Why Do Villains Have English Accents in American Movies?

While living in England, I’ve discovered a common bugbear among the English is the fact that Hollywood frequently casts English actors as villains.

I’ve sometimes wondered if their memories on this subject are a little selective.  I’ve often heard Peter Cushing’s role as Tarkin in Star Wars cited as an exampleBeing a Star Wars nerd, I typically counter that Darth Vader had an American accent, and so did the emperor; whereas the English Alec Guinness played Obi Wan Kenobi, definitely one of the ‘good guys’.  And Star Wars aside, Hugh Grant and Colin Firth can attribute much of their success as Hollywood romantic leads to their ‘charming English accents.’

Nevertheless, my English friends insist that the English-accent-equals-evil thing is definitely real.  There are numerous lists compiled on the internet, and Helen Mirren was recently quoted as saying ‘I think it’s rather unfortunate that the villain in every movie is always British’.  Some typical examples include Anthony Hopkins role as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Jeremy Irons voicing Scar in The Lion King, and Ian McKellen as Magneto in X-Men.  It’s worth noting that all these villains are English, not British.  There is not an Irish, Welsh or Scottish villain in sight.  Moreover, there are no regional English dialects represented.  Show me the Hollywood baddie with a Geordie or Liverpudlian accent.   

So if that’s the trend, why does it exist?

One explanation I’ve heard is that English actors are more talented than American actors and therefore better able to take on the more challenging villain roles.  I have even read a suggestion that because American performers are more likely than British performers to train as method actors, they will struggle to get into the mind of an evil character.  As far as I can tell, the main thing this theory has going for it is that it shows British actors in a positive light.

Another, slightly more plausible, explanation I’ve heard is historical: Americans, perhaps only on a sub-conscious level, haven’t forgotten the Revolutionary War and see the British as the original enemy.  This theory suggests the trend of casting English actors as villains is rooted in Anglophobia or Anti-English sentiment.  I’m not convinced.  Anglophobia is thin on the ground in the US.  And the majority of Americans will say that they ‘love British accents’, because they sound ‘so classy’ and ‘so sophisticated’ (remember Hugh Grant and Colin Firth?).  It’s true that occasional ribbing about the War for Independence might occur, but on the whole, Americans admire and even covet British culture.

My theory is that the use of English accents is a storytelling device.  Hollywood films are created by Americans for a primarily American audience.  When crafting a story, a filmmaker needs to make the audience identify with the hero and one way of doing this is to give the hero approximately the same accent as the intended audience.  The villain needs a different accent so we understand that this is a character we shouldn’t like.  The English accent communicates Otherness, while still being an accent that the majority of Americans can easily understand (hence the lack of regional accents).  You may argue that this device is un-nuanced and needs to be challenged, but it isn’t a manifestation of anti-English feeling.  It’s a bit like casting a blonde to play a bimbo.  It may not be accurate or nice but it gets the message across.

But is this the whole story?  I suspect another dimension of the trend relates to America’s deeply entrenched anti-elitism.  Admittedly, American attitudes towards aristocracy are contradictory.  I’ve already mentioned how Americans covet British culture; British aristocracy plays a role in this.  The national hysteria over the wedding of William and Kate revealed how Americans long for this missing piece of their history.  Nevertheless, there is a strong American narrative that tells of the plucky individual who conquers adversity through determination and natural ability, that champions entrepreneurialism over inherited privilege.  I believe this narrative finds its way into the subtext of many American movies.  For Americans, the standard English accent, over all other accents, epitomizes the enemy elite.  Again, we see why an un-posh regional accent won’t do.

It’s worth pointing out that America doesn’t have the diversity of accents that Britain, or even just England, has.  Nor are the varieties of American accents detailed indicators of class, as they are in Britain.  The English accent screams POSH more loudly than any homegrown variety.  While we Americans adore the accent for being ‘so classy’ and ‘so sophisticated’, those qualities also make it perfect for a villain.


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The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (Edinburgh Fringe Festival Review)

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs was one of the hottest tickets at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  Playwright Mike Daisy, a former Apple aficionado, based the one-man show on his real life experiences.  Daisy had found on his brand new iPhone test photos taken inside the Apple factory.  He began to wonder about the people who made his beloved Apple products and decided to undertake a pilgrimage to China to find out.  His findings became The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.  Daisy has toured the US since 2010, performing the monologue himself.  The production at the Fringe Festival was directed by Marcus Roche and performed by Grant O’Rourke.

