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Mad Max and Englishmen – the British in American film and TV

Thursday, November 20, 1997

The arrival of Dr Elizabeth Corday in ER set me thinking about the fate of English actors in US mainstream film and tv. Firstly, Corday is about as un-English a name as I’ve come across, which isn’t a great start.

Secondly, poor Alex Kingston is hidebound by playing a jolly hockey sticks plummy stereotype. She’s all pearls and spunk, and acts like she’s stepped out of a 1930s film.

Her character is a (worrying) representation of what American tv seems to think English people are like. Likewise, Hugh Grant’s limited success in Hollywood is because he always plays himself – a floppy-haired, Oxford-educated, well-meaning, slightly awkward Brit. Rupert Everett’s return to favour with My Best Friend’s Wedding was based on an entertainingly hammed up portrayal of ultimate English campness.

Most other English actors in the States end up playing these posh twits or villains with funny accents. From Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice to Alan Rickman in Die Hard, it seems English actors are largely denied the right to be the hero. (Daniel Day Lewis is an honourable exception, but round here they’ll tell you he’s Irish.)

Or they’re shunted into period drama. From Shakespeare to Jane Austen and E M Forster, it seems you can’t do better than classically trained English actors. But for anything after 1930, you can forget it.

However, on reflection, they might deserve everything they get, because while English people might be able to act, they can’t do action. When Englishmen try to get tough it just comes across as misplaced sexual frustration – Jeremy Irons with blond crop and singlet in Die Hard III will live long in the memory.

Compare and contrast the fortunes of Australian actors in America. Mel Gibson gets to destroy whole city blocks with wilful abandon, and Sam Neill gets chased by dinosaurs.

The deeply good LA Confidential boasts two antipodean actors among the major roles. Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe punch and shoot their way through the film in a way that would make Hugh Grant green with envy.

The English inability to strip down to undershirts and jump around is so acute that even when it comes to playing English heroes, such as James Bond, they have to look to their Celtic cousins to supply the necessary brio. Sean Connery, the best Bond, is Scottish, and the current incumbent Pierce Brosnan is Irish. They even miss out as extraterrestrial characters – Ewan McGregor worked at sounding like Alec Guinness to make sure that there are no English Jedi Knights in the forthcoming Star Wars movies.

So if the men are reduced to playing toffs or deranged Central European villains, how do English women fare in Hollywood?

Not much better, unfortunately. As better actors but with fewer surgical enhancements than their US colleagues, most end up in supporting roles, where they get the good lines but not the attention they deserve. In the same way as you can’t imagine an English Brad Pitt, Sly Stallone or John Travolta, similarly we see to be lacking the odd Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts or Demi Moore.

However, Kate Winslett is going to be huge after Titanic, and it’s to their credit that English actresses tend not to come from the shallow decoration school of acting – even Liz Hurley has the nous to laugh at herself in Austin Powers.

So if you’re going to be an English actor you can either don tights, develop a floppy haircut or practice a manic laugh. Or stay at home and make your big break in the States on Masterpiece Theater.

(first published as a Modest Proposal newsletter, 20th November 1997)

Articles Life Modest Proposals

Postcards from the edge

Thursday, November 13, 1997

As attentive readers will recall, I’ve just taken a holiday, and as I sat in the Broome St Bar in New York City one evening I was moved to ponder the future of postcards.

It’s become an obligation to devote some of your time while away to writing two paragraphs of banality on the back of a cheesy picture of the area’s most famous landmark, and then mail it home. You will, of course, arrive back before the card.

Writing the words (known clumsily in the web world as the ‘content’), can be a real problem. I have nothing but praise for the long, thoughtful letter home from abroad, but when facing the back of a card, I can’t really summon any enthusiasm. It’s hard to avoid sneakily writing the same thing on all the cards.

Majella, via the discussion group, wonders why people bother.  ‘Their close friends know where they have been and take the ‘wish you were here’ factor for granted. Not so close friends really don’t need to have it shoved in their faces that they are at work while others are on the sunny beaches of the Costa del Sol.’

It’s as if you have to go through the hassle of writing the cards to apologise for enjoying yourself abroad.

Paul, also via the discussion group, makes a strong case for the existence of postcards, if not their sending to innocent bystanders:  ‘Postcards save me the hassle of taking snapshots. Why bother with the pursuit of legalized gambling, also known as photography, when some expert has already done the work? Why worry about exposing film to airport scanners? Why worry about old camera batteries leaking acid into landfills? Why worry about having my Minolta nicked from my motorcycle’s tankbag? No, postcards are fine with me.’

