You know them as titanic acting heavyweights, some of the finest stars Britain has to offer — and from TV shows Doctor Who and Sherlock to blockbuster movies like The Dark Knight Rises and X-Men, they’ve become hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic.
But every actor has to start somewhere, and it’s often fun to go back and look at some of our favorite Brits’ earliest screen appearances to look for hints of the stars that they would become. It’s even possible to discover an overlooked gem of a movie or TV show in the process. Here, then, is where you can watch younger versions of five current Anglophenia favorites…
Peter Capaldi – Local Hero
Most people know that before he was the Twelfth Doctor, Peter Capaldi was Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. But long, long before that, his debut movie role was in this endlessly charming, gentle comedy written and directed by Bill Forsyth in 1983. It’s a classic culture clash as an American oil executive (Peter Riegert) is sent to try and persuade the residents of a tiny Scottish village to sell up and move out. Unusually, given many of his later roles, a young Capaldi cuts a dashing figure in a surprising romantic subplot.
Olivia Colman – Peep Show
Better known these days as an actress with serious dramatic chops thanks to the likes of Tyrannosaur and Broadchurch, Olivia Colman actually started her career working predominantly in comedy. Most notably, she was a regular alongside her Cambridge Footlights chums Robert Webb and David Mitchell in this classic Channel 4 sitcom between 2003 and 2010. If you’ve never seen it, it has the distinct hook of shooting every scene from its characters’ own point of view — complete with frequent glimpses into their inner thoughts — and is consistently hilarious across its eight (so far) seasons.
James McAvoy – Early Doors
The future Professor Charles Xavier first came to major prominence in the hit drama series Shameless — but even before that, James McAvoy had a recurring role in the first season of this low-key, slice-of-life sitcom set entirely behind the doors of a small Northern pub. Appearing in four episodes, he played Liam, the Scottish boyfriend of landlord’s daughter Mel – but was unavailable for the second season due to his new drama filming commitments. This didn’t go unnoticed by the show’s writers, who worked in a line of dialogue describing Liam as “shameless” for breaking up with Mel. Incidentally, for the following season McAvoy was replaced by a new character played by Lee Ingleby — perhaps best known as Harry Potter‘s Stan Shunpike.
Idris Elba – Ultraviolet
It was moving to New York in 2001 that launched Idris Elba‘s career into the stratosphere — as, although he’s since returned home to take the starring role in the Emmy-nominated Luther, it was his three years as Stringer Bell in The Wire that first made his name. Before he left his native London, however, in 1998 he appeared alongside Jack Davenport as a vampire hunter in this dark, adult sci-fi drama. Penned by sometime Doctor Who director Joe Ahearne, it flew under the radar at the time, and was never renewed for a second season; but its reputation has only grown in the years since, and its influence can be seen in later, similarly dark dramas such as Being Human and Misfits.
Benedict Cumberbatch & Tom Hardy – Stuart, A Life Backwards
Two for the price of one here, in this powerful made-for-TV drama from 2007, based on the book by Alexander Masters. It tells the true story of the unlikely friendship between author and Cambridge academic Masters, and troubled, homeless activist Stuart Shorter. Often violent and tragic, it’s not easy going, by any stretch, but it’s a deeply moving story; and both actors show exactly why they would go on to become major Hollywood figures. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Masters with an uncanny level of resemblance, but the real star is Tom Hardy, whose performance as Shorter is incredibly compelling and nuanced.
What are your favorite early roles by Brit actors?