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'The Osbournes' Conquers Britain

Television* Beverly Hills' favorite MTV family garners critical raves and huge (for the U.K.) cable numbers in its first airing in the singer's homeland.

June 01, 2002|PHIL SUTCLIFFE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONDON — Picture this. It's next Monday night at Buckingham Palace, the grand finale of Queen Elizabeth II's jubilee concert. Stars of the British rock 'n' roll firmament crowd the platform to sing loyal choruses of "All You Need Is Love," and there stands our austere monarch center-stage arm in arm with ... it can't be. But it is. Rock's onetime Prince of Darkness. It's Ozzy Osbourne.

Well, that's the U.K.'s favorite fantasy about the 50th anniversary celebrations. But the truth is, British imaginations would never have had the chance to run amok in this anarchic fashion without MTV's "The Osbournes," which hit these shores last weekend.

Rarely has a new television show been more ecstatically received. The dignified broadsheets gushed: "absolutely inspired" (the Guardian) and "fantastic" (the Observer). Daily tabloid the Mirror said, "'The Osbournes' is the only place you want to be this summer. Make up the spare bed, Ozzy, I'm coming to stay." Self-styled "cool" celebrity magazine Heat frothed that it was "TV heaven." And the late-night review segment on BBC-TV's politically heavyweight "Newsnight" quite lost its marbles: "Perhaps the greatest program in the entire history of TV. It's 'King Lear' meets 'The Simpsons.'"

Obviously, MTV U.K. has a hit on its hands. On Monday, its managing director, Michiel Bakker, could crow that "The Osbournes'" first airing had been "a huge critical and ratings success," promise "many more weeks of compulsive viewing" and pronounce himself "massively excited" (which would have brought a snigger from the double entendre-aware Osbourne).

The ratings supported the adjectives. Episode 1 multiplied MTV U.K.'s average audience by 10, which sounds great, but in fact somewhat distorts the extent of the Osbournes' effect. The program is not the national tea-break topic of the day just yet. MTV's modest U.K. foothold means they were actually celebrating 500,000 viewers, when a normal week's national chart-topper would chalk up well over 10 million.

Much like Ozzy, the U.K. is an oddball when it comes to TV watching. Alkarim Jivani, TV editor of London listings magazine Time Out, says: "The British are very snobbish about satellite and cable TV. In a recent survey, 20% said they wouldn't have it in their house even if it was given to them for nothing. Most of these people are in the [upscale] social bracket. So the multichannel audience here is proportionately smaller, younger and skewed towards the less wealthy."

MTV's Bakker responds that, on the initial evidence, "The Osbournes" pulled in a somewhat older and more prosperous audience than the station's norm. But he acknowledges that, although a wider populace caught the publicity blast, for now the majority has only a hypothetical notion of what the fuss is about. However, next week MTV U.K. is expecting to announce that, after a fierce bidding war, one of the broadcast stations has bought the rights to rerun "The Osbournes."

At which point the joy of critics and MTV viewers will indeed be unconfined as the rum doings of these extraordinary British characters are appreciated in a peculiarly British way.

"For Americans, the Osbournes must be the new 'Beverly Hillbillies,'" reckons Jivani. "They got rich and they don't know how to deal with it. But we're far more class-conscious and aware of all the nuances of their background in Birmingham," the rugged industrial city in the Midlands.

The Guardian's rock critic, Alexis Petridis, says, "To us, the Osbournes are not dysfunctional or exotic, they're an over-amplified version of an average British family who just happen to live in a Beverly Hills mansion. With the exception of 'The Simpsons,' I think American television sanitizes families, but the British enjoy taking this hangdog view of themselves."

Q magazine executive editor Mark Blake expresses himself patriotically fond of "the scene when their dog was [defecating] everywhere and Sharon gets a pet therapist in, but Ozzy won't go for it. He says, 'I'll tell you how to stop it ... someone gets up in the morning, opens the door and let's him out!' Ozzy just wouldn't buy into that L.A. thing."

But this is how every conversation with one of the happy U.K. crew who's seen "The Osbournes" ends--in affectionate recall. Heat's Mark Frith, who recently won the U.K. magazine editor of the year award, says it's "a rare beast, a program that's even better than the hype," then waxes sentimental about "this warm family who really love each other."

Jivani breaks off from demographic considerations to emphasize that Ozzy's unique character is the key, that "me too" imitations will not work--and wasn't it great in the first episode when Ozzy yells at the kids, "You've got to respect me, I'm ... how old am I, Sharon?"

Speaking of Mrs. Osbourne, she is naturally in top form as she contemplates the improbable events of the year on both sides of the Atlantic: the dinner with President Bush at the White House correspondents' dinner and the upcoming performance for the queen.

"Life is so ironic," she says, with feeling. "My husband's lived one hell of a life, but we've just tried to take everything in our stride."

He even has the blessing of Black Sabbath, his former bandmates, although they seem unlikely to benefit from any reflected glory. Bass player Geezer Butler, whose friendship with Ozzy goes back to tough times 30 years ago in Birmingham, says: "It's absolutely brilliant. They're a great family, and what you see is real life. I'm very glad he is getting the attention he deserves. It's phenomenal. It's Osbourne mania!"

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