems. Sadly, it's also a co-production from after David Cameron's tenure at Carlton, which denies us the opportunity for a great deal of invective later on.

Batteries Not Included, the first episode of Days Like These which was originally broadcast on 12th February 1999, doesn't exactly start off in fine style, opening with an animated Spacehopper (complete with a non-copyright generic smiley in place of the usual Spacehopper 'face'), a burst of music that sounds more like Metallica than anything from the seventies, and a logo straight out of a late seventies Sunday Morning BBC children's religious show. It's still 17th May 1976, and indeed still 8.47pm, but this time we're in Luton and Eric Forman's Garage. We then see something that looks for all the world like a rubbish sketch show parody of That '70s Show, complete with an 'adapted by' credit for Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain (who have kept THAT well hidden from their CVs), with the four badly-wigged leads sort of reacting-ish to 'McGuire' (read 'Kelso') boinging out a tune on that most seventies of instruments, the Jew's Harp. While one of those rotatey circle executive toys enjoys some wince-inducingly prominent positioning, there's a stilted word-for-word replay of that zingy opening scene, only with some awful added business about 'shandy makes me randy' or something. Once he ventures upstairs, again it's much the same only far more forced, and with substitutions for the more 'esoteric' reference points such as pizza sticks becoming a 'pineapple and cheese hedgehog' (not to mention "Eric, don't say the 'arse' word"). Presumably, this mild Transatlantic discrepancy between shared memories of the seventies was the primary reason that a remake was considered necessary in the first place - not that That '70s Show was exactly overflowing with references to S.W.A.T. or The Raspberries - and this imperative is somewhat undermined when you notice that the party still has The Captain And Tennille playing in the background. Also you do have to question whether whoever it was that crowbarred in that reference to The Wurzels had ever been to any actual parties ever.

Back over at That '70s Show, this is the point at which we get the opening titles. And what opening titles they are, featuring the gang (including two whom we haven't actually met yet) cruising around in Eric's Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser and singing along to Big Star's In The Street, an inspired choice that both reflects what these characters might actually have been listening to, and underlines that the production team weren't just reaching for the nearest available bit of retro iconography. Days Like These, meanwhile, has them all cramped into a noticeably less sleek Ford Zephyr and singing an awful song about how 'days like these/I feel like I can change the world'. And where That '70s Show then runs into a witty bit of group commentary about an episode of The Brady Bunch - a show that, let's be honest about this, the real life equivalents of these characters doubtless resented for its patronising view of life as a 'teen' - Days Like These replaces it with some sneery and historically off-beam wank about Doctor Who (complete with a baffling reference to Sarah Jane 'jiggling up and down in a jumpsuit'). Already this is looking like it's going to be barely watchable, devoid of even the compelling 'awful sitcom' charm of something like Believe Nothing or High Stakes, and there's about eighteen more minutes of it to get through yet. So let's head back over to Wisconsin with immediate effect.

This is the point at which we meet Jackie, the hard-of-thinking rich kid who has somehow got mixed up with this dubious shower, and she invites herself along to the Todd Rundgren concert that the others are planning to attend (over at Days Like These, they're opting for Steve Harley And Cockney Rebel, which at least gets them some grudging realisticness points). Eric still needs parental permission to take the car, and there's also the first mention of 'Fez', about whom more very soon indeed. Jackie and Kelso head off, and there's some brilliantly played sexual tension between Eric and Donna, which their British counterparts replace with some arms-folded standoffishness that immediately loses them any points that they may have recently attained. Then the same 'fizzing daisy' animated interstitial shows up in both shows, and the action moves to Eric declaring his undying love for what the audience thinks is Donna, but which turns out to be the car; a joke that, you guessed it, is appallingly handled in the UK version, as are the amusements about Donna's father's perm, and then then Days Like These opts to replace a shot of a singing Farrah Fawcett with some more animated daisies playing pinball. And you know what, it's really going to be much the same from this point on, with Days Like These continually taking good and well-performed gags and ramming them into the ground like a broken bottle in a Public Information Film.

