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Oct 01, 2013
Hollywood-on-the-Thames: LA's New Brit-Pack Invasion - Los Angeles Confidential

“I was intimidated by LA,” admits Guy Salisbury in his North London accent, downing a Pimm’s Cup, the classic English summer cocktail that tastes like boozy ginger ale, as we stand in the airy lobby of Palihouse West Hollywood, a boutique hotel favored by British media types. An expat Brit who for the past decade has made his fortune in local real estate, Salisbury pauses to stare at the stuffed pheasant above the bar. “But then I said to hell with it. Best move I ever made.”


Perhaps he’d have felt less intimidated had he realized what an English colony LA has become. There are some 200,000 Brits who call LA home, but judging from the city’s ubiquitous Tudor houses, Jags, Rolls-Royces, and English Academy Award winners (20 percent of the statuettes—themselves designed by a British Isles native—have been claimed by the English), they’ve made a splash disproportionate to their numbers.

But then again, as LA’s geographic names imply, the Brits figure deeply in the city’s creation; Belfast-born William Mulholland turned on the collective faucets for what was then a desert shire; Lancashire native John Parkinson built the city’s most glamorous buildings (think Union Station, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, USC’s campus), sometimes atop land owned by fellow countryman Griffith J. Griffith; Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin pioneered the city’s dominant industry; and yes, even naturalized British citizen Raymond Chandler penned the characters whose noirish patois became LA’s signature voice. Maybe it wouldn’t be inappropriate to say that the rest of us live in one of Britain’s more remote British colonies, being serviced by 30-some daily flights between LA and the motherland.

And they keep coming. A relatively recent arrival like David Beckham is now our international sports ambassador. Russell Brand is our new king of comedy. Peter Rice, who last year became chairman and CEO of Fox Networks Group, is arguably the most important guy in town if you have an edgy TV idea. And even the Ecclestone sisters with their billion-pound trust fund and over-the-top LA real estate plays (at 22, Petra bought the $85 million Spelling mansion to remodel, while big sister Tamara is shopping for something similar) make the Kardashians and Hiltons look like amateurs when it comes to stirring up publicity through flashy behavior—one area in which the Brits once considered us to be unbeatable.

“Why do the English continue coming?” asks Bob Peirce, former British Consul General and cofounder of BritWeek, which started six years ago as a modest celebration of cross-Atlantic connections and has since ballooned into a two-week British love fest, whose LA program attracted more than 140,000 people this year. “It’s not the weather. We have plenty of English-friendly places for that, like South Africa. I think it’s because LA is a unique place where British talent has always taken hold.”

At first that talent took hold in the burgeoning movie industry, where English accents and talents dominated. Then in the ’60s, the Beatles became the musical vanguard for every megastar Brit crooner up to Adele. “But recently I’ve noticed that the new wave has been in television,” notes Peirce. “So many English formats or shows that originated in Britain have caught on over here [Dancing with the Stars, House of Cards, and The Office, to name a few] that suddenly there’s a surge of demand for British artistic and production talent.”

One such talent is Susannah Orchard, a BBC TV journalist who moved here in January. “America is better at plucking and supporting diamonds from the rough with less interest in family wealth and social status,” says Orchard, who is currently freelancing for Sky.

“I instantly took to LA,” recalls TV actor Craig Young, who parlayed a stint in British television into appearances on shows like Hawaii Five-O, NCIS: Los Angeles, and Fringe. Young, along with his business partner and fellow Brit Eileen Lee, have become the deans of the Southland’s younger English set as managing partners of Brits In LA, an organization boasting some 5,5000 members that hosts weekly pub lunches, breakfasts, and special events. During a Brits In LA party at Palihouse West Hollywood in July, one could scan faces from Game of Thrones and The Borgias who instead of doing the usual televised dismemberment and rape routine, were pouring tea and helping themselves to crustless cucumber sandwiches.

