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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Are Brits taking over American TV, and does anyone care?

John Patterson — who writes for the British Guardian from Los Angeles — sees a new British invasion in progress:

In the last few years US network drama line-ups have been headed by the imported likes of Tim Roth (Lie To Me), Damian Lewis (Life, since cancelled, sadly), Michelle Ryan (Bionic Woman – ditto), Dominic West and Idris Elba (The Wire), and Jamie Bamber (Battle- star Galactica). This season Joseph Fiennes is starring in FlashForward while Jared Harris is guest-starring in Mad Men. There are even Brits in Gossip Girl.

British actors come without a career hinterland that’s discernible to the average, insular, incurious American couch-potato. No one here has ever heard of Fry and Laurie or their Jeeves and Wooster series or the novels each star has written. A cheap, blank-slate actor is often as welcome here as an expensive home-grown one. But Laurie’s position in one of the best-loved and most-watched shows of recent years has drawn Brits to California in droves (where would you prefer to sit out the recession – Santa Monica or Shoreditch?), and alerted casting directors to the usefulness of Brits. US TV ratings are in the toilet thanks to competition from cable outfits and the British do come very cheap. They are also generally more proficient at mimicking various American accents nowadays, and there’s currently a real boom for accent coaches.

Now, it’s not exactly true that “no one here has ever heard of Fry and Laurie or their Jeeves and Wooster series or the novels each star has written” — I have, and that was the reason I watched House in the first place: because I love Hugh Laurie. But I know I’m in a tiny minority.

Still, Patterson may be right that there are more Brits on American TV than ever before. But is that a problem. British TV is overloaded with American faces and American accents, and no one in the U.K. seems to have much of a problem with that.

Are Brits taking over American TV, and does anyone care?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • Sandy

    It’s a win-win situation as far as I’m concerned: British (and NZ and Australian) actors get more opportunities to work, and we get to watch them without having to buy region-free dvd players and then going nuts trying to track down their more obscure (translated: not released in the US) work.

    I wouldn’t call myself an anglophile but I have noticed my favorite actors tend to come from overseas.

    So yes, I care, but in a good way!

    -Sandy (still broken-hearted about Life being cancelled )

  • Gee

    Well, I get disappointed that we lose good actors from the UK. I was quite sad watching Joseph Fiennes in Flashforward. Because US TV seasons are so long, if a show is successful, it means we are less likely to see an actor in other shows or on the stage, so we only see them performing one character and miss out on their versatility. Plus, actors get paid more in the US, which means they are less likely to return home even after that show has finished, perhaps.

    On the other hand, in the UK, there are fewer viewers, thus reduced income, so programme makers struggle with lower budgets.

    But perhaps there just aren’t the good roles available in the UK for all of our talented actors? TV drama is going through a bad patch at present in the UK. There aren’t very many new ones and what there are get low ratings (apart from Torchwood).

    There is a new week long stripped drama on BBC 1 this week – Criminal Justice. It has enthused critics but its grim subject matter seems to have put viewers off and the ratings are relatively low for the effort put into the programme.

  • Mike

    “British TV is overloaded with American faces and American accents, and no one in the U.K. seems to have much of a problem with that.”

    That’s not exactly true. I remember being at a movie screening at the Met for a Scottish film a few years back. The actor was asked how he felt about the fact that his dialogue was subtitled in English, even though he was speaking English (with a thick Scottish accent). He was a bit pissed off about it, and pointed out that none of the American shows he watched all his life on T.V. in Scotland were subtitled. He seemed oblivious to the fact that since he grew up with an exposure to American accents, he would have no need for subtitles, and the closest the average American gets to hearing a Scottish accent on T.V. was James Doohan’s caricature as Montgomery Scott on Star Trek.

    My point is that SOME people in the U.K. have a problem with the amount of American accents they see on the BBC.

    As for Brits working in America, I doubt they “come cheap” I’m sure they get paid more in America than they do for the same amount of work in the U.K. and I’m sure they make comparable salaries to American actors with comparable Q scores doing comparable work.