Although there's one area where they could - that's could - turn the tables a bit. The next scene of That '70s Show takes place in a hip arcade game-festooned hangout and introduces us to 'Fez', an exchange student from an unidentified subcontinent who is, at least at this early stage of the show's existence, played for some very dubious Del-and-Rodney-find-an-illegal-immigrant-style laughs. Not explicitly offensive, it should be stressed, but based on notions of language barriers and lack of cultural awareness that should really have been let go of by the nudging edge of the twenty first century. Surely, you will be thinking, surely Days Like These has to have taken the opportunity to do something a bit more enlightening? Well, this is where we meet Torbjorn, from an unidentified bit of Europe, who gets exactly the same semi-offensive gags at his own expense, which in this context somehow seem a little more acceptable but only a little. And indeed you'll still see stuff like this on TV all the time, which makes it all the more galling when people insist on having a go at sodding Rising Damp. Still, a little better is a little better, and we do get both a half-decent extra scene with Donna and Jackie doing 'girls talk' in the bathroom about their views of each other and respective interest in Eric, and the seriously on-the-money sound of The Sutherland Brothers in the background, so Days Like These isn't doing quite as badly as expected. Though it almost is.

After a smirk-friendly interstitial featuring Eric, Hyde and Kelso inhaling helium and harmonising Hooked On A Feeling (though Eric, Jones and McGuire give us You Should Be Dancing), the gang are depicted very unflinchingly post-joint and in an impressively restrained fashion, with Eric's updates on the car situation diverting into stoner paranoia about the oil shortages being faked and top secret car 'they' are supressing that runs on water, before a still-out-of-it Eric has to have a serious chat with his parents about his responsibilities as a driver whilst they subtly sway in and out of frame before his bleary eyes. As you can probably guess, Days Like These's giggle-heavy reinterpretation of this scene is straight out of the average newspaper cartoonist's view of 'drugs' and can, in short, fuck off. As can the replacement of Eric's parent-irking 'bitching!' on recieving the car keys with a much more blunt and unfunny go-on-Days-Like-These-you've-got-eight-minutes-say-something-outrageous 'shit'.

The next major scene in That '70s Show deals with the gang squabbling over who gets to sit where in the car and Eric's father issuing a concert-threatening instruction that he's not to drive it out of town, and follows much the same in its ITV translation only with less 'accomplished' acting, changed place names, and the driver on the other side; though when the car breaks down shortly afterwards, Days Like These at least has the good sense to insert a couple of lines to suggest Donna is more knowledgeable about motor vehicle maintenance than her more smug and self-assured male travelling companions. After they replace the battery and end up taking the mechanic and his non-played-for-laughs gay partner to the venue with them, Fez and Torbjorn both get the same smooth-lines-and-boogieing interstitial, before That '70s Show weighs in with an impressively realised Todd Rundgren gig complete with an actual live version of I Saw The Light threatening to drown out the dialogue. Days Like These on the other hand belches up a couple of extras in front of a blue light, two blokes in leather caps and bondage gear, and Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me), performed apparently by neither Steve Harley nor Cockney Rebel quietly in the background, and it's at this point that you want to start punching the show very hard in the DigiBeta. Thankfully there's only a couple of minutes left, yet even in that short time they manage to do unspeakable things to a sweet scene between Jackie and Kelso and to Eric and Donna's show-closing car-bonnet couple-of-inches-away-from-getting-it-on stargazing. Mercifully, That '70s Show gives us an under-the-credits glimpse of the exhausted revellers returning from the concert singing Hello It's Me, so at least we've got a halfway decent note to end on.

That '70s Show would go on to run for eight highly successful seasons up to 2006. Days Like These, on the other hand, was being shunted around the schedules within weeks ("to give the other programmes a chance", as Lee and Herring gleefully noted), and eventually Spacehopped its way offscreen with three of its thirteen episodes remaining unshown. And we can't even blame David Cameron for its failure. Shortly afterwards, Channel 5 picked up the rights to That '70s Show itself, and the attempt at remaking it for the benefit of audiences who had never so much as scoffed a Twinkie was quietly forgotten.

When it comes down to it, the biggest problem with Days Like These was that it was neither one thing nor the other. A pointedly American script nastily mangled for a British audience, gags from established old hands rewritten by up and coming highly talented youngsters, an attempt to force one strand of nostalgia into another in a manner that called to mind a seventies toddler trying to bash the wrong piece into the wrong slot of a Fisher Price shape sorter. It had no idea whether it wanted to be cosy past-remembering fun for all the family or an edgy must-see for teenagers able to relate to its timeless themes. What it definitely wasn't was That '70s Show. Or, more to the point, The Grimleys. What's that? We didn't even mention The Grimleys? Well, maybe that's yet to come...