American television is rife with British characters, so much so that it’s reasonable to assume that at least one of your favorite shows includes a main character with a funny accent (probably of the posh English variety). But is the reverse true? Do the British have an equal representation of American characters on their telly? Not even close.
Our culture's Anglophilia may tip the scales, but that doesn’t mean the occasional Yank doesn’t pop up on British television. How do we Americans fare in our representation? It varies, of course, but -- as is often the case with many British characters on American TV -- American characters on British TV come with their fair share of stereotyping. Looking past the monolithic trope that is The American Idiot, here are the five kinds of Americans portrayed on British television.
The Valley Girl
Ask a real-life British person to do an American accent and they will frequently attempt a Valley Girl. Heavy on the "like"s and "OMG"s and often unfortunately light on the substance, The Valley Girl trope pops up in both British and American pop culture. One of our favorite examples comes from The Catherine Tate Show (the comedian is also known as Doctor Who’s Donna Noble). Tate may be conflating an entire diverse demographic into one identity, but she manages to do it with some serious charm. Perhaps it's my status as an American who has been known to drop a "like" or "OMG" into a conversation, but I would be friends with The Valley Girl from this sketch.
Less likable yet much more extensively featured than Catherine Tate's Valley Girl, Classic Doctor Who companion Peri also falls into The Valley Girl category. Originally from California, her character often falls into the ditzy behavior and emphasis on appearance associated with this trope. Nicola Bryant, the actress behind the role, was actually British and infamous for her terrible American accent made more noticeable than the British slang used in the script.
I rarely see cowboys in real life, but they show up all the time as Americans on British television, especially several decades ago. In a 1978 episode of Britain’s long-running comedy Are You Being Served?, Mrs Slocombe’s American uncle from New York comes to her wedding wearing an actual Stetson and reinforces the idiot American stereotype like it's going out of style.
Other times, The Cowboy trope is less in the aesthetics and more in the attitude. The Classic Who episode “The Tomb of the Cybermen” (1967) features a gaggle of American soldiers, including Captain Hopper, an uncharacteristically competent representation of a Yank. The manly Captain Hopper spends much of the episode off-screen fixing his ship, but still manages to find some time for heroic feats.
This wasn't the first time cowboys made an appearance on Doctor Who. The first U.S.-set episode -- "The Gunfighters" (1966) -- saw The First Doctor hanging with Wyatt Earp and Johnny Ringo. Cowboys were big in early Who, and a go-to representation of an American in British television of yesteryear.
The New Money
The British are known for their period dramas, and none has been more popular in recent years (both domestically and internationally) than Downton Abbey. Unlike many British shows, Downton Abbey has a main character who is American: Cora Crawley (played by American Elizabeth McGovern). Though Lady Cora's Americanness is often counted as a black mark on her character in English society, her family's money allows for her foreign birthplace to be overlooked. This is a common trope when it comes to Americans popping up in British drama: The New Money.
"Don't worry about me, I'm an American. Have gun, will travel!" -- Cora
In British drama, The New Money American is a symbol of change in a dying imperial world. They are usually seen as less culturally refined than their Old Money counterparts, but the manner in which they are treated as characters varies greatly. For Cora, though she is often teased for her more outgoing, casual (read: American) way, she is a resilient, well-developed character who is more than just her Americanness.
Americans on British television tend to be much more promiscuous than the British characters who surround them. Sometimes, it's played as a character flaw, as is the case with Cora's playboy brother Harold (played by American Paul Giamatti) in recent episodes of Downton Abbey. Other times, it's played as part of an American's charm, as is the case with Doctor Who/Torchwood's enigmatic Captain Jack Harkness (played by American/Brit John Barrowman).
Other examples include Peep Show’s Nancy (played by Canadian Rachel Blanchard), who manages to shoehorn the American stereotypes of being uber religious and a New Age hippie with her identity as a sexually adventurous lady.
Often American characters appear on British television as operatives. They may not be the main villain, but they are players in the game, if not as members of the actual C.I.A., then as covert corporate players. The American Operative is often threatening, but not always frightening -- more of a nuisance than anything. They are hardly ever the brains behind the operation, but that doesn’t stop them from shows of snarky confidence.
Jekyll’s Benjamin (Brit Paterson Joseph), a psychopathic employee of Klein & Utterson hired to control Tom (a.k.a. Jekyll) and Hyde, is a particularly effective variety of The American Goon, while the C.I.A. agents in Sherlock’s “A Scandal in Belgravia” prove worse at their jobs.
Do you have any more examples of American characters/stereotypes on British television? Share them in the comments below!