Between 2003 and 2005, Harry Thompson and Shaun Pye’s darkly surreal animated sketch comedy Monkey Dust (BBC Three) produced a series of parodies of the then-current trend in Hollywood for casting British actors as principal villains in blockbuster action features, no matter what the supposed nationality of the characters they portrayed. Conversely, the heroic protagonists in such films were typically portrayed by Americans – even if their characters were based on British archetypes. One example is American Knights, a mini-epic produced in the style of Jerry Bruckheimer (re-titled Brickhammer in the programme), in which the evil Saladin is portrayed as an effete, upper class British tyrant all too easily dispatched by the titular US heroes as they successfully retrieve the Holy Grail – though not before the lead knight is stabbed in the back, meaning his pregnant girlfriend Sandra will have to realise their dream of a potato farm in Iowa alone. Made ‘in honor of all the Americans who died in the early Middle Ages’, in burlesque terms American Knights is, as YouTube poster DaltonSanitarium, highlights, ‘… absolutely perfect. It might sound ridiculous to say, but it’s actually pretty racist the way American movies always make the bad guys have British accents.’
Ridiculous? Perhaps. Quite what tempts some of Britain’s finest thespians to essay what could be read as anti-British characterisations is, of course, a mystery – though one suspects that financial incentives may play a part. Interviewed by Carole Zucker, the late Sir Nigel Hawthorne admitted that his portrayal of the duplicitous mandarin of the month in Sylvester Stallone’s Demolition Man (Brambilla, 1993) was motivated purely by the perceived need to raise his profile in the US, in order that he might then be cast in the lead for the screen adaptation of The Madness of King George III, in which he had recently starred at the National Theatre: ‘It was quite cynically done, to get myself some credibility. And it didn’t. Zilch. Served me right’ (cited in Zucker 1999: 74).[i]
By contrast, on US television there is arguably a less pronounced trend for Brits to be cast as villainous non-Brits; rather, it is British characters (sometimes played by British actors, often not) that prove to be either ne’er-do-wells or figures of ridicule. The thinking seems to be that a British accent by itself will be a sufficient signifier of unreliability – or at least of ‘not belonging’.
A prime example of this comes in the season one X-Files (Fox, 1993-2001; 2016- ) episode ‘Fire’, which introduces lead character Fox Mulder’s (David Duchovny) former paramour-turned-Scotland Yard detective,[ii] Phoebe Green (Amanda Pays). While not an outright villain – this role is taken by pyromaniac and fellow Brit Cecil L’Ively (Mark Sheppard) – Phoebe’s former romantic entanglement with Mulder immediately signals her as a threat to his relationship with fellow X-Filer Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), thus (temporarily) upsetting the series status quo. As if this were not enough in itself, the later revelation that Phoebe is conducting an affair with the (married) diplomatic she is supposed to be protecting also signals her as professionally unsound.
Cecil, on the other hand, is simply a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work. In addition to immolating several characters, he has a creepy scene in which he encourages the diplomat’s offspring to play with fire (literally).
Interestingly, both Amanda Pays and Mark Sheppard are of British birth, yet it is debatable to what extent their accents here (which to some ears may sound somewhat exaggerated) are truly representative of their mother dialects, having seemingly been neutered of any regional lilt. While, as Cecil, Sheppard regularly switches dialects (within the space of the episode he utilises an outlandish Irish brogue, bland Received Pronunciation English, and Midwest American) Amanda Pays’ Phoebe is consistently and outrageously posh. However, having watched various clips of the actress being interviewed, I can confirm that this is in fact how Pays speaks in real life, with vowels of a ripe plumminess that is increasingly difficult to locate in the modern era of dropped aitches and estuary English. While I applaud the beauty of her diction, I find it difficult to accept that this is how the majority of Oxford students spoke, even in the 1980s (though this well may be what first attracted Fox Mulder, connoisseur of all things other-worldly, to her), and have certainly never met one that has been fast-tracked through Scotland Yard.
But then, perhaps I just move in the wrong circles.
In fact, I have never even met anyone named Phoebe.
Or Cecil, for that matter…
Whatever the veracity or appropriateness of the British accents employed in ‘Fire’, they are clearly intended to signal a lack of moral probity on the part of the characters that employ them, and none of us should be surprised when a crestfallen Fox discovers untrustworthy Phoebe in a clinch with her lover.
