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Recently, we’ve been having a bit of fun at the expense of Americans who appear to be adopting haughy airs and graces, in an attempt to raise their social standing by trying to be British. But what of the British actors who had to abandon their natural clipped and precise verbiage (or nasal and muffled, depending on where they’re from) in order to carve a new career for themselves in the US of A? Many have tried, many have failed, but some British thesps have a real ear for an American accent, and appear to have turned this into box office gold, or to be more accurate, TV screen eye-glue.
Here are just five examples:
Starting with the biggest and best. Hugh, who had made a name for himself as the unparalleled provider of plummy upper-class twits in classic British comedies Blackadder and Jeeves & Wooster, suddenly displays a real gift for the American vernacular in House. And before you can say boo to a goose, he’s the biggest star in American TV. He even has a safety net, in that any slips here and there have already been accounted for in Doctor House’s backstory: he’s the army brat who travelled a lot, he won’t have had time to develop an area-specific accent. In any case, as is often reported, Hugh’s accent was so convincing, even the show’s producers weren’t aware he’s British at first. Clearly not big Fry & Laurie fans.
Another graduate from that lofty school of clever British thespians who simply see no reason why they cannot be American, it the part calls for it. Their dedication to the art leaves an air of bullish confidence, as if their internal monologue runs “acting is only pretending after all, is it not? Well then, if I say I am American, and I do not make too much of a hash of things, what is there to stop me except my own insecurities? And as a British citizen, I do not have insecurities. Therefore there is no problem. If I act like I’m American, I’m American. So ner!”
Without meaning to take anything away from Idris’s towering achievements in The Wire, he wasn’t the only Brit confusing a world audience as to his background in that show. You’ve got Stringer Bell, a ruthless Baltimore drug lord, squaring up to McNulty (played by Dominic West), an easily-swayed cop with loyalty issues, and both the actors playing those roles are very much not from Baltimore. Given that the show was constructed as a narrative about an American city, where the locality was as much the star as the actors, you’ve got to take your hat off to both men for turning in convincing performances. It’s hard to conceive of the same level of accent hoodwinkery taking place if the same show, starring American actors, had been set in Manchester or Glasgow. Prove me wrong, actors!
(Warning: this clip is NSFW)
Meanwhile Sonya had already left no one in any doubt as to her true accent, as she played the clipped and British Penny Widmore in Lost, one of her biggest hits to date. But then came Flashforward and Tell Me That You Love Me, and the chance to showcase her remarkable ear for accents, and suddenly this very upright and poised British girl from a well-to-do background transformed, first into a surgeon in a science fiction dystopia, and then into a hands-on housewife (nudge nudge, wink wink). And this is on top of recurring cameos in Sleeper Cell, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and CSI: NY, among many other things.
In some ways, Christian is the exception here. As anyone who has seen him play Batman can attest, he doesn’t really speak with an American accent so much as growl and burp his lines out, like a man with a sore throat and a bad case of acid reflux. However, given the opportunity to play a character who is not constantly displaying steely resolve amid escalating tension, and he makes a pretty decent fist of it. For example, did you know he’s the distinctly un-British voice of Howl in the astonishing Studio Ghibli animation Howl’s Moving Castle? Neither did I:
Agree? Disagree? Have we missed anyone astonishing? Tell us here:
See more posts by Fraser McAlpine
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic