Ever since the Beatles, the ultimate test for any British pop star is to break big in the United States. If you can make it there you can make it anywhere (but why would you? You've already made it!).
It's the same story for film stars, writers, directors and comedians. And it's not just because that's where the money is – though that surely comes into the equation. It's also to do with the dreams we grow up with. If you like movies, then chances are you have spent many hours in the dark with Hollywood stars – just like Sidney Young (Simon Pegg) does in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.
Pegg's character is an uncouth, smug British journalist (based on "novelist" Toby Young) who arrives in New York City in the 1980s to take a job at Sharp magazine (read: Vanity Fair). He thinks he's made it, but in fact he's just been invited onto the bottom rung of the ladder. If he stands out at all it's because he doesn't fit in.
In real life Young failed and came back with his tail between his legs – then wrote the best-selling memoir that is the basis for the film. (Best selling in Britain anyway – I see it ranks just inside the top 10,000 in the US.) In the movie it's a somewhat different story – pure Hollywood hokum about the character seeing the error of this celebrity-fixated ways. His father quotes Einstein to him: "Try not to be a man of success but a man of value." (Mind you, according to the movie his dad married a movie star, so make of that what you will.)
What's interesting is that Simon Pegg finds himself in a similar situation to Sidney. Technically, How to Lose Friends… is a British movie, produced by Working Title, but the funding is from the US, so is the director and the rest of the cast (Kirsten Dunst, Jeff Bridges, Megan Fox and Gillian Anderson). In many ways it feels like his first Hollywood picture, and that was surely the intention.
Pegg is well known among a certain sector of educated young Americans for Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, and to a lesser extent Hot Fuzz, but his last attempt at a mainstream rom com Run Fatboy Run grossed just $6 million in the States, so it's fair to say he has a long way to go before he can call himself a movie star.
Pegg is not alone. Ricky Gervais is also poised to crack America on the back of his cult success with The Office and Extras. His first starring role in a Hollywood flick, Ghost Town, is a romantic comedy with Téa Leoni that opens shortly in Britain. With his round face and not particularly tall and athletic build Gervais doesn't look like leading man material, and that becomes one of the planks of the comedy (Téa's deceased ex-husband Greg Kinnear is understandably skeptical about the whole thing).
Like Pegg, Gervais brings a bit of British bite and cynicism and what the characters calls "a sensitive gag reflex" to a conventional, sentimental rom-com storyline. Sadly, despite pretty good reviews, Ghost Town was a commercial disappointment in the US, opening in 8th position, well behind Dane Cook in My Best Friend's Girl, Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys and the children's animation Igor.
Then there's Steve Coogan, who has been dabbling in American movies for a while (Around the World in 80 Days) without making much headway, but has a very funny (albeit brief) supporting role in the hit Tropic Thunder, and stars as a frustrated (Canadian!?) actor and dramatist in Sundance hit Hamlet 2. That opens here in November, but again, its US box office has been underwhelming.
Of this remarkable generation of British comic talent, Sacha Baron Cohen is the only one who has really made a big dent on the American public, primarily through his alter-ego Borat. He's also been fortunate to appear as a supporting actor in the hits Talledega Nights and Sweeney Todd. Not that he's likely to be recognized on the street any time soon, but it's encouraging that Cohen's success has come from doing his own thing and not diluting it for some marketing team's idea of American taste.
Expectations are high for next year's Bruno, but it remains to be seen whether people will go and see "a Sacha Baron Cohen movie" in the same way that they flock to almost anything starring Owen Wilson, Steve Carrell or Will Ferrell.
And that, ultimately, has to be the goal. After all, it's the difference between being the next Peter Sellers, or the next Norman Wisdom.
THE BRITISH INVASIONS
British invasions come and they go. Colin Welland famously promised (or threatened?) "The British are coming!" when he won the Oscar for his screenplay Chariots of Fire in 1980. For a brief moment it looked like he was right, but big British movies like Absolute Beginners and Revolution flopped, David Puttnam's tenure as head of Columbia Studios proved short lived, and we went back to do what we do best: which is watching American TV shows.
>In the mid 90s there was another flurry of excitement around Britpop, Tony Blair and Trainspotting (Empire magazine raved "Come in Hollywood, you're time is up!"). While Ewan McGregor did go on to do the Star Wars movies, director Danny Boyle's attempts to take it to the next level with The Beach fell flat and Sunshine have fallen flat. Jude Law was hot for a spell, but British actresses have had more solid, lasting success: Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet and recently Keira Knightley.
You have to go back further for the last time Britain made serious inroads into American culture. In the 1960s James Bond and the Fab Four led a charge which made London sexy (or at least: "Swinging") and produced universal icons like Twiggy, Michael Caine, Terence Stamp and Julie Christie.
Then there was Peter Sellers. In the 50s he was gifted comedian who made a name for himself on radio along with Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe. He was just one of the gang, fourth billed behind Alec Guinness, Cecil Parker and Herbert Lom when Ealing made The Ladykillers (1955). By 1959 he was top lining stuff like The Mouse that Roared and The Smallest Show on Earth – but even the titles give away our inferiority complex as Empire slipped away and America took charge of the Free World.
Sellers' biggest break came when American-in-Hertfordshire Stanley Kubrick cast him as Clare Quilty in Lolita in 1962, then again in three roles in Dr Strangelove. Another American, Blake Edwards, cast him as a Frenchman in The Pink Panther in 1963. From then on there was no going back: he was the hottest comic star on the planet.