This Side of the Pond – May 9

By Sarah Pridgeon

I’ve been thinking recently about my fellow representatives of all things British. Not the charming fellow emigrants I’ve encountered in this county and beyond, but those who are helping America form impressions of us through movie screens and television sets. I’m a little concerned to see the channels flooded by Gordon Ramsay’s screams of rage and the asinine opinions of Piers Morgan – what on earth must you think of us?
Movie-makers have long been fans of our nefarious side; I can’t think of a single villain cast during the 1980s who didn’t come complete with a hoity-toity accent. Ours is the race that fully staffed a Death Star, blew up a planet without batting an eyelid in the opening scenes of Star Wars and managed to look elegant while doing it.
It’s a tradition that’s been adhered to for decades. Hannibal Lecter was a Brit, and we all know he wasn’t pondering puppies and rainbows during his stint in a straightjacket. Richard Attenborough did an excellent job of jeopardizing the world using velociraptors, while Christopher Lee has busied himself inhabiting the souls of monsters since cinema itself was still wearing diapers.
It was a Brit who donned what I can only assume was a trash bag and terrorized poor Superman during his second movie outing and it was an Englishman who thieved a baby in Labyrinth and sang catchy songs of evil triumph at his sister, all while wearing some pretty questionable leggings. Even the cartoon version of Cruella DeVille is as British as they come.
It doesn’t help matters that Brit actors inhabit these roles with such relish. Gary Oldman seems exponentially pleased with himself the more inexplicable his characters become (if you’ve seen The Fifth Element, you’ll know exactly what I mean) and I’m genuinely terrified of Charles Dance.
I could go on – and on, and on – but it’s a phenomenon that seems unlikely to fade. We’re not even allowed to play the good guy when it’s a good guy who belonged to us in the first place.
When they cast a Robin Hood for the 90s, bringing the very epitome of English folklore back to the silver screen, they chose Kevin Costner’s wholesome furrowed brow and let him keep his drawl. We had to make do with representing ourselves through the spitting impotence of the Sheriff of Nottingham, played by Alan Rickman, the actor with the most unsettling voice of all time.
Bridget Jones, the flighty fictional Londoner, was portrayed by Renee Zellwegger through an accent I’ve never heard the like of, while Anne Hathaway was cast to play Jane Austen, one of the greatest female authors in history and an Englishwoman through and through. Even the role of Lancelot, the most famous of King Arthur’s knights, was passed to Richard Gere (although Lancelot was probably French, so that might not count).
When we are allowed to play the hero, we have to do it with an American accent, which is something that’s been happening with increasing frequency. The latest incarnation of Spiderman is a Brit and the star of House was a beloved English comedian.
The gritty urban cop Jimmy McNulty, around whom The Wire was based, is meanwhile played by a graduate of Eton College, the English public boys’ school that mainly caters to royalty and the exceedingly posh. Again, I could go on.
I found an interesting theory for this trend within the prestigious online pages of the BBC. It all has to do with the meeting of two concepts: stereotyping in the movies and what the English accent means on this side of the pond.
In Hollywood, a good stereotype means the difference between half an hour of dull exposition and a well-placed visual that tells you all you need to know. It’s why the good guy wears a cowboy hat and the bad guy lurks in the shadows, lit by the glow of a cigarette. The English, meanwhile, have been chosen for the role of Evil Genius.
We apparently fit this stereotype because our accent rings with sophistication and intelligence and comes from the Old World, where tradition and nobility are the order of the day but the yoke of our empire’s influence was only recently broken. We’re considered to be classy and genteel, which just goes to show that no Hollywood scriptwriter has ever visited a London pub at closing time.
There are those who have chosen to cultivate this persona without even the need for a script. Gordon Ramsay is known less for his culinary talent and more for the potty mouth he employs at considerable volume. Supernanny is strict and refuses to smile, while Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan seem to thrive on being generally unpleasant.
On a personal note, I must caution you to avoid the verbal ministrations of Jeremy Kyle, a talk show host whose very face fills me with rage. He found fame in inviting guests to share the pain of their most recent multiple-party paternity tests, only to tell them to pipe down and let him do the talking because, “it’s my name over the stage, not yours.”
Of course, the Evil Genius is not our only on-screen national persona. We’re quite good at playing the bumbling fool or the eccentric hero, we’re experts in the joys of the country bumpkin and we mastered “posh totty” a long time ago – but it’s the villain for which we’re best known.
And on that note, I must leave you alone with these thoughts, because I’ve simply run out of time. I’m scheduled to hatch a dastardly plan to take over the world and they’re expecting the first draft by sundown.