television Ellen / Frasier, Channel 4

When ambitious British films give a lead role to an American actor, the motive is usually arithmetical rather than artistic - a case of four weddings, a funeral and a co-star they've heard of in Smallsville, Wisconsin. The American networks don't need to pack their casts with illustrious British actors to lure audiences over here, so there must have been some other force at work when Ellen and Frasier both returned for second series with prominent English characters.

In Ellen the leading lady, quenching a sudden thirst for knowledge, visited a gallery and picked up a professor called Roger who is bowled over by her familiarity with Kandinsky. ("A museum? In LA? Is there one?" asks her pal Paige.) She eventually confesses that her educated veneer was the fruit of overnight cramming. The joke was that when she got him back to her place he promptly got hooked on television, the repository of low culture.

It's consistent with one American view of us that a pompous polymath should have an English accent. Our actors are conventionally imported to play classy types or criminals or both (Roger Rees as a suave cad in Cheers, Peter Cook and John Gielgud as aloof butlers). And yet Roger's stiffness is incompatible, as a national characteristic, with the Daphne Moon character, who's been in Frasier since the first episode.

Jane Leeves, who looks and sounds uncannily like Lisa Stansfield but comes cheaper than her, plays a home help who looks after Frasier's father, an invalided ex-cop. She has a creamy Lancashire accent and does things like threaten her charge with "a smack on the fanny". Miles, who's an even more repressed shrink than his brother, is hilariously embarrassed by this Anglo-Saxon frankness.

If two sitcoms, both huge hits on home turf, give contradictory evaluations of Englishness it may simply be because the script calls for some kind of alien presence, and ours happens to be the foreign culture that supplies actors speaking the same language. In Ellen the regular characters, even the owner of a bookstore, are all lowbrow and straight-talking; in Frasier they're highbrow and circumlocutory. In each case the English character supplies a counterpoint. The superiority of the American sitcom to the British model is a stick with which we ritually beat ourselves, but if it's any consolation we're needed over there to conform to a multitude of stereotypes.

Frasier, in particular, does nothing to stay the flagellation. Last night's episode found Kelsey Grammer's psychiatrist fuming about a slushy novel that repeats without acknowledgement the minutiae of his first fumbling love affair he once divulged to a fellow soak in a Boston bar. In one scene we see him scornfully speed-reading the book: he gets to the climax where the young buck abandons his lover, "exiting softly, like..." And then Grammer flicks past several pages before the simile, a Miltonic infinity, eventually closes with the words, "And so he was gone." The best sitcom's scorn for prolixity could not be more succinctly stated.

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