Suddenly two guys sporting T-shirts and kilts and playing a bagpipe and snare drums far jazzier than anything heard at The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo break the gentle chatter. “That’s Steve Sidelnyk,” whispers Young, nodding toward the guy rocking the snare. “He’s been Madonna’s lead drummer for years.”

Matt Goss is another English musician making noise in LA. In the ’80s and ’90s he and his twin brother, Luke, were part of Bros, a hysteria-provoking boy pop band in the UK—a sort of Justin Bieber times two. Since late 2009 he’s been recording in LA and headlining in places like Caesars Palace while working on a new album coming out later this year (his boxer-trained physique also helped land him in these pages as one of “LA’s Most Eligible Bachelors”).

“I’m very proud to be British,” says Goss. “And I miss England’s culture, the seasons, and the camaraderie. But the British are always apologizing all the time. Especially if they’ve done well. Here, success is a very good word.” Indeed, escaping the English class system, where accents, genealogy, and “knowing one’s place” are still as deeply embedded as clotted cream on a hot scone, is often mentioned by Brits as being one of LA’s big lures.

“Last time I went for a job interview in England, they asked me what my father did,” remembers Sandro Monetti, who penned a satire called Miserable Lesbians: The Parody Musical, which did well locally and in New York before moving to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. “Here you get by on merit. It takes talent and not family connections to be able to rhyme something with cunnilingus.”

Not that it’s all sugar and spice over here. There’s always been an element of love/hate in the Brits’ relationship with LA. The perpetual comment by passersby: “I love your accent!” seems to cause many a stiff upper lip to stiffen even further, as does the fake familiarity in America that feels so contrary to England’s formality. “It’s easy to find a stranger to talk friendly to you if they think you can do something for them,” notes one TV personality. “But it’s much harder finding a friend. Over here it’s hard deciphering people’s intentions.”

It’s an old complaint. In 1947 Evelyn Waugh found himself floundering in highly lucrative development hell while turning his novel Brideshead Revisited into a script for MGM. He became so intrigued by LA’s perceived vulgarity and mercenary friendships that he penned the darkly comic novel The Loved One, which has become a virtual catalog of all the things Brits hate about LA. And this being LA, it was promptly turned into the cult MGM movie with a cast including Liberace.

“They are a very decent, generous lot of people out here, and they don’t expect you to listen,” wrote Waugh. “It’s the secret of social ease in this country. They talk entirely for their own pleasure. Nothing they say is designed to be heard.” Which is probably why the Brits have been so adept at sticking together in LA pubs and playing fields, where talk is cheap and sports and drinking are dear.

Head up to the 12th and 13th floors above Luckman Plaza in West Hollywood and you enter the hushed, olive-tree-shaded auspices of Soho House. The exclusive club, where Kate Moss comes to discreetly slum it with her Yankee brethren, was started in London and has now become one of the most sought-after memberships in the city (two introductions and the ability to pay the $1,800 annual local house membership fee will get you a hearing by the 20-person committee).

More gregarious scenes occur in the pubs dotting Santa Monica, which has become a popular British ghetto thanks to its proximity to a beach (“far warmer than the ‘character-building’ temperature of the North Atlantic” a transplant tells me). In Santa Monica you’re never more than a quick stroll away from an “imperial” pint (the first thing Brits learn in LA is that our pints are smaller, hence the distinction) of Boddingtons or a bag of salt and vinegar “crisps.” Head into Ye Olde King’s Head pub on many a Saturday and you’ll be crowded by very enthusiastic Brits downing brown ale with fresh meat pies from the pub’s adjoining bakery while watching Premier League football on the multiple tellies. The big variance between this scene and the ones being repeated in thousands of pubs across Britain is that it’s still early morning here; they’re watching the games live with an eight-hour time difference.

Sports are sacrosanct to the Brits. “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” the Duke of Wellington supposedly declared about his one-nil score over Napoleon. And the battle wages on in California.

