DON’T mention The Office. BBC chiefs are on the warpath over a German comedy series which bears startling similarities to Ricky Gervais’s award-winning spoof documentary.
Although the German show provides absolute proof that our European neighbours possess a sense of humour, the BBC is not amused and has launched an investigation into a possible breach of copyright.
Stromberg is set in a stultifying office environment, ‘managed’ by a workshy, goatee-wearing imbecile whose ability to embarrass himself is only eclipsed by his talent for casually offending others.
The show - made by a Munich-based firm - also features a brown-nosing, self-appointed ‘hardman’ who is tormented by his ‘normal’ colleague at the neighbouring desk, who himself flirts with a female colleague. All are under the shadow of redundancy.
If any of this sounds remarkably like the tragicomic antics of David Brent, Gareth, Tim and Dawn, the BBC thinks so too.
ProSieben, the German channel which is already attracting two million viewers a week for Stromberg, strongly rejects accusations of plagiarism. But if the BBC launches legal action and wins, ProSieben faces having to withdraw the show and pay millions in compensation.
The show hit German screens almost a fortnight ago as part of the new autumn schedule of the private satellite and cable channel.
Stromberg, named after the central character Bernd Stromberg, is set in an insurance firm office dealing with damages claims for surnames beginning with letters N to Z.
Stromberg - like Brent - affects a chummy, relaxed persona which cannot disguise the neuroses churning within. Stromberg fiddles with his tie while dispensing bizarre pearls of wisdom.
He justifies the dismal performance of his department by saying that at least his staff work in a ‘happy atmosphere’.
And like Brent, he is appallingly sexist and racist while trying to be politically correct. Stromberg irritates a German-Turkish colleague by jokily remarking that the pork steaks in the works canteen might ‘cost him a virgin’ in the hereafter.
Another character, Berthold, bears certain similarities to The Office’s sociopathic Gareth. Berthold is painfully obsequious to Stromberg and wants to be regarded as a strong and silent type. Berthold tells the camera: "People should see me and think, ‘He’s a tough man. He’s a killer.’ Not literally a killer, you know."
Berthold mounts a ludicrous internal inquiry to find the culprit who drew an offensive picture on a toilet, echoing a similarly hare-brained ‘invetigation’ in The Office.
There are also strong parallels in the plot. A power-struggle is sparked at Capitol insurance when it emerges that Stromberg’s N-Z section is to be merged with A-M. The BBC might suspect this mirrors the merger of Wernham Hogg’s Slough and Swindon branches.
Stromberg also struggles to hide sexist and racist attitudes under a chummy and politically correct veneer. When his computer is being fixed, a technician remarks that the last website he visited featured pornography, an incident mirrored in the English programme, when Brent hurriedly urges a colleague not to check his computer files.
Even the building in which the bored and listless staff spend their days, looks uncannily similar to the grim edifice used by the fictional paper merchants Wernham Hogg.
The camera-work and sound is also spookily reminiscent of the British programme. In ‘classic’ reality TV style, the camera lags behind the characters, and the film often cuts to footage of the coffee machine, photocopier, a shot of an empty office, or fidgeting co-workers. In another nod to spoof reality TV, Stromberg features interviews and voiceovers with members of staff, where they give their insights.
The show also has equivalents of the ‘Tim’ character - Ulf - who annoys Berthold and flirts with Tanja, a ‘Dawn’ character.
Within 10 days of the first episode of Stromberg coming on air, BBC Worldwide, which licenses shows and concepts for transmission abroad, was on the case.
Last year alone, the BBC sold 164m-worth of programmes and formats across the world.
A spokeswoman for BBC Worldwide said: "We have just become aware of this show and we are investigating it because of similarities to The Office."
A BBC insider added that the corporation would be swift to act if it felt that its idea had been plagiarised. He said: "If we think that they have nicked our programme then we will not be slow to act. You can be sure of that."
A spokeswoman for Gervais, and for co-writer Stephen Merchant, said that the BBC had contacted them over the German show. She added that the BBC would be dealing with the issue.
Brigitte Bischof, a spokeswoman for ProSieben, claimed that the two shows were very different.
She said: "The Stromberg character had its origins in a German comedy, called Anke, which was aired some time ago, which featured a nightmare boss, and it was felt that this nightmare boss would make a good central character in his own right.
"I’m sure that people will see some of The Office in it, but the two are very different programmes. The British humour in The Office is very sarcastic and not really right for our audiences. Our programme is a German comedy, with German humour, and based on German culture."
Anke was a comedy show centred on the lives and loves of a TV production team, which first went on air in 1999.
Buying and selling TV formats and concepts can be worth millions. Exact sums are kept confidential and vary between different programmes, but the BBC is estimated to have earned 50m through selling the popular quiz show The Weakest Link to the United States.
A TV station which tried to ape a foreign show without paying for the rights to the formats could save considerable amounts of money.
If the BBC decided it had a case then it would be heard in German court. It could lead to the show being taken off air and the BBC could sue for millions of pounds of compensation.
Richard Findlay, an expert in media law at the leading Scottish firm Tods Murray, said: "This is a very tricky area, because the debate is about what can and cannot be copyrighted.
"Quiz shows are relatively straightforward, there can be certain common features in format, set, rules and style. Other programmes are more difficult, no one could copyright a ‘boy meets girl’ plotline.
"Anyone looking at this kind of a situation would want to compare the number of characters, the kinds of personalities, the setting, and the way the cast interact around a central character for a start."
International copyright law is enforced in national courts using case law derived from around the world and is subject to worldwide rules.
BRENT v BERNT
‘If you were to ask me to name three geniuses, I probably wouldn’t say Einstein, Newton... I’d go Milligan, Cleese, Everett, Sessions’
‘Wernham Hogg is one big pie, and if they’ve let me in charge of that one big pie, I’ll be in charge of the pie, and the people are the fruit’
‘I’ve created an atmosphere where I’m a friend first, boss second. Probably entertainer third’
‘If you want the rainbow, you’ve gotta put up with the rain. Do you know which philosopher said that? Dolly Parton’
‘You have to keep everything working smoothly, but always have two or three ears open for the staff’
‘See small people. They feel they have to try harder to compensate, like Hitler and Berti Vogts. And it’s just the same with other minorities, like the Turks. They feel they have to work harder. And I’m fine with that’
‘You have to surprise them to keep them on their toes. The Devil is a squirrel, and he hides his surprises all over the place, just like nuts’
‘What’s wrong with her? Bad dose of PMS? At her age?’
Check for yourself if you think Stromberg is similar to The Office, at www.prosieben.de/show_comedy/stromberg/videos/