Or that Cecil subsequently tries to set him on fire.
If only Cecil had been genuinely Irish, there might have been hope of redemption. In their Monkey Dust vignettes Thompson and Pye frequently highlighted the fact that, unlike the weak and wicked English, the Hollywood Irish are usually portrayed by screenwriters as misunderstood rogues or freedom fighters, and are therefore almost on an even footing with the Americans themselves (who, lest we forget, also fought for independence against . . . you guessed it: the weak and wicked English).
Another popular ’90s show that never quite got the Brits right was Frasier (NBC, 1993-2004). Despite the (often) Anglophile tendencies of its sherry-quaffing lead (Kelsey Grammer), the show included several misfires in the accent arena – which is interesting when one considers that two of the regular cast hailed from these shores. Both Jane Leeves (who played Daphne Moon) and the late John Mahoney (Martin Crane) were British-born, but while the latter lost a (presumably) northern English accent after moving to the US from Manchester in his youth, Jane Leeves retains her southeast twang. This may explain why the accent she employs as supposed Mancunian Daphne is somewhat suspect – a fact that continues to attract brickbats years after the series ended its run (see Mangan, 2010; What Happened to THAT Accent?, 2014).
In Daphne’s case, the British accent (no matter how unconvincingly played) is not an indicator of villainy or unreliability (Daphne is frequently shown to possess a fairly strong moral compass), but instead of oddness – of not fitting in. Witness her strange conviction, heavily emphasised in early seasons, that she possesses psychic powers; a pronounced comedic quirk that was gradually downplayed as the series progressed, and Daphne became a more rounded character. Simultaneously, as the relationship between Daphne and Niles (David Hyde Pierce) developed from hopeless infatuation on the latter’s part to a fully-fledged mutual love affair, eventually leading to marriage and parenthood, the alleged Mancunian became far less prominent, and in later episodes Leeves employed a more Transatlantic accent. Thus, as Daphne became perceived as more ‘serious’ or ‘normal’, so her exaggerated British accent was gradually toned down (try comparing a season one episode with one from season eleven).
However, this situation was further complicated in later years when audiences were shown a darker side of the Moons, several of Daphne’s light-fingered and heavy-drinking male siblings (each of whom presumably also hailed from Manchester) putting in an appearance. Simon (played by Australian Anthony LaPaglia) had a pronounced Cockney accent. Michael (Scots actor Robbie Coltrane) mainly spoke gibberish that needed to be translated by others. Stephen (essayed by a seemingly undecided Richard E. Grant) veered between ‘posh’ RP and mockney. This bizarre and unconvincing hodgepodge of dialects, while making Daphne seem ever more ‘normal’ by contrast, also served to reinforce the programme-makers’ perceived credo that if odd equals funny, and Brits equal odd, then Brits equal funny – and so the more (and varied) of them the better.[iii]
However, all the above pales in comparison with one particular English guest character. Fans will doubtless already know to whom I refer:
Of Manchester (we think).
For the uninitiated, this character – Daphne’s fiancé – makes his sole Frasier appearance in the season four opener ‘The Two Mrs Cranes’, played by Scott Atkinson. Having been fobbed off by his intended (who regards him as lacking in ambition) with the promise that, should they both still be single after a set period of time, they will reunite and become man and wife, the hopeful Clive arrives in Seattle to claim his bride. Cue a Feydeau-style farce in which Daphne pretends to already be married to an overjoyed Niles, while Frasier (inexplicably) becomes Roz’s (Peri Gilpin) husband. When it transpires that the ponderous Clive is now a success story, Daphne has a change of heart, and… well, you can probably guess the rest.
It should be stressed that Clive is depicted throughout as the innocent of the piece. His (supposed) Britishness is not employed as an indicator of any character flaw, other than a simplicity of character that borders on the cretinous.
So far, so good.
The problem is that Scott Atkinson is not a Brit. In fact, the US actor is so completely not British that his attempt at the accent (which sounds as though it is intended as Cockney) would put even the infamous Dick Van Dyke to shame (I’m sorry, but it has proven impossible to avoid this reference in a blog about British accents in American screen media. I honestly did try).
Case in point: at one stage he actually says ‘luvverly’.
With three whole syllables.
