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Davenport ponders 'Coupling' in America

By KAREN BUTLER   |   Aug. 12, 2003 at 5:23 PM   |   Comments

Actor Jack Davenport admits he is a bit curious about how American audiences will receive a U.S. version of his wildly popular British sitcom, "Coupling."

American viewers were first introduced to the sexy comedy about six romance-seeking thirty-somethings on the cable channel BBC America. Noting the BBC show's large audience and seeing the impending demise of its own top-rated series, "Friends," NBC announced it would create its own version of "Coupling," causing skeptics to wonder if it will be possible to retain the show's trademark suggestive humor on American network television -- even if it does air at 9:30 p.m.

"They say they are going to push the envelope, but, let's face it, network television is run by advertisers and I don't know if those nice people are going to want a lot of penis jokes wrapped around their commercials," said the actor, who played Steve Taylor on the BBC series. "I really hope they can keep it as risque as it is in Britain, but I doubt it. It seems difficult. ... Visually, anything goes on TV in America, but linguistically, it doesn't, and I think the reverse is true in Britain. We can say whatever the hell we like in Britain, but we can't show anything much. It's a subtle difference."

Indeed. An attempt to bring the raunchy but hilarious U.K. comedy "British Men Behaving Badly" to American television ended in failure in 1996. Starring Rob Schneider, Ron Eldard and Justine Bateman, the American knock-off just couldn't capture the magic, if that's what you call it, of the original Martin Clumes-Neil Morrissey romp. Some critics are already questioning whether the same fate awaits a planned American version of "Father Ted," an Irish comedy that follows the adventures of three of the world's most incompetent priests.

Of course, adapting audacious U.K. humor for the arguably more staid American public won't be the only obstacle the new rendering of "Coupling" faces, Davenport warned. The length of the show will also pose a problem, he pointed out, since episodes of the original series were written as "30-minute farces" without commercials, whereas American network shows are usually interrupted by several minutes of advertisements during a 30-minute period.

"You've got all those commercials you've got to stick in. You lose like seven minutes, which for a 30-minute, farce-based show, is a quarter of a show. That's a lot," noted Davenport, the 30-year-old son of Irish actress Maria Aitken.

Asked if he realized what a phenomenon the BBC show had become in the United States, Davenport said he had trouble believing it at first, but can now see for himself what a huge hit it is.

"I was quite skeptical when the people at BBC America told me," the actor recalled. "Because I was just like, 'I doubt it. It's probably just like two people in Minnesota whose cable box has broken and they can't get it off.' But, in fact, of course, there is an audience for that kind of stuff. That's what PBS used to be in a lot of ways. PBS must be furious, but I did realize it because when I came to work on 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' a lot of the crew was like, 'I saw you on TV last night.' And I was like: 'You did? How?' But, especially in the industry, a lot of people are inclined to have a look at British stuff and certainly British comedy."

All in all, Davenport said he is "quite tickled, really" by the idea of America remaking a scripted British television program, even though he is not convinced the original can be improved upon.

"The exchange doesn't really go in that direction very often," he observed. "The thing is, in Britain, if we like a show, we tend to buy it and show it. We don't go: 'Hmmm. Frasier with a guy from North Hampton.' We just show 'Frasier.' Part of me doesn't understand why networks feel the need, if they like a show, to buy the concept, as it were. It's not like we're speaking French or German, but whatever. If that's the way they want to do it, that's the way they want to do it. It gives work to American actors and I'm not against that--in America--if they stay there."

Davenport is currently starring as Commodore Norrington opposite Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley in the high-seas adventure "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl." In the film, Depp plays Jack Sparrow, an accomplished pirate whose idyllic life at sea capsizes when his nemesis Captain Barbossa (Rush) steals his ship, The Black Pearl, then attacks the town of Port Royal and kidnaps the governor's (Jonathan Pryce) beautiful daughter, Elizabeth (Knightley,) who also happens to be engaged to Norrington, "the scourge of piracy in the eastern Caribbean." Along with Elizabeth's childhood friend, Will Turner (Bloom), Jack commandeers the fastest ship in the British fleet in a gallant attempt to recapture The Black Pearl and rescue the damsel in distress.

So, was playing a semi-bad guy in a sprawling costume epic as amusing a job as it looked?

"It was fun," Davenport said. "Yes, Norrington's kind of sneering, English and villainous, but I'm allowed to have a side to the character, because I'm engaged to the leading lady, that shows a man who is meant to be invulnerable being quite vulnerable. So, I kind of got to mix it up a bit. ... It was nice to look down your nose at everybody and be supercillious. I've practiced a lot."

Whether one perceives Norrington, the 18th century version of a harbor cop, as a villain or a hero depends on whom one is rooting for in the film, Davenport noted.

"In the beginning, I am the villain because I am Jack's nemesis. I'm the one who keeps locking him up," the actor explained. "Or trying to hang him or whatever it is I'm trying to do this week, but then the story moves on and I get to take on a slightly different role, the role of a lovesick puppy."

Noting that Depp's pirate's dress, gold teeth and dreadlocks helped him look much more menacing than his own frilly brocade ensembles, Davenport added: "Apart from looking like a Mardi Gras float, the costume does help you because there is only one way you can stand in that stuff and it's the correct way. Your bearing comes from it -- I'm a bit of a sloucher in real life -- and you find yourself quite naturally looking down your nose at people, so that helps."

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