Shirley MacLaine, the Oscar-winning star of Terms of Endearment, is sweeping into Downton this autumn as the scabrous Martha Levinson, mother to Elizabeth McGovern’s Lady Cora and the brass that facilitated her daughter’s marriage to Hugh Bonneville’s Lord Grantham.
And doesn’t she know it. “Here’s to the future as long it’s not like the past,” says MacLaine’s Martha L in what is obviously the real point of the casting: the chance for a sparring match with Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess of Grantham.
It is the ultimate transatlantic culture clash – and as delicious as it sounds. But of course MacLaine is by no means the first American to grace British screens (and indeed, vice versa).
From Johnny Depp in The Fast Show to Boy George in The A-Team, TV producers in Britain and the US have never been able to resist the in-joke of taking a fish from one side of the pond and dumping it on the other.
Why is TV so interested in the US-UK culture clash? Or is it just us? My suspicion is that it may just be us.
When Brits cameo in US shows – and I am thinking of Friends’ trip to London for Ross’s wedding here, the one where Matt LeBlanc says “London, baby” all the time – you get a real sense of how we’re seen from across the Atlantic. And usually it’s not very nice.
Remember Jennifer Saunders’s pathologically ill-tempered and hostile mother-in-law and the way she despises her equally vile husband (Tom Conti)? And why did Olivia Williams have to turn up as a sexually voracious bridesmaid? As for Richard Branson’s stallholder, well, yes, we get the joke but there is also the national shame of Sir Richard’s acting to consider.
This showed just how much the Americans see us as buttoned up, arrogant, snooty and usually drunk. With bad teeth. And they don’t really take us too seriously either.
To many American minds, fantasy and olden times equals British accents – whether it’s Game of Thrones or the Lord of the Rings or the faraway history of ancient Rome in the BBC/HBO co-production.
And when British actors get to play the lead in a US series they are never allowed their own accents – think Hugh Laurie in House, Jamie Bamber in Battlestar Galactica, Stephen Moyer in True Blood, Damian Lewis in Band of Brothers and Homeland.
But when the Yanks are in our stuff, well, we do tend to fall over ourselves, being always the junior partner in the so-called special relationship.
All the cameos in Extras and, more recently, Life’s Too Short have been to show what great sports Hollywood gods such as Samuel L Jackson, Robert De Niro, Depp – again – and Steve Carell are.
Depp was also treated like royalty by the cast of The Fast Show when he made his cameo in the last ever episode of the BBC sketch comedy. Paul Whitehouse as the “suits you, sir” tailor asks him if he had “boned anyone yet, sir?”, a joke which hinges on the fact that Depp is an A-Lister deigning to grace a British TV comedy.
More recently Robert Vaughn was spoken about in hushed tones when it was announced that he was going to star in Hustle, as the sharp, smart and cool head hustler Albert Stroller.
The only time I think we Brits have ever had the upper hand is in Episodes, the recent BBC/Showtime co-production predicated on the joke about two UK comedy writers (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) who have their Bafta-winning comedy ruined by a US network – and LeBlanc.
But even here, as well as the satirical depiction of US network TV as brash, vulgar and stupid, the comedy also derives from the Brits being uptight and endlessly humiliated by their American paymasters. So the joke is also on us, once again.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Seit 1996 bin ich freier Mitarbeiter der Salzgitter-Zeitung, als Experte für das Geschehen im hiesigen Kreisfußball. Daneben sind meine Kolumnen seit 2005 fester Bestandteil im Lokalteil der Salzgitter-Zeitung. Zusammen mit Frau und Tochter sowie zwei gefräßigen wie faulen Stubentigern versuche ich das zu meistern, was das Leben, das Universum und der ganze Rest an Absurditäten für uns bereithalten.