I have an extraordinarily enlightened view of British television. I try to watch at least one hour of British TV a day, and that’s probably more than 95 percent of Americans, but still, it can’t possibly account for all of British TV. So, my perception of Brit TV would probably be that of a foreigner who only watched “The Wire,” “Six Feet Under,” The Sopranos,” “Arrested Development,” and “Dexter,” and drew conclusions about American television based only on those shows. Granted, I still don’t really get a lot of the broader British laugh-track-y comedies, like “The IT Crowd,” “Black Books,” “Absolutely Fabulous,” or any of the British sketch comedies (I almost liked “Green Wing,” but for the irritating slowing down and speeding up of the film), but I’ve yet to see a British Drama that hasn’t won me over at least a little (although, I eventually did bail on “Wire in the Blood,” after awhile because I don’t really like procedurals, British, American, or otherwise).
But the great — or unfortunate — thing about America is that we can basically steal British talent anytime we see fit and put them in a crappy American show that barely does justice to their talents. David Tennant was very nearly in a legal drama this fall alongside Jerry O’Connell of all people (it was not ultimately picked up), but we’ll get him, yet! We put Billie Piper in a soft-core porn drama over on Showtime. We took Hugh Laurie away from the Brits. And Michelle Ryan. We even borrowed Damien Lewis, Idris Elba, and John Barrowman (he’s Scottish, but still). We can take anyone we want. At will. Because we’re assholes.
And yet … we haven’t taken everyone. Maybe television executives just haven’t seen as much British television as I have, but there are a lot of great English television actors that we should really look into snatching. I’d hate for them to toil away in obscurity on the other side of the ponds making brilliant British television series when they could be over here starring in crappy American sitcoms as the wacky English neighbor.
Here are my ten favorites, and the ones who most deserve being freed from the shackles of quality British television. For our British readers, feel free to mock me for my ignorance or my oversights. I’m certain you will, even if my goal is to ultimately bring more attention to your fantastic television. Cheeky British ingrates. And, for the time being, I will leave Matt Smith and Karen Gillan alone, at least until they finish finish their “Doctor Who,” runs. But Eve Myles: You can keep her. No. Really. I will also exclude those who have already had a taste of American success, like Martin Freeman, Lucy Davis, Simon Pegg, and Jamie Bamber. I also haven’t seen “Shameless” or “Bodies” yet (they’re next), as well as anything other than “Spaced,” before 2000, so anyone from those shows are also excluded.
10. Ruth Wilson: Notable series: “Luther” and “The Prisoner.”
9. Sarah Alexander: Notable series: “Coupling,” “Green Wing,” “Mutual Friends.”
8. Hermione Norris: Notable series: “Spooks,” and “Wire in the Blood.”
7. Benedict Cumberbatch: Notable series: “Sherlock.”
6. John Simm: Notable series: “Life on Mars,” “Doctor Who,” “State of Play”
5. James Nesbitt: I didn’t actually love Stephen Moffat’s “Jekyll.” It was a good show, but what made it so compelling was the incredible performance of James Nesbitt, who went from repressed research scientist to flamboyant, villainous Id with incredible ease and sleazy charm. He’s been in several British series and I have to concede that I haven’t seen many of them, but the performance in “Jekyll” alone merits his inclusion here.
4. Keeley Hawes: I haven’t seen “Identity” yet, which debuted last month in Britain and which stars Hawes and Aiden Gillan (who we borrowed from Scotland to play Tommy Carcetti on “The Wire,”), but I absolutely adored Hawes in both “Ashes to Ashes,” and “Spooks.” She reminds me of Kiera Knightley, if Keira Knightley weighed about 30 more pounds played one of the best female law enforcement figures on television. I don’t know this, but I suspect that Hawes is more popular than she is respected in the UK (she’s married to Matthew Macfadyen, so I’m guessing they are like TV royalty over there), but I think she’s a terrific television actress and very unlike the mostly wooden, super-model-y types featured in American procedurals, even if she does have super-model-y good looks.
3. Freema Agyeman: I have no idea why we haven’t taken Freema Agyeman away already. She’s gorgeous. She’s clever. And she can clearly do one of the 35 procedurals currently running in the states, as she’s stuck over in England doing “Law & Order UK,” which I didn’t even know existed until today (she co-stars with “Battlestar Galactica’s” Jamie Bamber, who we borrow when we feel like it). But she’s best known as one of the two hottest “Doctor Who” companions, and we really like attractive people over here in the United States. People have made entire careers out of being as hot as Freema, and they can’t even read bedtime stories properly!
2. Philip Glenister: I’ve seen Glenister now in “Life on Mars,” “Ashes to Ashes,” and “State of Play,” and this dude is a motherfucking monster of an actor. No one — not even Tony Soprano — has the small-screen presence of Glenister. He’s not a particularly good looking guy, but the way he speaks, and the way he carries himself, makes him weirdly appealing. He’s an absolute force, and I suspect the reason he hasn’t made the transition to American television already is because Yankees would feel emasculated by him.
1. Peter Capaldi: This guy has been starring in British television since the early 80s, though he’s probably most famous over here as Malcolm Tucker in In the Loop. But before he starred in In the Loop, he played the same character in the British television series “The Thick of It,” which is probably my favorite British comedy of all time. No one — and I mean, no one — spews profanity as well as this man does. I don’t know if that has been his forte for his entire career (he also pulls it off well in “Skins,”) but he may be the only person alive I’d rather hear curse more than Morgan Freeman.