American TV’s love-hate relationship with Brits

The Americans declared independence in 1776, yet their TV depictions of Britons show they're still emotionally attached.

Patrick West

Patrick West

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While watching the copious TV coverage of Helen Mirren winning the Best Actress award at the Oscars for her portrayal of the Queen in the cunningly entitled movie The Queen, it struck me as odd that the Americans still refer to Elizabeth II as simply ‘the Queen’.

When Americans hear the words ‘the Queen’, they evidently don’t think of the Queen of the Netherlands, the Queen of Denmark, the Queen of Sheeba, or, indeed, the football clubs Queen of the South and Queen’s Park Rangers or the rock band, Queen. To Americans, it is shorthand for the Queen of England, and Great Britain. Which makes me think that Americans have never quite managed to emotionally separate themselves from Britain, since they made the ridiculous decision to declare independence from us in 1776. Yes, yes, yes, I know, fellow Americans, that George III was a rubbish king. And our prime minister at the time, Lord North – and I kid you not, he is a direct ancestor of mine – was a dithering idiot. But our king then was German after all. And he was mad. So it wasn’t our fault.

But relations between the USA and the UK have always been rather odd on both the small and large screens. In Hollywood, Brits are invariably portrayed either as loveably posh, particularly by Hugh Grant; as eligible beauties, such as Kate Winslet and Keira Knightley; as merry and comical, but strangely incisive, such as Brian Blessed and Michael Caine; or as heroic tough guys, such as Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan.

But overall we are represented as cerebral villains, in the guises of Peter Cushing, Charles Dance, Alan Rickman and Jeremy Irons, as characters who always seem to be setting fire to American, Scottish and Irish babies, while their veiled mothers look on with tears rolling down their eyes, and while our leaders issue the cold command ‘liquidate them!’

All such representations may be positive or negative, but at least they don’t show us to be pussies. On the other hand, when it comes to American television, the Brits are now portrayed as the rude, scumbag, drunken underclass. Take Frasier for example, possibly the best comedy series of the 1990s, in which you have Daphne (Jane Leeves), the straight-speaking girl from Manchester with an unconvincing Mancunian accent, and her brother Simon, who is an alcoholic with a rubbish Cockney accent, and whose other brothers Stephen (Richard E. Grant) and Michael (Robbie Coltrane), are a stuck-up malcontent and an incoherent Scotsman respectively. It’s all completely absurd, and made all the more ironic by the fact that John Mahoney, who plays Marty Crane (Frasier’s dad), was actually raised in Manchester, but deliberately Americanised his accent upon emigrating there.

More examples of ‘Brits behaving badly’ are Ozzy Osbourne making a spectacle of himself on his MTV show, shouting at his dogs, being snapped at by his wife, talking gibberish, having the shakes or just arguing with himself. Then there is Simon Cowell on American Idol, who is now feted as the rudest man on both British and American television. In short, the Brits are now America’s favourite TV white trash.

It’s a strange development. It may say something about how British society has changed, about how we have lost the capacity for deference and respect and how we have become a nation of abrasive, foul-mouthed boozers. But from the American point of view, it shows that in breaking away from Britain technically, the US has never broken away from it emotionally. American television and cinema display a classic love-hate relationship that is normal for an errant child who has unwisely left home.

The Americans portray us Brits as evil father figures because they miss their father. They revere the Queen because they miss their mother figure. They portray us on television as rude simpletons, only because they won’t acknowledge the fact that they want to become British themselves. Frasier Crane and his brother Niles speak in the most Anglicised accents. They love opera and fine wine and look down on their regular-guy father and Daphne’s football hooligan brothers. The Crane brothers are compulsive social climbers and social climbers always have an inferiority complex. Frasier and Niles are classic cases of east coast Episcopalians who are half glad that they led the revolution against the British, and then went on to be the secessionists of the South in 1865, but secretly miss dear old Britain.

America is now the most British country in the world. If we’re talking about stereotypes, the Americans are the most polite, most Christian, most prudish, Puritan people on the globe, who still insist on calling people ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’. But their conservative disposition can sometimes be alarmingly euphemistic. For instance, where on earth is your ‘rest room’? I don’t want to go to this mysterious ‘rest room’. I don’t want ‘a rest’. I want to go to ‘the toilet’ or ‘the shitter’. To have a piss. Or a crap.

This is why I’ve always liked Americans. Whatever you say about Washington’s foreign policy, never take it out on Americans personally. They are the nicest, most courteous people in the world. I don’t really mind how they portray us Brits in films and television. It’s all fun and games. I just wish they’d realise that the real underclass of the world are the Australians. On this subject, I will return next week.

Patrick West is spiked‘s TV columnist.

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