There are endless reasons why I’m happy to be with G but I’ve always been especially grateful that she’s not an Anglophile or fangirl of British pop culture. I find G’s nonplussed reaction to most things British, including accents and the sights of London, oddly comforting. I suppose it’s just reassuring to know that it’s me she interested in not my country of origin. I say this because you Americans are obsessed with us Brits. Actually, it’s truer to say you’re obsessed with what you think we are. American television is fanning the fires of this fascination like a Pudding Lane bake-off…and you can’t get more British than that!
There’s not a show I’ve seen on American TV that doesn’t either have in it a British performer or someone pretending to be British, often both given the lax standards of background research for writing British characters. It doesn’t even have to be a show. Various American companies have British spokespeople and mascots in their TV advertising. Why am I not flattered? Because the fascination somehow never extends to actually finding out what the diverse and varied life and culture of Britain is like. Instead it’s an incredibly narrow, dated and ignorant version of our national culture (royalty, the swinging sixties, Victorian cockneys) that is continually reproduced across American television.
I’m sure all non-Americans (even ethnic-Americans) and American minorities have much the same beef and I’m not saying the British have any special claim to reductive racial stereotyping on TV. It’s the inverse relationship between the interest taken and the research done that makes American TV’s obsession with the British so bemusing to me. Why go to the trouble of inorganically adding a British person to the cast of an American-set show or concept and then not do the requisite due diligence to give them a chance of convincing at what they’re supposed to be?
A cynical answer would be that Americans know so little about Britain that TV viewers wouldn’t know the difference. But why then are Brits so prominently placed in American television as leads or major supporting characters, presenters and stars, and commercial representatives? Why are we not marginalised like so many other nationalities that American TV knows next to nothing about?
There are doubtless innumerable political and historical reasons for this (the need to keep us arcane and aristocratic seems pretty closely related to an age-old American view of the British as colonisers from the old world) but in the superficial now I think it has a lot to do with Britain being a major producer and exporter of TV to an extent not seen before. The US, traditionally a powerhouse of global TV distribution, has to find methods of coping with this new threat and slotting British actors and characters into TV shows (often for no good story reason) seems as good a way of joining the competition as any.
There’s also something about always having to laugh at or undermine British people appearing on TV that means however high up in the pecking order they are, their one-dimensionality will always be more important than their function. Think about how many American shows sacrifice character development for a couple of cheap shots at cross-cultural misidentification or excuses for vicarious swearing (the British obscenity ‘wanker’ frequently passes Broadcasting Standards unnoticed). On Dancing with the Stars, Len Goodman has been hired to impart his technical opinion on dancing, drum up the crowd and occasionally play the pantomime villain. Increasingly, however, he’s been there to provide British slang for the other presenters to mock.
There’s a quieter British invasion going on (we don’t like to make a fuss) in TV casting. Most of your favourite American TV shows will boast British cast members, many or all passing as natives. I’ve never quite got over Mancunian Egg from This Life as an Atlantan sheriff’s deputy in The Walking Dead or Homeland’s marine double-agent Brody being as British as the head of the CIA. Often producers are calling on past prejudices about British actors to inject a note of taste but it’s also about an Anglicisation of the American acting workforce taking root over recent years.
All the way from Ian Fleming to yours truly, Brits have recognised that keeping your accent quiet is how to be taken seriously in America. British actors playing Americans may have blended in to TV without a trace but those who chose to wear Britishness on their sleeves will remain the rodeo clowns of television.