The New British Invasion

British Invasion

Pop quiz time: what do House, The Wire, Journeyman, Deadwood, Bionic Woman (the remake), Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and the upcoming series The Walking Dead have in common?

You probably answered it by the second or third series listed – they all have or had British actors in the lead role. It’s a trend that started with The Wire with Dominic West and, surprisingly, picked up momentum. Whether they’re playing cops and drug dealers from Baltimore or modern day All-American heroines, a British invasion has hit US television screens. Even us Brits are wondering ‘why?’

After asking friends for their opinions – British, American, actors, non-actors – I found myself with a list of points, any of which could be reasons for the steadily rising trend.

Duking it out: Britain isn’t known for having a huge television and movie industry. Screen work is tight for actors and only the very best get the roles, so you can be sure that any actor with a decent resume in British television or movies is good. And if they’re considered famous in the UK? They’re very good.

This isn’t to say that American actors aren’t good, but with such a huge industry, there are many more roles available. Sometimes just looking the part is enough to gain you the role.

Stage acting: With so few screen roles available, the majority of British actors also do theatre work. Nearly all of the most famous and recognizable Brit actors in US productions will have worked in theatre, some fairly extensively.

Acting for the stage is much different than acting for the screen and requires a higher degree of finesse; you can’t make a mistake in front of a live audience. This attention to detail and exactness is a skill transferable to the screen. Less mistakes means fewer takes – and a lot of money saved.

Variety: This is more of a hypothetical right now, given that most of the Brit actors cast recently haven’t been in massive Hollywood movies, but British actors seem more likely to go from popular movies to television productions. Want a big named actor in your series? You’re probably more likely to get Kate Winslet than Julia Roberts.

Appeal: Okay, all Americans reading please raise a hand if you know an anglophile. British people, culture and locations are commonly seen in the US as almost mythic: full of great architecture, top hats and ‘bobbies’. Even when the people and places are portrayed more realistically, it is always with a sense of ‘otherness’. It’s inevitable that some of this wonder rubs off onto actors – who wasn’t just a little intrigued when they realized Hugh Laurie wasn’t really American?

There’s also an argument that British actors are more versatile, especially with accents. While I would agree, I’d also argue that our actors have more opportunity to be versatile. An American will always find parts playing an American. Brits working on US productions (or even right here, in UK theatre) will find themselves going for roles that require them to play against type.

So what do us Brits think of all this? I’m not entirely sure. When Hugh Laurie or Idris Elba come back to UK television, we’re happy. We ask them about their US roles and whether they prefer them, but then the interview ends and that’s that. Occasionally there will be talk of British actors changing themselves, developing the straight day-glo white teeth and Permatan that Hollywood loves, but that passes quickly too.

So, what do you think? Do you like British actors in your American television shows? If so, who are your favourites? Do you think they bring anything new to the table? Or is it all a moot point, actors being actors, no matter their nationality?

PS:There may be a rise in Irish actors on American television, too. I didn’t look into this and mean no disrespect by labeling this a ‘British’ invasion.