This is fine, except that heavily doctored images (John Hinde Limited, take a bow ) look nothing like real places I’ve ever been.

Another Paul on the discussion group has a more optimistic view of the worth of cards: ‘It may not be a la mode but I like receiving snail mail, and an unexpected picture on my doormat first thing in the morning always lights up my child-eyes. I like the idea of sending postcards to friends I see around anyway. It’s a good disposable way of giving someone a picture that’s interesting or funny, or just hoping to influence the direction of their thoughts temporarily . . .  ‘Postcards aren’t restricted to the ordinary four scene, greetings from Weymouth, a ‘cheeky’ girls on the beach in Marbella, or the endless XXX at night (ho ho). People should send more postcards, there should be random pictures floating about between people. Just get a good photo, stick a stamp on the back and you’ve made someone’s journey to work more interesting.’

This gets us into the right territory. Cards as a necessary part of a holiday may have had their day, but they have a much greater value as a well-chosen greeting when you’re at home and just want to say something.  The idea of little bundles of goodwill ‘floating between people’ is very attractive.

This works because you’re actually given the freedom to choose to send the cards – that you’ve taken the trouble to surprise the recipient is great. With holiday cards you have no choice as the sender, and in most cases, the recipient is not at all surprised to get the card.

So my vote is to boycott the sending of postcards from holiday locations (except for children, who probably still deserve them). And if this goes well, maybe we should move on to Christmas cards as well – reserving them only for people that we don’t see very often. The struggle starts here. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 13th November 1997)

Posted by David in • Modest ProposalsLife

Articles Modest Proposals Television

Dramatic commitment or promiscuity – the rhythm of TV drama

Thursday, November 06, 1997

TV Drama shows have to move comfortably in two different scales.  Firstly, the small circles of the hour, with the plot coming to a reasonably conclusive end after each episode, giving the audience a satisfactory feeling of closure. Secondly, they also have to play the long game, with events building up episode by episode so the major characters develop over time.

This is why medical dramas work so well. You can bring in new characters as patients every week to power the plot for that particular episode. At the same time, the fortunes of the staff fill out the longer-term plot needs. Interlacing the two makes the whole experience much more rewarding.

Cop shows follow a similar logic, with crimes being solved in the space of one episode, but other events in the main characters’ lives stretching over whole seasons.

As we commit to watching every week, we get to feel like we’re growing with the show in the same time frame – what happened several weeks ago to Dr Ross happened several weeks ago in our memory.

All this assumes a narrative order – watching one show after another in succession. So what happens when this order breaks down?

In Ireland this occurs when different stations show the same programmes.  In any week you can watch the X-Files three times, with Sky One being quickest out of the blocks, then RTE and then the BBC.

In practical terms, this is great if you happen to miss an episode, but the question is whether you start watching on one channel and stick to it, so as not to interrupt the flow, or whether you get your promiscuous kicks anywhere you can.

The problem with this is that one channel might be leading up to a big climax, while another is way past it and into the (less suspenseful) aftermath.

In America the problem is exacerbated by the fact that popular shows are on daily, or even more frequently. Don’t ask how I know, but in New York you can watch Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman once in the afternoon, and then again at 2.30 in the morning (and some days in the early evening as well, I think).

So without trying too hard you can see Dr Mike single, happily pregnant and living with Sully, and then unhappily separated from him – all in the same day.

On the one hand, this mightn’t matter too much, as each episode has its own internal flow, and looked at one way, it’s a suitably postmodern way to watch tv. Questing for a narrative order and logical progression is considered so 19th century in critical circles.

To misquote Truffaut, watched in this way a tv series has a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.

Personally, I have a compromise option: I try and watch new episodes in order, and use the range of stations to make sure I don’t miss one. This means I have some linear sense of the big picture, and don’t get any nasty surprises.

Once I have that shape sorted out, I’ll watch as many reruns as I can stumble across (unless it’s an episode I really didn’t like the first time round). This way, watching the old ones is like looking through a photo album, remembering how things used to be and contrasting that with the sense of the ‘present’ I get from the new ones. ‘My, how Scully’s clothes have improved since the early episodes.’

We all like to think that our lives make some narrative sense, that there is some reason to things, some sense of cause and effect. Watching shows in order plays to that view of the world. Arguably, of course, people’s lives don’t make any sense seen in any way, they just happen – like drama episodes watched out of order. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 6th November 1997)