    A list I found online (that claims to be from the Aug 10 TV Guide) lists Tim Roth and Hugh Laurie (and Aussie Simon Baker) among the best paid actors in TV land.

    Kiefer Sutherland (24) – $550,000 an episode
    Hugh Laurie (House) – $400,000 an episode
    Mark Harmon (NCIS) – $325,000 an episode
    Ellen Pompeo (Grey’s Anatomy) – $275,000 an episode
    Tim Roth (Lie to Me) – $250,000 an episode
    Simon Baker (The Mentalist) – $250,000 an episode
    Tom Welling (Smallville) – $175,000 an episode
    Jennifer Love Hewitt (Ghost Whisperer) – $150,000 an episode
    Blake Lively (Gossip Girl) – $50,000 an episode

    While the average American T.V. viewer doesn’t care where an actor came from as long as they are likable, understandable, moderately skilled at their craft and pretty, I’d bet there are unemployed American actors who aren’t that happy to see their overseas counterparts plucking plum parts.

  • Althea

    The economics of it all make for a difficult situation. I agree with most of the comments, but here’s my own bugaboo: We hear all about the British series but (except for the weekend late-night comedies – and now a few dramas – and “Doctor Who” – on PBS) what we get instead of the real thing is cheap American knockoffs.”Life on Mars was an okay show, but according to what I read, the original was so much better that you have to ask, “Why did they bother? Why not just run the original?” They’ve done worse, like that horrid “Fawlty Towers” knockoff, but even when they do okay, they don’t do better. For gods’ sake they couldn’t even fly “Coupling” using the original script!

    Well, yes, I guess they bother on account of money. I can’t see how, but that’s what motivates Hollywood most of the time. In the past it may have been that “they” wanted to have recognizable American faces, but now they’re IMPORTING British actors. Who may be recognizable, mostly not, and have to be taught to sound American. And I don’t even care if they sound British (Australian, whatev.)

    The situation drives me crazy.

  • Chuck

    The trend is going in the correct direction. I am happy to see imports from anywhere as long as the programs are good. The more dispersed TV and movie production becomes the less likely for it to become stale or monotonic.

    The kids and I love “Top Gear” and I can’t imagine it being done with anything but a British accent. Clarkson would not be anywhere near as big a pompous ass with and American accent, and that’s a good thing, it’s one of things I love about the show.

    British actors are a fine crowd, and often more talented and better behaved than some of the trolls that get propped up here, more power to them.

    British production values have gone from ghastly to top notch. 20 years ago British TV production was just terrible, you only watched becomes the writing and acting were descent. But in the last decade some of the finest bits of photography, music score, editing, and overall production quality have been coming from the UK.

    It’s a good thing.

  • Pollas

    As long as it’s the good actors coming over, I don’t care a fig if they’re American or not.

  • Ryan

    Good, I mean, that’s sort of what America strives to be about, right? Bring em on over! It’s not like the good American TV actors aren’t finding jobs as well.

    I would say TV is an example of a meritocracy, where good actors do generally seem to find work…but since we still seem to have reality television, and good shows like Firefly and Defying Gravity being axed because they dare to cost money…we aren’t to a meritocracy just yet.

  • Ryan

    Oh, postscript; Michelle Ryan was TERRIBLE in Bionic Woman, not sure how she made the list…and Joseph Fiennes isn’t exactly a fresh import, he’s been doing movies for a while now.

  • Kim

    As an English person, I tend to think it’s a good thing. We have some very good actors (as do you, of course) but there just isn’t the money to make the same type of programmes here so I sometimes think our actors don’t get the sort of roles they deserve. And, I tend to watch American drama more than British (although I’ll go British for documentaries every time – you can’t beat David Attenborough for a nature documentary!).

