British Talent Changing, And Not for the Better

Actors will not have experience and depth, and has found them ample work and respect overseas

united kingdom flagThe generosity of American casting directors, producers and Academy voters to Britons has really been quite commendable over the years, but I often feel some remarkable British talent is overlooked.

British talent is changing, and not for the better. The old British way of serving an apprenticeship in regional rep, often tackling 10 or more parts in year, and finding fame after having acquired a technical armory, is disappearing as provincial theatre audiences dwindle. Bimbos and himbos are appearing with increasing regularity on the London stage “to attract a younger audience.”

This is not the end of British acting as we know, but it does suggest a future where our actors will not have the experience and depth that we’ve taken for granted, and that has found them ample work and respect overseas. The profession cannot be blamed entirely, for Britain is a country crazed by celebrity for its own sake and largely indifferent to the classical repertoire.

The TV programs which guaranteed British stage actors wider success have largely disappeared, and the modern audience is not conversant with the merits of stage experience. The BBC’s "Play for Today"  launched innumerable actors in tandem with writers and directors, and although the talent has still flowed since its demise I think it is becoming clear that the depth is not what it was. "Play for Today" and similar shows made people like Dennis Potter and Alan Bleasdale household names, but more importantly they put the writing at the forefront, and gave a stream of parts to actors who could, and did, use TV work to subsidize the stage. Admittedly that was when it was a three channel selection, and a writer could attract an audience.

Now there are only a very few TV writers with any public recognition. Alan Bennett  is too British for American tastes, but even he couldn’t save the film of "The History Boys" in the U.K. market. Stephen Poliakoff, who has become a sort of BBC laureate, is a favorite of the middle classes. Caroline Aherne, who made her name as the creator of Mrs Merton, a pensioner interviewer whose persona allowed her to spit-roast minor British celebs and changed the British sitcom with "The Royle Family," who spend most episodes sitting on a sofa. Although she still writes and performs, she has retreated almost totally from public life.

Once British actors waited (often desperately) for the dollar to call. Judi Dench was ignored by Hollywood for decades despite originating the role of Sally Bowles in "Cabaret." Now Los Angeles has never looked so tempting to British actors as the economic pressures take their toll on British media, but they set their sights on the U.S. after modest home success. And from what I’ve seen, they certainly don’t add anything more than American actors. They are cheaper, yes. The most downmarket of TV breakfast shows recently ran a series of snippets following Michelle Collins, not untalented, trying to make it in L.A. Hollywood is no longer as daunting and intimidating as it once was. The sight of Adam Sandler and his cronies, promoting "Grown-Ups" and not, as I thought, white-trash reality TV, on the BBC’s evening magazine show was enough to make anyone think they too could be a film star.

So who’s left in Blighty? As is always the case, there is an overabundance of underused female talent. Possibly the most acclaimed unknown actress in Britain is Clare Higgins. I’m not swayed by awards but this woman has won the Olivier Best Actress award three times and she is virtually unknown beyond London theatergoers. Her TV and film appearances have been sparse and interviews rare. Of the older actresses the remarkable and versatile Penelope Wilton works mostly in the theater with only occasional TV work; Prunella Scales, who has a range as great as any living actress, is still largely associated with "Fawlty Towers," even in England.

The generation behind them suffer the consequences of a multi-channel market amok with reality TV, cookery and property shows. Claire Skinner has worked quietly since she her subtle performance in Mike Leigh’s "Life is Sweet" but has found herself in an unexpectedly successful BBC sitcom, "Outnumbered." Of her contemporaries, Eva Pope and Suranne Jones both left the job security of "Coronation Street" to broaden their horizons. Pope is stranded in "Waterloo Road," an absurd school drama, though she, and most of the cast, manage to get more mileage than should be possible out of the preposterous plots and I feel sure there are great performances in her. Jones hit a home run in "Unforgiven." Gina McKee is another who is consistently brilliant but hasn’t really had anything built around her.

Two young actresses in particular have managed to make a name for themselves through consistent work. Anne Marie Duff (Mrs. James McAvoy) triumphed with "Elizabeth" on TV and "Saint Joan" at the National Theatre. Anna Maxwell Martin is widely regarded as a very fine actress though I remain unconvinced. But the woman of the moment is Catherine Tate with her character sketch show of British grotesques, including a Cockney granny, the incomparable Derek, Lauren, the epitome of British youth and not one but two workmates from hell. Tate, who also had a role on "Dr. Who," has been stretching herself on stage with mixed results though her likability should sustain her.  

Of the men, Simon Russell Beale, being porky and gay, is probably not Hollywood’s idea of a leading man but on the London stage he has the career Kenneth Branagh was supposed to have. Branagh, in mid-life revival, was very good on TV as "Wallender," though I’m puzzled by "Thor," unless it’s simply the money…

Alex Jennings is another actor who has dabbled in TV but is generally better received on stage. Owen Teale, Guy Henry, Hugh Bonneville and Finbar Lynch are a quartet I admired at the RSC nearly two decades ago but have never really enjoyed popular success. While Jeremy Northam — who I remember was once being pushed by ICM as the "new Hugh Grant" — failed to establish a popular reputation, and despite fine notices has dropped off the radar. These actors should be household names but with drama output plummeting it is virtually impossible for a British actor in Britain to find a commercially and critically successful vehicle.

A few are not attracted to Hollywood, knowing where their bread is buttered. David Jason, I’m sure, knows his appeal probably wouldn’t travel and has enjoyed decades of success with "Only Fools and Horses," arguably the best British sitcom ever, and "The Darling Buds of May," and "Frost," a lightweight but enjoyable detective drama.

Despite the abundance of talent in Britain, I’m realistic about their prospects. There is only one Brit with the appeal to woo global audiences, Shaun the Sheep.