The results are, of course, hilarious – but for all the wrong reasons. Clive’s[iv] appearance (and Atkinson’s performance) must now rank as a low water mark in terms of cultural representations of Britain on American television. Two decades after the episode was first broadcast the resulting storm continues to rage, with episode writer Joe Keenan ultimately moved to publicly defend the casting of Atkinson in a role for which he might seem (to English ears, at least) a little ill-suited:
I have for over a decade now heard Scott Atkinson’s accent as Clive in ‘The Two Mrs. Cranes’ loudly decried, especially by English Frasier fans who can’t comprehend our failure to have cast an actual Brit in the part. What those outside the business cannot realize is that multi-cam comedy scripts are sometimes finished and guest roles cast mere days, if not hours, before the table read and the start of rehearsals.
Since ‘Mrs. Cranes’ was the first episode of season four, I finished it in ample time for the casting director to offer it to a few well known English actors (which ones I honestly can’t recall at this remove) but name stars of that age are more interested in film work than guest spots on TV shows, so we were still looking the day before the table.
The part of Clive had three main requirements: the actor had to be funny, he had to be handsome enough for us to believe that Roz and Daphne would instantly go to war over him, and he had to be (or at least play) English. We saw roughly eight actors, perhaps half of whom were British. None of the Brits was either funny or sexy enough to make the story work. Scott, a handsome and charming American, came in and read the part under the apparent impression that the role was based on Hugh Grant. We explained the Clive was working class. He took a few minutes to prepare and came back in with a working class accent which, while a touch broad, seemed serviceable enough for American ears. Had we cast any of our choices save Scott we’d have torpedoed the whole episode. (cited in Sullivan, 2012)
So, there you have it. The key point in Keenan’s eloquent (and extended) apologia is that Atkinson’s admittedly ‘broad’ accent was judged by American producers to be good enough for American ears; Brits were not the target audience here. Why would we be? This is mainstream US network programming. If we Brits take umbrage at the way we are represented in US media – as crazed arsonists, unreliable/adulterating exes, deluded eccentrics, or simple-minded buffoons (all with excruciating unlikely names) – we perhaps need to take ourselves (or them) a little less seriously. I am no expert, but it is entirely possible that representations of Americans in British screen fiction have not always been entirely accurate or even-handed, and we have more than our share of actors who can mangle the US accent with the best of them (Ray Winstone, anyone?).
As a closing thought, it is interesting to reflect that, in the era of globalisation, two nations supposedly divided by a common language (as Shaw probably never said) still seem similarly segregated by accent. Whether it is Brits doing bad, or British being done badly, accent is frequently used as convenient shorthand for ‘otherness’ to American viewers (surely it is no coincidence that the majority of the inhabitants of Westeros and Esteros seem to hail from Britain?). At a time when US television is increasingly crossing cultural boundaries,[v] accent remains a peculiarly specific reminder of national differences.
[i] The adaptation did, in fact, come to pass, but with the Roman numeral dropped from the title in case American audiences worried they might have missed the first two instalments.
[ii] For a British crime-buster in an American series to have credibility, they must work for Scotland Yard.
[iii] This was, after all, the country that clasped Benny Hill (with whom, interestingly, Jane Leeves began her television career) to its collective bosom…
[iv] I have never met anyone called Clive, either.
[v] Witness the global success of Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011- ).
DaltonSanitarium (2013) Comment on ‘Monkey Dust – American Knights’. YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbiXeAgk2Wg
Mangan, L. (2010) ‘Cable Girl: Frasier’. The Guardian, 10 August. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2010/aug/10/cable-girl-frasier
Sullivan, R.D. (2012) “The Two Mrs Cranes” Update: Episode writer Joe Keenan says it’s A-OK, 29 September. Available at: http://robertdavidsullivan.typepad.com/my_weblog/2012/09/the-two-mrs-cranes-update-episode-writer-joe-keenan-says-clive-is-a-ok.html
What Happened to THAT Accent? (2014) Frasier Online. Available at: http://www.frasieronline.co.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=5483&sid=352d84a18fc07efbf578b8f549ca1cca&start=50
Zucker, C. (1999) In the Company of Actors: Reflections on the Craft of Acting. London: A & C Black.
About the Author:
Dr Richard Hewett is Lecturer in Media Theory at the University of Salford’s School of Arts and Media. He has contributed articles to The Journal of British Cinema and Television, The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Critical Studies in Television and Adaptation. His first monograph, The Changing Spaces of Television Acting, was published by Manchester University Press last year.