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It’s the best-known cliché about Brits, and in the U.S. it would probably be the characteristic most people would mention before politeness, emotional repression and tea-drinking. More recently it’s kept its hold in the imagination thanks to Austin Powers and Ricky Gervais, though the examples go back much further in time — and all lead to the idea that Brits have bad teeth. Dreadful teeth. Cartoon-villain teeth, in fact.
Alternatively, many Brits would say that Americans often sport a set of blindingly-white pearlies that seem almost too big – and too numerous – for their mouths, a near-equine dental collection of movie star quality. The Kennedy family and the smile of Julia Roberts come to mind, as well as the unnatural gleam common in television actors and salesmen.
But where did this cliché come from? It is true that Brits eat more chocolate than Americans and a recent report showed that more than a quarter of British five-year-olds have tooth decay, but then the U.S. is a world leader in obesity and offers an unparalleled choice of sugar-heavy soft drinks and XXL-sized food.
Perhaps it all goes back to the introduction of the NHS in England in 1948. Before then, stories of aunts and grandmothers having all their teeth removed for convenience’s sake were common, so was it the U.S. forces coming to the U.K. during WWII and seeing — thanks in part to food shortages, rationing and poor nutrition — gap-toothed deficiencies?
NHS treatment was to keep your teeth healthy rather than gorgeous, where as the pay culture for dental care in the U.S. perhaps made it more likely to include “correction.” American children certainly see braces as a teenage rite of passage, so maybe their parents said, “We’re paying this much for little Johnny, we may as well get it all done at once.”
While dentures and orthodontics certainly aren’t new inventions by any means, near-invisible braces (almost ubiquitous on entertainers these days) are, and it was only recently that teeth-whitening strips were deemed socially acceptable in the U.K. Is that British shyness at work, a desire not to be “showing off” an unnaturally perfect set of gnashers?
The movies could play a part too. As the primary source of entertainment for most of the 20th century, seeing the stars of the day with wonderful smiles must have had an effect on the audience. On the screen, homegrown American talent as well as stars flown in from England were regularly sent to have their teeth straightened — Cary Grant famously had a dodgy front tooth, as did, later, a young Tom Cruise — and now movie stars are the gold standard for white teeth. That is, unless they’re Brits. Or villains. Come to think of it, they’re often both.
As for other popular culture moments, the invasion of the Beatles didn’t exactly bring show-stopping teeth (Ringo’s were iffy, and Paul had a chipped tooth after a motorbike accident) and then Monty Python and Benny Hill on television? They certainly added to the cliché about English men’s love of cross-dressing, but their teeth weren’t exactly dolled up.
Even heading across the U.S. border into Mexico you find that the people there call bad teeth dientes Ingles, though many people love British teeth no matter what they’re like — none more so than Dr. Michael Zuk, who purchased one of John Lennon’s teeth for the equivalent of close to $31,000 in 2011, and now has a website touting his idea to clone the DNA and bring the Liverpudlian songster back to life!
So what do you think, readers of Mind The Gap? Why do these stereotypes about British teeth exist? Who most embodies the idea of “bad British teeth”? Let us know!
See more posts by James Bartlett
James Bartlett writes about travel, film and the weird and wonderful side of living in L.A. He has been published in over 90 magazines and newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, Los Angeles Magazine, Angeleno, Hemispheres, Delta Sky, Westways, Variety and Bizarre. He is also a contributor to BBC radio and RTE in Ireland, and is the author of Gourmet Ghosts - Los Angeles, a "history and mystery" guide to bars and restaurants in L.A. - details can be found at www.gourmetghosts.com.