Producer and director Tim Van Aelst was playing a hunch when he chose an English title for comedy series Benidorm Bastards. 'I figured that it had potential, but I never thought it would become this big,' he says. 'Big' is almost an understatement. In 2010 it won the Golden Rose at the Rose d'Or TV festival in Lucerne, with an International Emmy for Best Comedy following in 2011. The format has sold to nearly 30 territories, including the USA where it is being remade as Betty White's Off Their Rockers.

Text Ian Mundell

What If - WarThis was not what Van Aelst expected when he set up Shelter in 2009 to make small comedy series. 'We never had the ambition of conquering the world or of becoming a big company. We just wanted to make shows that made us laugh and that we wanted to see on TV.'

The first was Man Liberation Front, a studio format in which two hosts challenge men to resist pressure to be sensitive and caring 'new men' and reconnect with their more basic natures. 'It's a very ballsy comedy show about men in this new kind of society,' says Van Aelst. It ran for two series and was successfully exported to the Netherlands.

SKI generation
It was after this that Van Aelst had the idea for Benidorm Bastards, a comedy show featuring old people behaving badly in real-life situations. It began with an article about target groups, which pointed out that big advertisers were no longer interested in people over 55 years old. 'That got me,' Van Aelst recalls. 'I thought: dammit, that's why I should make those people rock 'n' roll.'

And, considering his own 60-something parents, he thought the marketing people were wrong. 'They spend money like crazy - I call them the SKI generation: Spending their Kids' Inheritance - and it's weird that no-one is targeting them.'

Casting around for a format, he was inspired by the Candid Camera approach. 'Old people are quite often the victims in those jokes because they are so easy to prank, so I thought: what if we switch it around and get old people pranking kids. Not actors, but real old people.' It was also a chance to improve on the formula, which Van Aelst felt was dated. 'We always thought that Candid Camera jokes were way too long and became boring after a while. We wanted to have a punch line, boom, then get out of there.'

They wrote some gags and went out onto the streets to shoot them using a small video camera. 'From day one we saw the potential. We showed it to people and everyone was cracking up,' Van Aelst recalls. And while it brings old people to the fore, there is still a connection to the youth market. 'Although it's old people pranking kids, there are so many kids in the show. Everybody liked it from the start.'

What If…?
In 2010 the format was picked up by sales agent Red Arrow International and the deals started to mount up. By the end of 2011 it had sold to 27 countries, including the US where it is being made by Kinetic Content for NBC, with Van Aelst as executive producer.

What if - BarbieIn the US the format has been changed slightly, with the introduction of a host in the shape of Betty White, star of the cult series The Golden Girls. A host will also be brought in for the UK, where the series is being made for the BBC, and Australia. Van Aelst is not entirely convinced this is a good idea. 'Time will tell whether they are right or wrong to do that,' he says. 'I'm still doubtful. I don't think that it will scare off viewers, but I think that it takes away a lot of the show's ballsiness.'

Shelter's follow up to Benidorm Bastards is something different again, a fast comedy sketch show that begins with the question What If...? For example, what if Barbie was a real woman? What if the Titanic never sank? What if butchers were like rock stars? It was a conscious decision not to repeat the Benidorm formula. 'We tried to make the best sketch show ever, the sketch show that we wanted to see.'

After a first series in Belgium, What If has already been picked up in the Netherlands, where it is being remade for a prime-time, Saturday night slot on RTL 4. Shelter has been closely involved in producing the show, and Van Aelst will be watching its progress closely. 'This first country is so important, because that proves whether or not the format can travel,' he says. 'It's looking good, but beating Benidorm Bastards is something else. That's going to be a tough one.' (i)

Published on Thursday 9 February 2012