How American TV portrays the British

22 Jan

Blanco was a big fan of The Wire, David Simon’s epic account of life among the drug dealers of West Baltimore, with its startling portrayal of a city going under the cosh as the forces of unrestrained capitalism are let loose on the poorest and the most vulnerable sections of society. Series 4, on education, has to be the most astonishing and powerful thing I’ve ever seen on television. The part taken by British or Irish actors is not insignificant either: Dominic West, Idris Elba and Aiden Gillen all have major roles in the show.

The other night I watched the first episode of David Simon’s latest offering, Treme, which we have had hanging around the house for months, but have not got round to viewing. It begins, like The Wire, in a wholly unintelligible manner (subtitles help, but not too much). Simon claims he does difficulty on purpose, so as not to appeal to the lowest common denominator: “Fuck the average viewer” is the precise phrase he expressed on a BBC2 Culture Show interview.

Anyhow, a few minutes into episode 1, a scene takes place between Creighton Bernette, a real-life activist played by John Goodman, and a TV journalist, who is supposed to be British, but whose enunciation leads me to think he is an American actor doing a bad British accent. Plummy, stuck-up, arrogant: the type that American audiences love to hate. There is a batch of them in Madmen also: the Bad Brits, the Redcoats, the Enemy. All of them sound like superannuated aristos on a whisky binge. They are coarse, creepy and cruel. I don’t get it. If this is the common perception of US TV producers, then this is the cultural stereotype that the American public most wants to see, and they clearly don’t like us much. So much for the ‘special relationship’. It also seems incredibly outdated, a bit like a British equivalent of grossly overweight and ignorant Americans wearing check trousers, chewing gum and driving enormous, gas-guzzling chevvies.

But the weirdest moment of all in The Wire is when old-Etonian Dominic West is required to do a ‘British’ accent (as if there were such a thing) in series 2 , because he goes to work undercover in an illegal brothel. It is hilarious, because West, rather than doing the accent naturally, enacts an American doing a Brit. Extraordinary. Here is the moment when the idea, as usual the brainchild of the cop played by Clark Peters (himself a British resident for many years) comes about:

 

 

 

 

 

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