Tea parties in the Hills, the sound of leather on willow by Sunset Boulevard … British actors might be en vogue in the U.S. right now, but it’s nothing compared with the glory days of the twenties, when Hollywood fell hard for Blighty and an army of ex-pat thespians — with their tweeds and servants and smoking pipes — turned a corner of California into a rather overwrought version of the raj.
Semi-naked dancers surround David Niven during a scene from The Statue, 1971 (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Hollywood loves a Brit. Leading men from the British Isles have taken over the film world: look at Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, runner-up Benedict Cumberbatch, as well as Tom Hardy and Tom Hiddleston, who will no doubt follow them. The Americans are hiring Britons to play their presidents (Sir Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln), their revolutionaries (David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr), and even their superheroes: a couple of years ago, Batman (Christian Bale), Superman (Henry Cavill) and Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) were all burgundy-passport-carrying citizens of Her Majesty. Then there are the women, led by Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Emily Blunt, and we haven’t even started on television, where a running obsession with the plight of the American male hasn’t hindered the recruitment of the public-school-educated Damian Lewis and Rupert Friend to serve in their marine corps and secret service in Homeland, R.A.D.A. graduate Andrew Lincoln to fight their zombies in The Walking Dead, or Hackney lad Idris Elba to run their drug gangs in The Wire.

In fact, Hollywood loves Britain so much America is starting to worry: in an article for U.S. magazine The Atlantic, headlined ‘The Decline of the American Actor’, the critic Terrence Rafferty wrote, “This is getting embarrassing”. Well, they should spare their own blushes: Hollywood has always loved Britain. A study of the first century of the film industry shows that British actors have been there all the way, beginning with the silent pantomiming of Stan Laurel (born in Ulverston, Cumbria) and the man who turned that which is filmed into an art form called ‘film’, Charlie Chaplin of south London. And if it seems as though the British are more dominant now, it’s a drop in the ocean compared with the real British ‘invasion’ in the 1920s, when there were so many of British actors ‘over there’ that they effectively built a colony in the Hollywood Hills.

While the current generation of British leading men and women has taken over in part because they’ve finally mastered the American accent, it was for their native voices that Hollywood first fell for the British. This was the start of talking pictures, and the studio heads, most of whom were émigrés from central Europe, were convinced that the Americans who had starred in their silent films could not possibly speak on film. In panic, they turned to the British stage, and so it was that a host of British character actors, some of them second-rate and resigned to running down their careers in provincial theatres, were invited to start over in the brave new world of the movies.

It wasn’t until much later that the critic Sheridan Morley — the grandson of a leading light of this British contingent, Gladys Cooper — dubbed the resulting community the ‘Hollywood Raj’. The name was all too apt: with a few exceptions, they behaved exactly as the colonialists had in India, training teams of servants in the ways of home and firmly looking down on the natives who had been so good as to employ them. Tea was taken beside croquet lawns, tweeds and moustaches were worn in spite of the heat, and, with an arrogance conferred by history, they imposed themselves. As Morley puts it in his book The Brits in Hollywood: “Like Africa and India at the end of the nineteenth century, California at the start of the twentieth century was a place where to be English, or at the very least British, was nearly enough.”


    James Medd


    March 2022


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