““F@$% cheap, f@$%* shot, let ’em get off on it!” yells one very intimidating shaved head from the sidelines of West LA College’s green and pleasant football field as the yellow-jerseyed, British-dominated Hollywood United football team faces off against… well, the world. Despite the loud and often profane passions from the sidelines, it’s an amateur team. If the shaved head and Cockney accent seem familiar, it’s because they belong to Vinnie Jones, who gave up a career as a professional soccer player in the UK to play the classic British “hard man” in movies such as Snatch, Swordfish, and Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels. A more heavyset man with a scruffy beard and an equally menacing mien stands next to him. It’s Steve Jones, ex–Sex Pistols guitarist and the team’s co-owner, who’ll often join in the game with an aggressive elbow or two. But off-field Jones is beloved to Southland radio listeners as the DJ for the anything-goes KROQ rock show “Jonesy’s Jukebox.”

Even more violence, though accompanied by a posher soundtrack, occurs across the Santa Monica mountains as a group of some 70 men and women, many of whom are tweeded from cap to knee breeches, climbs into waiting Range Rovers and heads for the hills above the disbelieving stares of the baseball cap and beer crowd of the Oak Tree Gun Club. It’s the biannual meeting of La Reina de Los Angeles Shooting Club, a slightly tongue-in-cheek group that is turning the chaparral-clad hills into LA’s version of Downton Abbey.

It’s an eclectic gathering that includes a distant heir to the British throne, various landed gentry, and folks who are amazingly skilled at shooting clay pigeons, and, one would imagine, lots of other things. The Clint Eastwood of the bunch is Charles Peregrine Courtenay, who, back in Blighty, usually has the title “Lord” added to his name as the heir to the 18th Earl of Devon. But in LA’s legal circles, where he has been toiling the past decade as a topnotch intellectual property lawyer, he is simply referred to as “Charlie.” He’s sometimes invited to attend the group’s outings, and he patiently gives his wife, the American actress Allison Langer (whose credits include The Wonder Years, Private Practice, and My So-Called Life), tips on swinging a $100,000 handcrafted Holland & Holland shotgun once lent by the English gun maker for the occasion.

“I met a cute chick and decided to move here,” he says by way of explanation, and his, yes, very cute wife can shoot a double. “It was my second time in the US, and I met her in the Hard Rock Cafe in Vegas at midnight.” Having already passed the bar in the UK, it was relatively easy for him to qualify for legal work in the US. There’s even a British American Bar Association to help things along. “Lawyers are only looked at with slightly less regard here than in the UK,” he says with an arched brow. “The big difference is that everyone here has a lawyer, while in Britain it’s not as common.”

The group finishes blowing up clay pigeons and sits down to a Champagne lunch spread in the open as a live string quartet plays a soothing melody. “That was commissioned by Mozart by my great-great-great-grandfather,” one of the blue-blooded hosts suddenly exclaims. It’s hardly a more republican scene down at Cecconi’s on Melrose, where Brits In LA has its weekly breakfast—knitted baby slippers have been placed on some of the tables to celebrate the birth of the new little prince. The English accents are ubiquitous and varied. “We try to welcome everyone, not just Brits, but also people who like them,” says Craig Young wryly.

Over in one corner, a group of architects is quietly discussing a modernistic house one of them is designing in the Hollywood Hills, while at another table the intricacies of getting an American “O-1” visa are being drawn out. “They require a lot of work,” explains one of the old timers. “You sometimes have to have press clippings and lots of recommendations from known people in your industry if you want to work legally in the entertainment industry for a given period of time.” Getting a Green Card is even more demanding. “The process ensures it’s usually Brits with high determination and talent that end up in LA,” adds Salisbury.

But despite the extraordinary hassles of getting working papers, I can’t help but recall Lord Courtenay’s advice to his arriving countrymen: “Come with no expectations and you’ll be very pleasantly surprised. Despite its reputation for hedonism, LA’s a very nice place to raise a family. Work and play combine incredibly well here, and we’re exceptionally good at that.”

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