The monologue presents the interlocking stories of the remarkable career of Steve Jobs, and the Apple factory workers in China.  The play also developed the metaphor of Apple as a religion.  I have been interested in this phenomenon since the outpouring of grief after Steve Jobs’ death, so I enjoyed seeing it dramatized.  I continue to wonder why Apple inspires a uniquely fervent devotion and also a sense of identity among its consumers.

Predominantly, however, the play is interested in the conditions of the Chinese workers at the Apple factory. The details are disturbing, as they are meant to be.  We learn that all Apple products are assembled by hand, and that they include pieces as small as a human hair.  Employees start work from as young as twelve.  By the time they are in their early twenties, many have lost the use of their hands.  At the time of Daisy’s visit, the factory’s management had installed nets on the outside of the building to deal with the persistent problem of the employees committing suicide.  In a country where unions are illegal and democracy does not provide an alternative course of action, the elevated suicide rates are comprehensible.

Grant O’Rourke is excellent as the Apple disciple who began to question his religion.  He has the sardonic techie persona down to a tee.  His performance was captivating and even funny, no easy feat in a play about corporate responsibility.   As I was leaving the theatre, a man offered to give me his iPhone.  I call that a successful show.



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School Sports in the UK and US: Why all the football coaches taught Drivers’ Ed at my high school

The summer Olympic and Paralympic Games (the latter known as the ‘Special Olympics’ in the US) in London has me thinking about the cultural significance of sports in both my native and adopted countries, in particular, the role of team sports at school.  The recurrent success of the US Olympic team is rightly attributed to the country’s large population and deep pockets.  But I think the US victory also has to do with the fact that the US has a culture in which athletes are glorified and a spirit of competition is fostered from an early age.

In order to investigate further, I polled my English husband and his school friends about the role of team sports at their secondary school.   I do realize this evidence is anecdotal and not ‘statistically’ significant.  I also realize that all schools, mine and my husband’s included, are complex social organisms that resist generalizations.  These caveats aside, I am nevertheless hopeful that our observations can have a wider application across UK and US culture.

At my high school in Delaware, USA, jocks ruled the school.  At my husband’s grammar school in Kent, England, players on sports teams (the term ‘jock’ is not used, apparently) were often particularly popular, but did not enjoy the glorified status of the sporty kids in my school.  I was particularly interested to learn that the female athletes at my husband’s school were not more popular than other girls, and in fact, were often considered unfeminine.  The situation could hardly be more different at my high school, where the most popular and pretty girls colonized the field hockey and softball teams.

Football, the American variety, was the jewel in the crown of my high school’s athletics program, and the sport was well supported by both the administration and students.   The recruitment of football coaches was of the utmost importance.  As all coaches technically needed to be teachers, most football coaches were officially hired to teach Drivers’ Ed.

During football season, games were held nearly every Friday.  These were major social events, well attended by parents and other students.  The team was supported by a marching band and a squadron of cheerleaders. Every year, before the homecoming game, there was a mandatory pep rally.  This involved ushering the entire student body into the stadium to cheer on the team and build up enthusiasm for the big game.  The grade (or ‘year’ to use the British term) who shouted loudest was rewarded with a glow stick.  I should point out that these resources and customs are not at all unusual among high schools.  My high school was and is, to use the British parlance, ‘a comprehensive’, and not a wealthy one at that.

As I understand it, the situation was rather different at my husband’s school.  Even football/soccer, that darling of British sports, failed to win the attention lavished on American football.  For the British, school marching bands, cheerleading squads, and pep rallies are only familiar from ‘American films’.  Nor are there school stadiums suitable to hold a crowd of spectators.  Though, according to my sources, even if there were stadiums for hosting matches, no one would go.  British students find the idea of supporting a school sports team, like any other display of school spirit, nauseating.  School pride, where it exists at all, exists only for one’s house.

