Rude Brits abroad: Making waves in American reality TV

Memo to Britain's image-makers: we have a problem in the United States. If Americans are to conjure their perceptions of us from how we behave on the screen, big or small ­ and, after all, it is from Hollywood that we draw our abiding impressions of Uncle Sam ­ then they can only reach one conclusion. We can be suave and charming, for sure, but more often we are scheming, boorish and rude.

This is hardly a new insight. Scholars of film will have no trouble tracing our tradition of delighting audiences on both sides of the Atlantic with bravado characterisations of deepest devilry. Think Donald Pleasance as Ernst Stavro Blofeld in You Only Live Twice or Christopher Lee in almost any film he starred in.

Who could have played Hannibal Lecter with more cold style than Anthony Hopkins?

No British actors worth their salt have resisted the call to play the villain at least once in their careers, whether it be Hugh Grant being merely caddish in his treatment of young Bridget Jones or Gary Oldman plumbing the depths of criminal intent in films ranging from Air Force One (Russian terrorist) to The Firm (football hooligan). James Mason was able to make a single syllable drip with evil intent.

It is a tradition, moreover, which shows no sign of dying. Alfred Molina did a perfect turn as the bad guy in the last Spider-Man movie and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers took caddish behaviour as far as murder in Woody Allen's recent film Match Point. Thank goodness for television, where Americans are still fond of Patricia Routledge playing Hyacinth Bucket, who is a fearful pest but more or less well meaning.

But wait. It is on television where the nasty-Brit routine is taking on a whole new life. Well meaning would be a stretch when describing the roles recently taken on by Brits in a raft of reality shows and talent contests now generating huge audiences on American television.

The very success of these programmes rests on the willingness of their imported hosts to be crosser and surlier than a matron at St Trinians. For a sampling, take a look at Simon Cowell lacerating contestants on American Idol and Piers Morgan doing much the same on a rip-off version of the same concept called America's Got Talent.

More than anyone, it is Mr Cowell who should take credit for creating the new niche of Brits-as-tyrants in the American front room. He is so much the bad boy of the small screen here that he has entered the lexicon of popular culture ­ showing up on an episode of The Simpsons, getting spoofed in the third instalment of the comic horror series Scary Movie, and even getting an animated makeover in Shrek 2.

The former music business talent-spotter has made as much of an impression on American Idol as he did on its British predecessor, Pop Idol, with his reliably caustic, ego-shredding remarks and his signature catchphrase, " I don't mean to be rude, but ..." It's not just contestants who feel the venom of his tongue: he also plays the bad guy to his co-hosts, Paul Abdul and Randy Jackson. From the first US season, in 2002, he has been known as "that nasty guy Simon", and he revels in his villain's role.

The Cowell schtick has worked a treat. American Idol is the single most popular show on US television ­ and he is now co-hosting a spin-off, called American Inventor. It has also made Cowell rich: he signed some of the early winners to his own label, S Records, which he then sold to BMG for $42m (£22m) in 2003. His success explains why the hunger of Hollywood's television producers for sharp-tongued British hosts has apparently still not been sated.

The most recent entrant to the genre is Piers Morgan, the former Daily Mirror editor who resigned in disgrace after he published doctored photos of British troops supposedly being brutal to prisoners in Iraq. On America's Got Talent, Morgan has re-invented himself as a sort of Simon Cowell clone, with his co-hosts, Brandy and David Hasselhoff, playing good cop to his bad.

The official term for Morgan's behaviour is "lethally honest". Certainly, his wide-boy image and long experience at the most cut-throat end of the tabloid newspaper business (he got his feet wet under the notorious Kelvin MacKenzie at The Sun) give him plentiful credentials for the part. In the first series, which just finished airing, Morgan got to consider an 11-year-old yodeller, a rapping granny and an Irish family step-dancing act. Audience figures were strong enough for NBC to order up a second season for next year.

"I'm not there to make a child cry but if a parent is happy to put their kids on stage to win a million dollars, they know what might be coming their way," Morgan said last week. He added that the notion of the mean, sarcastic Brit on American TV was now so widely accepted that most Americans have come to relish it. "We don't always mean it in a brutal way. We just think it is funny. But I think that Americans have learnt that as long as it is tempered with honest critique it is acceptable."

"The British stereotype is of someone who is very cultured and polite," notes Robert Thompson, the director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television. "These people are the reverse of that, and part of the reason being obnoxious works is because it goes against expectations."