    I don’t quite agree with the comments on accents, though – yes, we do have a lot of exposure to a fairly standard sort of American accent, but a really strong Southern or Western American accent would never be subtitled here, and I can’t imagine that that’s harder to understand than some of the regional English accents, or a Scottish or Welsh accent.

  • chuck

    I hate to say it, but there have been times on the Catherine Tate show where I have clicked the sub-titles on. About half the time I find the sub titles don’t help. Local references I guess.

  • Paul

    I had to watch part of the most recent Bond movie with subtitles. I can handle the accent, I can handle techno- & political babbling, but not at the same time. And if you want to watch unadulterated British TV, you can always watch PBS. I do, when I’m in the States. Except for Fawlty Towers. There’s something ugly about that show, too sadistic to watch a second time. No wonder John Cleese and Connie Booth got a divorce while making it; the show probably rubbed off on them (pure speculation on my part, BTW).

  • stephanie b

    I have mixed feelings about British actors on American TV. I used to say that if the actor is good in the role and their accent is decent, then I don’t care. But Michelle Ryan on Bionic Woman is a great example of why I have my concerns. Neither her accent nor her acting were that great on that thankfully canceled show. While I thought Dominic West was great on The Wire, his accent was a bit dodgy at times, which bothered me. And even though I can’t point to anything Hugh Laurie says on House that isn’t American, he doesn’t sound like any American I’ve ever heard.

    It’s not so much that I care about seeing British actors on American TV — I love British actors — but most of the time I wish they could just use their own accents if they can’t do a passable fake one. Same goes for Americans trying to be Brits or trying to sound regional. If they can’t do the accent and the executive producer really wants that actor, then change the character to fit the actor.

  • Paul

    I probably mentioned this before, but on the show Frasier a character is English, and she and her three brothers all have different English accents. I think they even make a joke of it, as one brother translates between his biggest brother (played by the same guy who does Hagrid in Harry Potter) and the Americans.

  • Gee

    Actually, that episode of Frasier when we meet Daphne’s brothers was when I stopped watching it. Just awful. I also stopped watching Friends after they did that cringe-making London episode.

  • Lisa

    I don’t mind – just don’t steal Tennant

  • Mel

    Well, I love getting to see Tim Roth play a non-evil character EVERY WEEK, but as much as I enjoy Lie to Me, I don’t think it’s anywhere near as good a show as, say, MI-5/Spooks. And overall, I think British TV has better shows with more complex characters and plots.

    I do find it awfully interesting that almost all of the most highly-paid actors in TV are men.

  • Kenny

    I was actually thinking about this the other day when I watched a Sky Access All Areas show about Fringe.
    I genuinely never considered that any of the cast might not be American. Suddenly I was confronted with Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) and Dr Bishop (John Noble) chatting away in their Australian accents.. The same went for Jamie Bamber in BSG. In fact, even KNOWING that he was an English actor, I still found his accent jarring and strange when I saw him in Law and Order: UK.

    Now I mentioned this in the SGU thread, but I found it really refreshing that Robert Carlyle gets to play a Scottish character.
    Ok, the crew of the Destiny are supposed to be of an international origin, but it’s still nice to see.

    (Though I loved BSG hugely, I don’t understand why Bamber, for example, had to adopt an American accent. He was from Caprica… there were 12 colony planets, yet they all had non-regional American accents??)

  • chiclit

    Gosh this is one of my pet peeves-let the actors speak in their own accents if you are going to hire them-we can handle it. Most Americans have met an English person or two.

    I watch a lot of F/X, and listening to Rose Byrne struggle with her Aussie (?) accent on Damages and Joely Richardson stutter to make American “r” sounds while showing deep emotion on Nip/Tuck drives me nuts. Truly in almost every case its hard not to figure out a simple character or story fix to explain an accent.

    Archie Panjabi on the Good Wife is one of the latest examples. There is NO reason why a private investigator couldn’t have a British accent.

    I like British actors a lot-just wonder if they are getting hired in lieu of American actors because they are better trained and cheaper?

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