Arts: The unbelievable truth: they're not our Friends

America's favourite sitcom came to London - but its portrayal of the British was less than complimentary.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I'VE JUST watched the London episode of Friends. Twice, in fact, because I couldn't quite believe it the first time round.

Okay, as Phoebe always begins when she's trying to explain her mental processes to the others; for those that don't know know what I'm on about - the cast of the popular American sitcom Friends were over in London in April filming a special hour-long episode. In it, Ross may or may not marry his British girlfriend, Emily, played by the English actress Helen Baxendale.

Filmed in a closed studio in Wembley, and on landmark tourist locations across the capital, the storyline will act as a cliffhanger for the next series. Will Ross marry Emily - or will he realise in time that he really loves Rachel? Several endings were apparently recorded.

Phoebe? Ross? Rachel? If you still don't know what I'm on about, turn the page. You will have been entirely ignorant of the media buzz that was around earlier this spring when the world's most shiney, happy sitcom played Cool Britannia a huge compliment and alighted in London.

Fergie has a bit part, as has Richard Branson. Two of Britain's most America-conscious celebs understood the momentousness of the occasion. Rachel even flies over here on Virgin. Fly the flag.

Should Cool Britannia be flattered? On the evidence of the episode, which goes out on Sky One tomorrow evening (and on Channel 4 later in the year), the answer is no. In fact, get ready for a slap in the face.

Despite a riff from The Clash's London's Calling (which, let's face it, is now 18-years-old) Cool Britannia might as well not exist. Brits are portrayed as fusty, snobby, avaricious and just plain dotty. And, over half a century after Lend-Lease and Marshall Aid, we're still trying to rip off the Yanks.

Tom Conti, who plays Emily's dad, dodders around calling people "old boy" (has anyone said that since the Fifties?). Jennifer Saunders, as Conti's wife, reprises her Edina Monsoon from Absolutely Fabulous. In fact June Whitfield's participation, as Saunders' housekeeper, makes one realise that Ab Fab is the current model of Britishness playing across the Atlantic. No wonder they don't seem to like us.

And they don't, if we are to believe the Friends script-writers, who know a thing or two about universal truths (the sitcom sells throughout the world). Joey is the only Friend who whole-heartedly embraces the visit. He annoys the others with his enthusiasm, buys a cheesy Union Flag hat (from Richard Branson's vendor of tourist tat) and bumps into Fergie in Parliament Square (as you do). But even Joey is pining for New York after a couple of days. He misses pizza (as if you can't get it here) and good old honest home cooking, after being offered canapes of goat's cheese, watercress and pancetta. Some of the signals, it has to be said, are a little mixed. British cooking as over-sophisticated? Terence Conran must be tearing his hair out.

Eventually Joey is persuaded to stay by an English girl who likes his Italian-New York accent (an amusing inversion of the usual "Oh I just love your English accent" line). But then that's one thing the English are popular for - their young women. English girls are class. After all, that's why they cast Helen Baxendale in the first place. Maybe it's the Diana effect.

The climax of this low level anti-Britishness comes in an exchange between Tom Conti - who is trying to screw his daughter's prospective in-laws for the cost of half the wedding and as many extras as he can - and Ross and Monica's father, played by Elliot Gould. "That's enough from you," says Gould to Conti, "you thieving, would-be-speaking-German-if-it-wasn't- for-us little man."

There, they've said it. We'd all be speaking German now if it wasn't for them. Maybe critics of Tony Blair's Cool Britannia export drive are being too harsh. If the hip, young writers of Friends can still express prejudices rooted in the Second World War, maybe we do need an image update.

Watching the episode for the second time, something became apparent. It was how drab all the English seem, and how screwed up their accents are. Actors as experienced as Tom Conti and Helen Baxendale all seemed to speaking in Hollywood cockney. Is this because there isn't another British accent that American audiences understand? Regular viewers of Channel 4 sitcoms will remember the Frasier episode in which Frasier's English home-help, Daphne (supposedly from Manchester) was visited by her English ex-boyfriend. He was also supposedly from Manchester, but spoke with a cockney accent that would have made Dick Van Dyke blush.

But listen closer and you realise that they're not really speaking cod cockney at all. It's just the horrible, muffled sound of British actors trying to speak the lines of an American sitcom writer. Even Hugh Laurie - that epitome of a certain Oxbridge sense of humour, sounds like he's playing an improvisation game with Clive Anderson. Try to talk without any cadences whatsoever; pretend you're a speak-your-weight machine in need of Prozac. Laurie, as fellow airline passenger, gets to share a scene with Jennifer Aniston, that most expressive of comedy actresses. The contrast is painful. Oh well, the studio audience seem to find him funny enough.

The fact is that English and American sitcoms are like Rangers and Celtic supporters who find themselves in the same pub - they don't mix and shouldn't be encouraged to. Remember that embarrassing Roseanne episode when Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley guest starred? (admittedly Roseanne was fast disappearing up its own fundament at the time). And John Cleese may have made one of the greatest British sitcoms of all time, but that is no excuse for him to keep clogging up great American sitcoms like Cheers and Third Rock from the Sun with his guest appearances.

Friends is loathed by a certain sort of critic. The characters are too bouncy, too huggy, too American. I'm a fan; it passes the only criterion that I have for comedy: it's funny. And the characters have the sort of comic timing which most British comedy actors only possess in their dreams. The bits in the London episode when the Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica and Phoebe are doing their shtick are excellent. But let's get it back to New York. Ross, for goodness sake, don't say "I do".

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