I suspect these outward differences point to more significant differences between the British and American psyches.   Here I turn to pop anthropologist Kate Fox and her study Watching the English.  According to Fox, the English people’s abhorrence of earnestness is crucial to understanding their culture (p 62-63).   The reason school team sports are not as popular as they are in the US is that it would be un-British to appear too keen on anything, sports included.  Moreover, the British have a natural cynicism towards anything institutionally backed (except the Monarchy, which seems to be a notable and curious exception).  This is not to say that similar attitudes don’t exist in the US, but the American mindset is generally much more tolerant of school spirit, just as it is of patriotism and religion.

And that is why we Americans do so well in the Olympics.


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Bitch Boxer (Edinburgh Fringe Festival Review)

At the beginning of Bitch Boxer, a young actress sprinkled white chalk on the ground to create the square of a boxing ring.  The disembodied voice of a ring announcer declared the start of a fight to determine which woman would represent Britain in Olympic boxing.  The pumped young fighter then proceeded to tell us what had brought her to that moment.  What followed was an hour-long performance of astonishing power and emotional intensity.  This superb one-woman show was the best production I saw at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Bitch Boxer was produced by Old Vic New Voices, an initiative which supports theatre professionals aged 18—30.  Charlotte Josephine both wrote and performed the play and Bryony Shanahan directed.   As the 2012 Olympic Games in London were the first Olympics in history in which women were allowed to compete in the sport of boxing, a play exploring the psychology of a young female fighter from east London was well timed.

The show’s venue at the Fringe, the Underbelly Cowgate, suited the material perfectly.  The austere setting, with exposed pipes and corrugated iron, suggested an underground boxing club.  A chair, a gym bag and its contents were the only props, which left ample space for the powerhouse performance.

Charlotte Josephine was utterly convincing and captivating as Chloe Jackson, the titular boxer.  During the hour-long play, her energy never flagged.  The emotional rawness of her performance consistently brought a lump to my throat.  But what impressed me most about Josephine’s characterization was its complexity.  She showed us the strength and tenacity of her character, but also the vulnerability underneath.  I believed Chloe was a tough and determined fighter with serious street cred.  But I also saw that she was a daddy’s girl, and a young woman who carried a great deal of pain, which drove her addiction to boxing.  Absorbing and heart-rending.


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Singin’ in the Rain at the Palace Theatre

When a visiting friend asked to see a West End musical during her visit, I jumped at the chance to indulge my addiction and booked us tickets to see Singin’ in the Rain, currently playing at the Palace Theatre.  The production is slick, and wonderfully serviced by its musical score, which remains as joyful as ever.

For anyone not already familiar with the plot from the classic MGM film (is there anyone?), Singin’ in the Rain recounts the fortunes of silent film stars when the talkies take over.  Leading man Don Lockwood has the vocal chops to survive the transition, but leading lady Lina Lamont, with her screechy Brooklyn accent, will be out of a job.  Enter the fresh-faced starlet Kathy Selden, who is called upon to dub Lina’s voice and save the picture, but not before falling in love with Don.

Theatrical remakes of hit films are doomed to one of two fates:  they are either condemned for lack of originality, or they are lambasted for needless betrayal of the sacred original.   This review falls into the former category, I’m afraid.   At this point, I must confess that I have seen the film many, many times.  If this were not the case, I suspect I would have enjoyed the unflaggingly loyal production at the Palace a great deal more.  Throughout the show, I was distracted by a parallel performance of the film that ran in my imagination and prevented me from relaxing and losing myself in the performance on the stage.

Now, I realize this might sound fussy, but one of the theatre’s gifts is its ability to reimagine material afresh.  Unlike films, which remain frozen, theatre can reinvent the same show for each new audience, finding new interpretations and layers of meaning.  This production of Singin’ in the Rain, though polished to perfection, played it safe.

And ultimately, Adam Cooper, Daniel Crossley and Scarlett Strallen, as Don, Cosmo and Kathy respectively, fail to come out from behind the massive shadows cast by Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds.  I concede that Strallen had a sunny pertness reminiscent of, well, Debbie Reynolds; though her American accent hit a few false notes, which grated my ear (sorry).  Only Katherine Kingsley, as the squawking Lina, made me forget all about her cinematic predecessor.  Her show-stealing performance brought new complexity to the role by suggesting that insecurity lay behind Lina’s wicked behaviour.

Yes, the set design is beautiful.  Yes, there are gallons of water for the title number.   And yes, the show is a delightful spectacle of singing and tap dancing.  But then so is the movie.

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