Scaling even greater heights of boorishness is the British celebrity chef and restaurateur Gordon Ramsay, who has scored his own hit on Fox TV with Hell's Kitchen. Twelve contestants competing for the right to own their own "million-dollar" restaurant must get used to Ramsay's tongue-lashings, his bizarre punishments (ordering the losing team on any given episode to clean up the dining room, say, or do the winning team's laundry) and his disdain for anything and everything, starting with vegetarians.

Ramsay, a short-tempered perfectionist, recently told one contestant his dish looked like "dehydrated camel's turd". Nor is he especially tender with his diners. When one asked him for more pumpkin in an episode this year, he replied: "Well, I'll get you more pumpkin and I'll ram it right up your fucking arse. Would you like it whole or diced?" In the United States, it has been suggested that Ramsay is "the devil himself". He's just finished his second season on Fox and has been signed up for a third.

Another straight-from-Britain import, Jo Frost carries a little more gravitas (and attracts considerably more critical acclaim) than her compatriots for her Mary Poppins turn on the US version of Supernanny. Just as in Britain, Frost shows up in households struggling to cope with the burdens of child-rearing, teaches them a stern lesson or two, then checks back on them to make sure they have followed through on her no-nonsense advice. If she has no compunction scolding tearaway children who think bedlam in the kitchen is a normal state of living, she is equally willing to dish the criticism to the lily-livered parents who apparently could not find discipline in the dictionary if you opened the page at "d".

After Frost became a hit in the UK, she triggered a bidding war between two US networks, ABC and Fox, for the right to bring her to the other side of the pond. ABC eventually won, and started airing her show at the beginning of last year. (Fox, meanwhile, put together a hasty rival show called Nanny 911, which is less successful.) Frost has attracted critical attention ­ in Newsweek and The New Yorker, for example ­ as well as an audience of more than 11 million viewers each week who seem to respond to her tough-love style and her catchphraise ­ "Your behaviour is very naughty!" Her ABC profile describes her as "equal parts fairy godmother and drill sergeant", and her viewers seem to be lapping it up.

Americans who want even more of these Brits being mean can turn to So You Think You Can Dance, where Nigel Lythgoe does a nice job popping the egos of dancers who can't.

With all of this on the airwaves, you might think it is time for the pendulum to swing and for it to become fashionable for Brits to be sweet and compliant without the barest hint of sarcasm. But that would be to buck Hollywood tradition. We are nasty over here and that's how the Americans like it.

Causing offence

Simon Cowell

THE MAN: Privileged upbringing in Hertfordshire but was repeatedly expelled from school. Began as a clerk at EMI, where his dad was an executive, became a producer and found success with Westlife. A judge on ITV's Pop Idol before following the hit format to the US.

THE SHOW: American Idol. The ruthless pop talent contest hit the ground running on its 2002 debut and has had five seasons.

HE SAYS: "I don't mean to be rude, but..."

Gordon Ramsay

THE MAN: Glasgow-born, Stratford-upon-Avon raised, Ramsay turned to catering after a knee injury wrecked a career in football. Made his TV debut with Boiling Point two years later. US network Fox snapped up the Ramsay vehicle Hell's Kitchen last year.

THE SHOW: Hell's Kitchen. Wannabe chefs fight to avoid elimination, and Ramsay's acid tongue.

HE SAYS: "I'll get you more pumpkin and I'll ram it right up your fucking arse. Would you like it whole or diced?"

Jo Frost

THE WOMAN: Frost, raised in London by her Gibraltarian mother and British father, has been a professional nanny since attending college. First seen on TV in the UK with Supernanny, where Frost's no-nonsense approach to child-rearing rescued out-of-control kids, and their parents. Despite a frosty exterior, she often shows genuine emotion.

THE SHOW: Supernanny. A popular and critical success, it follows the same format as its UK predecessor, following Frost as she teaches parents how to discipline their wayward offspring.

SHE SAYS: "Your behaviour is very naughty!"

Piers Morgan

THE MAN: Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan, born to wealthy parents in an East Sussex village. Later a showbiz columnist for The Sun under Kelvin MacKenzie. By 28 he was editor of the News of the World and gained notoriety for his invasive style and lack of scruples. He was fired as Mirror editor in 2004 before embarking on a television career.

THE SHOW: America's Got Talent. Old-fashioned talent show open to anyone of any age claiming to have talent in any field and gunning for a $1m prize. Second season due next year.

HE SAYS: "Did you get off at the wrong bus stop?"