A new breed of British leading man has emerged over the last few years. Charming, well spoken, and less obviously handsome than most of his American counterparts, he tends to achieve incredible success over the pond – because they love the idea of the charming, well-spoken, not classically handsome Englishman over there. Deliberately or otherwise, these guys are peddling a very specific version of Britishness to Hollywood, and it might not be helping business people.
Sunday night saw one of Britain’s brightest young stars triumph in perhaps the most fiercely contested of all the categories at this year’s Oscars. ‘Best Actor’ winner Eddie Redmayne held his own against some of the best leading men from the US to take home his Oscar – which is great. The fact that he is also probably the only leading man stranger looking than Benedict Cumberbatch should give us all hope.
On the night, the papers tell me, Redmayne was the very personification of elegance – sophistication itself. He was polite and comfortable on the carpet, charming to reporters, humble and heart-warmingly plummy in his acceptance speech.
I love people achieving. It’s one of my favourite things – to see someone exceed expectations, to be better than they ever knew they could be. Redmayne never went to drama school, he was never one of the Brit-pack, and there he is, trouncing some of America’s heaviest hitters.
Here’s the thing that’s bugging me about it all though – I feel like Redmayne, along with the likes of Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston, is selling the US an outdated, inaccurate and stereotypical version of ‘Britishness’. I don’t know whether their agents deliberately pitch them to US studios that they know will lap it up or not, and it’s unimportant really. What is important is whether the version of Britishness that they sell to Hollywood – and that Hollywood then broadcasts to the world – is in any way damaging to British businessmen trading in the States.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the US, and I can tell you that the stereotype of the stiff upper-lipped, tea swilling, top-hatted English gent is still very much alive and kicking over there. Redmayne never went to drama school, but he did go to Eton and then Cambridge. It’s a quintessentially British education for sure, but is a truly representative one?
A friend of mine from the US has lived in London now for nearly ten years. We met for coffee last week and ended up talking about when he first moved here. He’s an intelligent guy, but it turns out he was expecting tea rooms on every corner, top hats on bankers, the odd monocle – horse-drawn carriages from King’s Cross to the City wouldn’t have been too much of a stretch. Instead, he found one the most dynamic, connected cities in the world – a global centre for finance and industry, a thriving, hyper-modern, leading-edge city like nowhere in his native state.
Now, anyone who has ever read a paper or spent time on the internet knows that London is a global city – but this proves the extent of the damage that can be done by that stereotype of ‘Britishness’. Americans love a plummy British accent – but they think of them as twee, sweet, the product of an isolated and dated upbringing on some country estate out in the sticks. Sure, there are people who live like that – but there are many, many more who grow up in industrial cities or suburban housing estates, who talk with a cockney twang or a (charming) South Wales lilt.
My point is simply this: everyone knows that the American vision of the top-hatted, Oxbridge educated, cane-swinging, land-owning Brit is nonsense. And yet it perseveres. With that in mind, is it that helpful to be selling Hollywood that version of Britain time and time again with our plum-voiced, utterly charming leading men?
I don’t know, honestly. Let me know what you think – I might be barking up the wrong tree here but it just struck me while I was drinking my tea from a pot this morning, over a plate of steaming buttered crumpets. Well done to Eddie Redmayne, too – I honestly do love to see people achieve great things.