The test pilots: The British actors that have won (and lost) the battle for American TV

Each year hopeful UK stars jet off to LA to try out for a part in a TV series. Gerard Gilbert catches up with this season's hits and misses

Later this month, in a tradition almost as hallowed as the Super Bowl, Thanksgiving and the Oscars, the big American television networks launch their new shows for the autumn – the neophyte dramas and comedies they hope will become the new Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Friends or Frasier. And in some of these shows British actors will appear in places you may least expect them – unexpected of course, except to the actors involved, their agents, friends and family.

The process begins in early January, as we bleary civilians slough off our Christmas and New Year hangovers. It's then that British thesps, clutching US visas, head to LA in order to audition for the hundreds of parts on offer. "Every spring there are these planes full of British actors, it's like sardine tins full of British hope," says Miranda and Bridget Jones star Sally Phillips.

"They all go and sit on beaches and think it's fantastic for a couple of weeks, and then get fantastically depressed and go on juice diets and come back two stone lighter and talking nonsense."

Not all of them, of course, and the chosen minority will spend the next couple of months filming their pilot episode. Then, in May, there is another spin of the roulette wheel, as the 100 or so pilots are reduced by three-quarters, to the 25 or so that will actually be rolled out as full series in the autumn. This happens at the so-called "television upfronts", screenings for potential advertisers and other interested parties, held in New York.

High-profile British victims in this year's bloodbath included Steve Coogan, Stephen Fry and Harry Potter star Rupert Grint (of whom more later) – although they might console themselves that even for pilots that get picked up for a full series, it takes an estimated four seasons for a show to become a real money-spinner.

Even without getting as far as having a pilot rejected, the whole experience can be "massively depressing", says Andrew Scott, who did the season a few years ago, just before his role as Moriarty in BBC1's Sherlock opened up a far more interesting career path. "Things are sold to you as an opportunity, but an opportunity for what?" he asks.

"You've got to be discerning, but the culture over there is not about being discerning. I did an audition with girls in bikinis going for lawyer parts, with blazers."

Perhaps the pilot season is more appealing to younger actors, with long careers in front of them, and for whom the prospect of a possible seven-year contract in the factory-like environment of American television production is less daunting. Hugh Laurie, for example, recently admitted that his long-standing role as the titular doctor in House, which turned him into the best-paid actor on television, was a "gilded cage", that routine could be a "nightmare", and that he fantasised about having an accident just to get a day off.

"I went to a wedding recently and I sat at a table with a load of actors and they were all exchanging their LA stories", says 39-year-old Maxine Peake of Silk and The Village. "I think it's definitely a generational thing now. They were all that little bit younger than me, and they go off every year. I don't know whether I'm tough enough, to be honest."

A thick skin certainly helps. In a blog she kept for The Stage website while experiencing her first US pilot season this January, the former Hollyoaks actor, Victoria Atkin, stressed the need for perseverance. "Pilot season is not for the faint-hearted," she counselled. "Get in shape, have your visa, be honest with yourself about whether your American accent is good enough."

Just before Christmas, as she prepared to head off for the 2013 pilot season, I interviewed Lily James, who plays the young flapper Lady Rose in Downton Abbey. "The famous pilot season literally sends shivers down my spine," the 24-year-old told me. "I've heard of such horrors of how many actors and actresses are out there." James needn't have worried – while out in LA she won the title role in Disney's live action "re-imagining" of Cinderella.

Sadly, we will never see the rejected pilots – it would be good to see them posted on YouTube, perhaps. Of the successful shows, many will make their way to the UK's booming multi-channel universe in due course. Here's our list of the British winners and losers from this year's season.

 

Winners

Iain De Caestecker in Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC)

Starring in the cult BBC3 fantasy The Fades may have helped 25-year-old Scottish actor Iain De Caestecker win a role in Buffy-creator Joss Whedon's glossy mix of police procedural and superhero drama. Coming to Channel 4.

Lenora Crichlow in Back in the Game (ABC)

With BBC3's Being Human behind her – she left last year – Crichlow's visit to the 2013 US pilot season has been rewarded with a regular role in this sports sitcom co-starring James Caan.

Kevin Bishop in Super Fun Night (ABC)

Perky English comedian Kevin Bishop (Star Stories, The Kevin Bishop Show) really steps up his career as the token male in this femi-centric sitcom about three party-loving single ladies.

Lorraine Bruce in Lucky 7 (ABC)

Warrington-born Bruce will have to cope with a Queens accent as the only original cast member from Kay Mellor's BBC1 lottery comedy drama The Syndicate to make it into the New York-set US remake.

Michael Socha and Emma Rigby in Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (ABC)

The show being set in Victorian London certainly helped the prospects of British actors auditioning for this re-imagining of Lewis Carroll's classic: cue, Socha (This Is England) and Rigby (Prisoners' Wives).

Mackenzie Crook in Almost Human (Fox)

The Office and Game of Thrones star Crook is among an ensemble cast in this futuristic fantasy in which LAPD cops are partnered by androids.

 

Losers

Steve Coogan in Doubt

And "doubt" was the word when ABC execs asked themselves whether viewers would buy the comedian leading a straight drama, playing an ex-cop turned low-rent lawyer – even with a pilot script by David Shore, creator of House.

Stephen Fry and Rupert Grint in Super Clyde

Did Fry envy erstwhile comedy partner Hugh Laurie's success in House? Either way, CBS decided that Fry's superhero sitcom, in which he played Harry Potter star Rupert Grint's butler, just wouldn't fly.

Jason Isaacs in The Surgeon General

Isaacs may be a relative US TV drama veteran after major roles in Awake and Brotherhood, but CBS execs cut The Surgeon General, deciding it might be bad for the health of their bottom line.

 

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