Not all villains must be British, says Mirren

From middle earth to a galaxy far far away, there exists a truth universal since the dawn of Hollywood time: bad guys speak with British accents. But it is a truth that British actress Dame Helen Mirren has become fed up with.

Speaking at an event in Los Angeles to celebrate British success in Hollywood, Dame Helen said British actors were an "easy target". "I think it's rather unfortunate that the villain in every movie is always British," she said.

Dame Helen, who won the Best Actress Oscar in 2007 for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen, said it was "important to let Americans know that we're not just the Royal family – there's a lot more to us than that".

"It's just nice to say we're not snooty, stuck-up, malevolent, malignant creatures as we're often portrayed. We're actually kind of cool and hip! I love the idiosyncracy of the British people, I love the eccentric nature," the 64-year-old added.

The birth of the British bad guy in Hollywood is hard to pinpoint. Some cultural commentators have pointed to the War of Independence, which concluded 113 years before the first movie was shot in the United States.

Its consolidation, though, is likely to date from the maniacal laughs of Christopher Lee in the Hammer Horror films of the 1950s and 1960s. From then on, baddies have been almost uniformly Brits.

More recently, Christopher Lee portrayed the evil wizard Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though the action takes place in Middle Earth, the accent is unmistakeably Thames Estuary.

In the more recent Star Wars trilogy, it is only after the young heroic Anakin Skywalker's conversion to the dark side that he shakes off his transatlantic tone to become Darth Vader. In the earlier movies, when James Earl Jones overdubbed the lines of the cyborg villain, he was asked to do so in a British accent.

For all its predictability, the tradition has not been without success. Sir Anthony Hopkins won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of arguably the most famous baddie of them all, Dr Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Despite the character being Lithuanian by birth, American by residency, and with a penchant for Italian wines (and human flesh), the accent was English.

More recently, Sir Ian McKellen played the role of the villainous Magneto in the X-Men films, Paul Bettany was an unlikely Silas in The Da Vinci Code and Alfred Molina played Dr Otto Octavius in Spider-Man 2. Brian Cox too played Ward Abbott in the Bourne films, and Christopher Lee played Count Dooku in Stars Wars: Attack of the Clones.

Dame Helen herself is soon to appear in a film adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, playing a female Prospero, a character originally from Milan who lives on an island somewhere near Africa, and whose status as goodie or baddie has divided theatre-goers and English literature students since the 17th-century. The accent, though a little higher pitched, will likely be as English as ever.

Best of British baddies

Sir Anthony Hopkins

Hopkins won the Best Actor Oscar for his 1991 portrayal of Dr Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs

Sir Ian McKellen

Sir Ian McKellen played Magneto in the X-Men films, his ability to control magnetism proving a thorn in side of the more benevolently disposed X-Men.

Alfred Molina

Alfred Molina plays the eight-armed and English-tongued Otto Octavius in Spider-man 2. He also appeared as the double-crossing Satipo in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Sir Christopher Lee

Arguably the greatest English baddie of them all, having played Dracula, Count Dooku in Star Wars and Saruman in the Lord of The Rings trilogy.

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