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Guy Adams: Great Britons? Or just superheroes


If you fancy a good laugh this morning, visit the website of any American news outlet and locate the “comments” section beneath coverage of last week’s announcement that Britain’s Henry Cavill, the Will Carling lookalike from The Tudors, has been hired to wear red underpants and blue tights in the latest reimagining of Superman.

The news means that we can now claim a “grand slam” of US superhero roles, with Wales-born Christian Bale as the current Batman, and young Andrew Garfield, who was brought up in Surrey, making his debut as Spider-Man. And here in the World’s Most Powerful Nation, the locals do not seem to like this development one little bit.

At Deadline Hollywood, a blog whose announcement of the casting was linked to by the right-wing Drudge Report, the outrage is palpable. Conspiracy-minded readers of a Tea Party persuasion have unloaded a torrent of vaguely xenophobic reactions. Many blame President Obama for their national embarrassment, arguing (and here I paraphrase only slightly) that his socialistic administration has somehow destroyed the Supermanly ideals of truth, justice and the American Way.

“Another Brit taking a job from an American actor. Great. I will not see this film,” remarks one contributor. “How are foreign actors able to just come over and work in the US?” wonders another. “It is no different than companies shipping American jobs to India...” And so on.

Endless theories are being trotted out to explain the dearth of US superheroes and their replacement with square-jawed Brits. Some link it to the decline of an empire, saying it reflects a crisis of national confidence spawned by the mismanaged “War on Terror” and subsequent recession. Others say British actors are simply better at their job, and more likely to be classically trained.

Not many of these arguments stand up to scrutiny, though. If film studios really did bring geopolitics into casting decisions, then Brits – children of the original collapsed empire – would hardly be the ones to benefit. And if they prefer classically trained actors, Christian Bale, who is self-taught, wouldn’t be on many shortlists.

My suspicion, for what it’s worth, is that Cavill (an alumnus of Stowe in Buckinghamshire) and his posh chums are instead the unwitting beneficiaries of an exciting development: the rising commercial stock, on the US market, of a crisp English accent. As a Brit in America, I am delighted to report that when I open my mouth, locals quite wrongly assume me to be cultured, intelligent and vaguely trustworthy.

These are, of course, classic character traits of the superhero. Which in turn illustrates a wider truth: an accent is only ever really useful outside the place or region in which it is commonplace. At home, sounding local makes you blend in. Elsewhere, it helps you stand out from the crowd. Historically, Britain’s ruling class has exploited this fact by using Received Pronunciation – which prevents “one” from ever seeming “local”.

Last week, a study from Lancaster University found that the cockney dialect will be extinct from the East End in a generation. So enterprising Londoners are clearly following the same rule. Within the sound of Bow Bells, the accent is a social handicap. Only in the Home Counties, where “mockney” has been adopted by posh kids, is it considered an asset.

There is nothing particularly new about this: when I was a teenager, kids tended to affect a Mancunian drawl, so as to sound like Oasis, the coolest public figures of the 1990s. Little did we realise that the RP spouted by our disapproving schoolmasters would in future become the globally accepted language of the superhero.

Hooray for a Superbowl without cheerleaders

Last night’s Superbowl between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers was unique in modern history: for the first time since 1968, it featured two teams who are among the small number of NFL organisations that do not employ cheerleaders. I’m unable to report how this affected proceedings, since the nation’s most-watched sporting event finished long after this newspaper went to print. But it’s hard to see how the occasion might have suffered.

A cheerleader’s role, literally, is to “lead” the cheering. They therefore contribute to perhaps the worst element of a contemporary sports fan’s existence: stadiums where PA systems and vast electronic scoreboards are used like a sort of cattle prod, instructing punters to “make some noise” every time the crowd volume drops.

The Packers and Steelers are, incidentally, rare beasts in US sport, in that they are not controlled by right-wing billionaires. The Steelers are instead the property of Dan Rooney, a leftish chum of Barack Obama. The Packers are a “non-profit” organisation, set up to benefit the citizens of Green Bay in Wisconsin. Could their indifference to cheerleaders stem from enlightened owners, who believe that grown-up fans can decide for themselves when to be excited?

The writing is on the wall for the bookstore

It seems increasingly likely that we are living through the final days of the bookstore. The American chain Borders is flirting with bankruptcy and revealed last week that it is unable to pay its suppliers. Borders’ chief rival Barnes & Noble is also in financial doo-doo. In Britain, Waterstones just announced the closure of 11 outlets, while the UK offshoot of Borders went under two years ago. The rise of Amazon, the monolithic internet retailer, is largely to blame.

The fashionable reaction to this news might be to stroke one’s chin and lament their decline. Bookstores are valuable institutions. They provide an oasis of thoughtfulness in the intelligence desert that is the modern high street. In the online era, they might be commercially outmoded, but to the bookish among us, they also provide a public service.

Yet history may judge these firms somewhat differently. It wasn’t so very long ago that every town had its local bookstore. Then chains such as Borders, Waterstones and their ilk came along and began systematically driving smaller rivals out of business. Now the wheel has come full circle, they are the ones being pushed around by a playground bully. You might call it justice.