American TV’s Brit love-in

Posted on November 11, 2011


Whole books are devoted to British influence in Hollywood but I’ve been meaning to blog about one aspect of what’s going on for a little while. (Having a blog to do so helps.)

What’s with all the British leads (mainly men) in major US TV shows? Are the last few years atypical, maybe even some kind of heyday?

There have long been great British actors, on both big and small screens – with increased crossover between the two over the last decade or so. We know that. Perhaps there are proportionately more than you’d expect. Then maybe not, given a strong theatre and drama school culture and a language shared with Hollywood.

In Silicon Valley, home of a number of ex-pat cricket leagues, there used to be a saying that a big tech success had to have a Brit and an Indian in their top team. This is doing a disservice to people from all over the world who have enabled Valley HQed successes (I can barely think of a part of the world not represented) but I take the point.

Hollywood, however, is biased towards anglophone professionals.

So the evidence for this ratcheting up a few notches? Take lead or major characters played by:

–          Tim Roth in Lie To Me

–          Rufus Sewell in Eleventh Hour

–          Andrew Lincoln in The Walking Dead

–          Dominic West and Idris Elba as McNulty and Stringer Bell in The Wire

And not forgetting, for if nothing else sheer numbers of viewers reached:

–          Hugh Laurie in House, getting to play lead in the biggest show on earth

But so far, so men of a certain age. The more you look the more you find. Take:

–          Stephen Moyer, Essex boy turned southern vampire in True Blood

–          Ioan Grufudd in Ringer, a show I’d recently heard about but never seen until I just walked into my living room, saw my wife watching it and thought – “Another British actor!”. He was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Bet he’s never played that role before.

And I rest my case with that ephemeral piece of silliness FlashForward from 18 months ago. Turns out just about every other adult cast member was British.

This clearly isn’t about accents. At least half the time they are playing American characters, often with challenging voices to learn. (You try doing Deep South properly.)

Years ago there was also a convenient shorthand of ‘British’ = ‘villain’, or at least ‘different’. (Best example of the latter might be Scorsese casting Bowie in The Last Temptation of Christ to give him, as the Roman Pontius Pilate, an outsider status to the locals.)

The comic book baddie tactic isn’t so much in evidence these days. (My all time favourite on that front – and there are many, many to choose from – might well be an American becoming increasingly more British in his role as he gets more and more insane – Jon Lithgow camping it up in Cliffhanger.)

But what is going on?

My examples above aren’t comprehensive (please feel free to add those I’ve missed) and recent theories have been bandied around – mainly involving the cost of the cast, professionalism and being able to use actors who don’t bring a lot of baggage to a role.

This trend might diminish. Though if some of the actors act well enough, you might never realise it hasn’t.

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