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The Bootleg Files: Beane’s of Boston

BOOTLEG FILES 646: “Beane’s of Boston” (1979 CBS television pilot based on the BBC series “Are You Being Served?”).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A one-shot failure.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Nope.

Beginning in the early 1970s, American television producers began to eyeball long-running British series with the hope that they could transplant those offerings into new Americanized versions. A few of those efforts paid off brilliantly: Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin reworked “Till Death Us Do Part” as “All in the Family” and “Steptoe and Son” was Americanized as “Sanford and Son,” while ABC took “Man About the House” and turned it into “Three’s Company.”

However, not every British show was easily replanted on this side of the Atlantic. CBS tried to recreate “Upstairs Downstairs” as the Boston-based “Beacon Hill,” but that was a huge ratings flop in 1975. “Dad’s Army” was turned into a pilot episode called “The Rear Guard,” also in 1975, but that made no impression. And “Fawlty Towers” inspired three disastrous American reboots: an unfunny pilot starring Harvey Korman and Betty White, a short-lived 1982 series that cast Beatrice Arthur (of all people) in the John Cleese role and another attempt in 1999 with John Larroquette as the hostile hotelier.

In 1979, producer Garry Marshall brought Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft to Hollywood with the goal of recreating the brilliance of their popular BBC series “Are You Being Served?” The resulting effort was a pilot episode for a proposed series dubbed “Beane’s of Boston” – and as that dismal pun of a title would suggest, the effort was not hilarious.

What went wrong? For starters, “Are You Being Served?” was a wicked parody on the ossified British class system. But the British-style socioeconomic divisions were never part of the American experience, which made replication tricky. To their credit, Lloyd and Croft attempted to rework the foundation to fit American tastes. But that resulted in the television equivalent of the old cliché about what occurs when one thread is abruptly pulled out of a tapestry.

The key difference between “Are You Being Served?” and “Beane’s of Boston” was the elimination of the character of Mr. Rumbold, the pompous and bumbling floor manager who served as the go-between linking the department store’s elderly and seemingly indifferent owner (Mr. Grace) to the cantankerous staff of the men’s and ladies’ departments. In his place, the U.S. version brought in Franklyn Beane, the young nephew of store owner Frank Beane (played by Tom Poston in theatrical old man make-up). Franklyn is not a natural leader in retail and is quick to admit his shortcomings. He is also an attractive and sympathetic character who treats the department staff as equals, and he even gets a pep talk from Miss Brahms, the sales girl he hired at the start of the episode, to push ahead when all hope seems lost.

Sadly, too much emphasis is placed on Franklyn’s eagerness to succeed and inability to achieve his goal. This is complicated by the very bad performance from George O’Hanlon Jr. as Franklyn – although he looked good on camera, his robotic line readings flattened every punch line. The episode went out of kilter because there was too much attention to Franklyn, which left the surplus number of ensemble cast members with little or nothing to do. In this version, Mr. Grainger is just a sad-faced elderly salesman who is more of a bystander than a participant in the plot, while Mr. Lucas makes a couple of sleazy wisecracks about women before fading to the side of the action.

As for the other beloved “Are You Being Served?” characters, the “Beane’s of Boston” episode dialed down the outlandishness of the British shenanigans for a much milder American fare. The episode retained Mr. Humphries, but Alan Sues interpreted the role as being more too-caffeinated bedraggled rather than light camp, which steamrolled the character’s double-entendres. Captain Peacock became Mr. Peacock, with John Hillerman taking the floorwalker part. Alas, this new version was more dyspeptic than snobbish, and Hillerman actually seemed irrelevant since the Franklyn character was running the floor.

Some better casting involved Lorna Patterson as Miss Brahms and Charlotte Rae as Mrs. Slocombe. Patterson’s version was a seemingly dumb blonde who actually possessed a go-getter spirit – had the pilot become a full-run series, she probably would have become the center of attention. And while Rae made no attempt to duplicate the velocity of Mollie Sugden’s grandiloquent interpretation, she brought her own distinctive sense of lopsided energy to the role. The Mr. Mash character became Mr. Johnson, with the peerless Don Bexley (Bubba from “Sanford and Son”) having the briefest of appearances as the sassy maintenance worker.

Lloyd and Croft attempted to shoehorn one of their finest “Are You Being Served?” episodes, “German Week,” into the “Beane’s of Boston” pilot. But because so much time was spent on character introduction, only a fraction of the beloved German-bashing original could be accommodated – and, even then, it offered a pale shadow of the wild slapstick folk dance sequence from the British gem. Except for a few moments of Charlotte Rae warbling “Lili Marleen” while getting drunk on German wine, there was little reason to laugh out loud.

Indeed, no one laughed at “Beane’s of Boston,” and CBS fulfilled its contractual obligation by dumping the episode in a single, barely-promoted broadcast on Saturday, May 5, 1979. American viewers would need to wait nearly a decade before PBS opted to bring the original “Are You Being Served?” over, where the show became a cult favorite.

“Beane’s of Boston” disappeared and was mostly forgotten until fan mania for “Are You Being Served?” spurred a search for a copy of the failed pilot. In October 2016, a not-pristine video copy that was taped from the 1979 broadcast (complete with commercials) turned up on YouTube. Whether the original materials still exist is uncertain – but if they did, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would be eager to see this strange little misfire digitally restored for commercial re-release.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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