Russia TV remakes British hit with Soviet twist
After a car crash, a tough Moscow cop is mysteriously transported back to 1979, with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev on the television, red-kerchiefed Young Pioneers still active and a far lower tolerance of police violence.
Russia’s most popular television channel has remade the BBC’s cult time-travel drama Life on Mars, moving the action from the gritty streets of 1970s Manchester to the sleepy era of late leader Brezhnev in Moscow.
It is not the first time Russian television has remade a popular Western show, though this remake is more unusual in taking on a darker drama with a complex concept.
A Russian channel had a huge hit with its remake of the originally Colombian show Ugly Betty, while the US sitcom Married ... With Children has been successfully transported to the city of Yekaterinburg.
Russia has also bought in light entertainment formats such as the quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? for its prime-time slot.
The new Russian show is called The Dark Side of the Moon.
Life on Mars, which aired in Britain in 2006-2007, has also been remade in the United States, where it ran for only one series, and in Spain. It tells the story of a detective who after a car crash finds himself mysteriously back in 1973 and working at the same police station.
The British show riffs on the sexist, hard-drinking and violent police culture of the 1970s versus the more politically correct ways of today, but the Russian makers admitted they had to reflect a very different situation.
“In the British series, he goes from our time to that one and sees a harshness that does not work ... he is a decent guy and opposes it,” said producer Alexander Tsekalo.
“In our story it is all absolutely the other way round. He finds himself in the 1970s and behaves with a harshness that is not appropriate for a policeman of the Soviet period.”
“He can push his way into an apartment without a search order, break down the doors, twist people’s arms and ask one-sided questions.”
“They keep telling him: ‘Have you gone mad? You’re unbalanced. You mustn’t do that. We don’t do stuff like that.’”
“We worked with the reality that we live in, because today the organs are harsher in some ways than they were then.”
The Soviet police had a fairly minor role in a tightly controlled country with little violent or organised crime. They were not nearly as powerful as the security forces.
By contrast, today’s bloated and underfunded force is widely feared and implicated in bribe-taking as well as headline-grabbing drunken shootings and the torture of suspects.
‘Relevant for a Russian audience’
The show, which aired this week on Channel One, is an unusually ambitious remake for Russian television. It painstakingly recreates the Soviet atmosphere by filming in Minsk in ex-Soviet Belarus.
“We didn’t even have to build any scenery,” said Tsekalo, who at 51 remembers the period well.
The most spectacular scenes use hi-tech graphics to show present-day Moscow melting into that of the late 1970s.
The hero is knocked down by a car outside the Church of Christ the Saviour, which was rebuilt in the 1990s.
The cathedral vanishes, to be replaced by a giant outdoor swimming pool, which was built by the atheist Soviet authorities after they blew up the original cathedral.
In hospital with concussion, the hero only gradually realises he is in a different era, unsurprisingly given the unmodernised state of most Russian hospitals.
But talking to a doctor with horn-rimmed glasses and a dial phone on his desk, he spots medal-decked Soviet leader Brezhnev giving one of his endless speeches on the black-and-white television.
“Why is everything around so old?” the series protagonist wonders aloud.
“Oh I wouldn’t say so” the doctor says, misunderstanding the question. “At 67, a politician is right at his peak.”
BBC Worldwide’s executive producer of formats and local productions, Duncan Cooper, told journalists in Moscow via a video link that he welcomed the free style of the adaptation.
“I think the most important thing is that it has to be relevant to a Russian audience ... You have such a rich history and it’s really exciting that your version had to enquire into the world of the Soviet Union.”
“The idea is obviously always in adapting series to keep the very best of the original, but to embrace the local culture and history, and I think that is exactly what this adaptation has done.”