How Hollywood views Britain

James Oliver

Have you ever gawked at a typical British stereotype or marvelled at the fact that only cockney or uber "posh" accents seem to exist in American films? We delve into the the highs and lows of Hollywood's Britain

The US parted ways with Britain back in 1776 but that's never stopped them from glancing back at the Motherland, curious about and fascinated by our similarities and differences. That's surely why there are so many American films set in the UK.

Which is all very flattering, of course, but watching these films does make you realise how our cousins across the pond see us; those of us who actually live here might struggle to recognise the country they depict.

Gather your gazetteers and let us wander through the eccentric wonderland that is Hollywood's Britain...

 

Geography

Great Britain may be a small island but it's still too big for Hollywood who do their level best to shrink it further.

Wales might be an integral part of the United Kingdom but it's one that's all but ignored by American filmmakers: with the exception of How Green Was My Valley in 1941 (and, oddly, The Wolf Man in the same year), big budget movies tend to steer clear of The Land of Song.

Northern Ireland fares a bit better, even if films set there tend to centre on one specific subject (clue: it involves balaclavas). You would be unwise to look to The Devil's Own or Patriot Games for a nuanced take on The Troubles though: Hollywood's portrayal of Ireland—any part of Ireland— always tends towards the twee and you will be unsurprised to learn they can't resist the fiddles-and-Guinness clichés even here. Begorrah!

Proud Scots will point immediately to Braveheart as an example of an international blockbuster drawn from their culture. Elsewhere, they have less to boast about: things like Loch Ness and Brigadoon give a gift shop version of Scotland, the sort of thing guaranteed to get proud Scots grinding their teeth and all decked out in more tartan than a Rod Stewart tribute band.

So, yeah. When Hollywood says “Britain”, they usually mean “England.” But before our Celtic readers take to the streets, we should note that most of England gets ignored in American films too: they're usually set either in London or in picture postcard countryside untouched by modernity. (To pluck an example from random, Three Men and a Little Lady heads from New York to London and onto a particularly verdant corner of the country.)

And even when American films restrict themselves to London, we see neither the deprivation nor the restless re-invention that both characterise the city. Nope, we get the same old landmarks—Buck House, Nelson's Column and all, maybe with a brief nod to the Gherkin if they're feeling edgy.

Mind you, sometimes this can pay dividends, such as in Brannigan. That's the film about Chicago cop John Wayne in Blighty. It features a car chase that climaxes with The Duke jumping over Tower Bridge as it opens. In other words, it took an American film to do something every Brit has always wanted to see.

 

The Locals

American films generally treat British people rather well. OK, that doesn't explain why the villains in action films habitually have British accents but for the most part, we come across as thoroughly good eggs in the films that are actually set here.

The thing is, they tend to concentrate on a very... specific set of people. If you were to judge from American movies, you might assume everyone in Albion was a proper toff. There are more American movies featuring Brits who live in castles than there are Brits who actually live in castles.

(At least one of them is a masterpiece: Damsel in Distress starring Fred Astaire and part-written by P G Wodehouse. Top trivia: Fred's sister Adele married a British aristocrat.)

This is as true in the 21 century as it ever was: Woody Allen's London period concentrated on those at the top of the social ladder suggesting he was a much less acute observer of urban life than his US films might suggest. (Still, that's hardly the worst thing he could be accused of, is it now?)

It's something British films are happy to play along with—and yes, I AM looking at you, Richard Curtis with your upper-middle class whimsey and exclusive lifestyles. That's why we should applaud those foreign films that see us more clearly. Eurotrip is not a good film, but it gets points for heading to a pub full of football hooligans (led by Vinnie Jones!) instead of going to yet another bloody castle.

 

Tugging the forelock

For a nation that make such a kerfuffle about shrugging off a hereditary monarchy, the Americans sure are interested in our Royals. That's going to evident all over again in a few weeks’ time—you may have heard that there's a wedding going on in Windsor Castle (indeed, knowing the quality of our readership, you've probably got an invite). You may think that this has nothing to do with film, our notional subject. But there you would be mistaken.

You see, a film has already been made to celebrate this happy occasion. Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance—couldn't they have called it When Harry Met Meghan?—promises to be the cinematic event of the year, even though it's only being shown on TV.

Full disclosure: I have yet to see it but have no doubt it will number amongst the greatest romances of any art-form. Or at least more than the bland, cynical TV movie cash in that some have adduced from the material released so far. The actors have at least a passing resemblance those people they're playing so it's not as if they're stinting on accuracy.

This is far from the first such film about the Royals. Not one but two films were made about the blessed union of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The late Princess of Wales was a firm favourite of filmmakers—one of those (titled simply Diana) even made it into cinemas! Way back when there was even one made about the 1981 Royal Wedding: The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana. To be fair, I almost want to see this one since it has Olivia de Havilland as the Queen Mother and Stewart Granger as Prince Philip. Awesome.

 

The Mother Tongue

An inevitable topic this, for there are few things more likely to tickle the national funny bone than an American thesp attempting a British accent. Indeed, in these fractured times, the common mockery of Dick Van Dyke's “cockney” accent in Mary Poppins is one of the few things that can bring together our divided land: for the good of national unity, it’s to be hoped he reprises it in the forthcoming sequel.

Chary of such mockery, some stars think it's better simply to use their natural accent: Kevin Costner's Robin Hood comes from the West Coast rather than the East Midlands. (That same film allows Robin and chums to step off the boat by the white cliffs of Dover and walk along Hadrian's Wall in the very next shot, a somewhat circuitous route to Nottingham.)

We must be glad more do not follow his example or we'd have been denied Anne Hathaway as a “Yorkshire” woman in One Day, Josh Hartnett attempt the same accent in Blow Dry or Don Cheadle having a proper bash at “cockney” in the Ocean's... movies.

It would be unfair not to mention those who pay more attention to their elocution lessons. Most obviously, there's Meryl Streep (who famously gives good brogue). Renee Zellweger and Gwyneth Paltrow might not be in the same class but they do not disgrace themselves in the Bridget Jones films or Shakespeare in Love. Best of all are the lads from Spinal Tap, whose accents are all the more impressive given how much of the film was improvised.

Incidentally, while Brits are quick to pounce on rogue enunciation, Americans are a lot kinder. Someone needs to create a database of British actors doing appalling American accents: the career of Michael Caine alone suggests this is very much a two-way street.

 

Spot On

Gosford Park seemed to have it all: an American director (Robert Altman), a country house setting, lots of posh people and even an American doing a dodgy accent. But connoisseurs of American visions of Britain were doomed to disappointment. Altman, who knew Britain well, subverted expectations—he was more aware of class dynamics than most British people and even knew how ludicrous we find phoney accents.

Nor was Altman alone. Joseph Losey was a refugee from McCarthyism who settled in Britain, where he made films like The Servant and Accident, exposing some of the hidden workings of our society.

Stanley Kubrick settled here by choice and felt so at home here that he was able to be extremely rude about us—no mere guest could make something as acute as A Clockwork Orange, a film which understands what a violent people we can be, even when we mask it with politeness.

And we can hardly ignore An American Werewolf in London. There are clichés (“stay off the moors!”) but the film knows they're clichés. Elsewhere director John Landis shows affection and understanding and very gently takes the—er—mickey. Given how we like to think we're a country that can laugh at ourselves, it's no wonder the film is so beloved—a genuine affirmation of the “special relationship.”