One hundred years ago this week, the company that would become known as the British Broadcasting Corporation was founded in London. Transmitting news and entertainment across radio and television, the BBC would go on to have a far-reaching impact on not only the United Kingdom, but also audiences worldwide. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is celebrating one of the BBC’s chief exports to the United States: British TV. From Masterpiece Theatre to Love Island, join us as we look back on some of the iconic shows that have crossed the pond in the past century.
In an interview with The Watch last month, Andor creator and writer Tony Gilroy praised the Star Wars series’ casting department for its diligence in auditioning actors for the nearly 200 speaking parts in the show’s 12-episode first season. Many of the actors who play those parts possess pronounced British accents—or Coruscanti accents, as a certain sort of English accent is classified inside the Star Wars universe. That isn’t a coincidence: Andor is the first Disney+ Star Wars series filmed in England, a frequent site of Star Wars film production. As such, it features a deep bench of U.K. acting talent—which, as the producers of Andor have discovered, is not an inexhaustible resource. “We’re starting to try to do another 12,” Gilroy said, referring to the second season. “And it’s like … ‘Are there any actors left?’”
Running out of actors isn’t an entirely unrealistic concern, especially if Gilroy prefers to reserve some roles for unknowns. One of Andor’s quirks—and delights—is a strong supporting cast filled with familiar faces from other American shows shot in the U.K., or U.K. productions or international co-productions that have also aired in the States. Both the Rebel ranks and the Imperial bureaucracy feature Game of Thrones alums who hail from the U.K. (most notably Anton Lesser, Faye Marsay, and Wilf Scolding). They’re just a few of the actors American audiences might recognize from one or more TV projects filmed or produced in the U.K. or as joint U.S.-U.K. efforts and promoted on both sides of the Atlantic. The call sheet also includes Fiona Shaw from Killing Eve, Alex Lawther from The End of the F***ing World, Alastair Mackenzie from Wolf Hall, Genevieve O’Reilly from The Honorable Woman, Alex Ferns from Chernobyl, Elizabeth Dulau from The Outlaws and Gentleman Jack, and Sule Rimi from The English.
In that sense, the U.K.-centric Andor—although it technically doesn’t belong under the umbrella of “British TV”—is emblematic of a phenomenon that British TV audiences, both in the home nations and abroad, might recognize: a surfeit of overlapping actors. If you seem to see the same actors over and over in British TV shows, you’re not the only one with that impression—and a comparison of actor recycling rates in American and British series suggests you’re not wrong, either. There’s truth to the perception that the Brits reuse actors more often.
how is it allowed that the british just recycle the same 10 actors in every film and tv series possible— local hater (@loosekalli) February 15, 2021
Actors playing parts in multiple high-profile productions isn’t a practice specific to the U.K., of course, but it’s especially noticeable in British TV. It’s not just that you’re bound to see someone with a credit on Thrones, Downton Abbey, or Doctor Who—or now, perhaps, Andor—popping up in other projects. Every British TV star, it seems, has joined forces in Broadchurch or soaked up sun in Death in Paradise. Actors who play a DC, DS, or DI one day reappear as a villain or victim the next. (“It seems most ubiquitous in mysteries,” Ben’s BritBox-loving father-in-law opines about the repeat appearances.) Actors hop into and out of period dress. And the audience is there to DiCaprio-point at the screen, pull up IMDb, and try to place where they’ve seen so-and-so before.
I love British tv shows because they have like the same 15 actors in every show so it’s a game of guessing what other 10 shows you’ve seen them in, or better yet what other random person they played in that show as well— Golden Retriever (@lihillian) July 31, 2018
The Daily Mail lamented British TV’s tendency toward trotting out actors over and over in 2016, when Tom Hollander was simultaneously starring in ITV’s Doctor Thorne and BBC One’s The Night Manager on Sunday nights. The tabloid noted that this was a common occurrence, also citing James Norton’s work in War & Peace, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Grantchester, and Happy Valley; a pre-Downton Tuppence Middleton’s double duty in War & Peace and Dickensian; and Jessica Raine’s appearances in Partners in Crime, Jericho, Call the Midwife, and Wolf Hall, among many other then-recent examples.
British TV has a neat phenomena that I don't spot on American TV.— InaneDragon (@InaneDragon) March 22, 2021
Namely, recycling actors. I can go multiple shows on US TV without seeing the same actors. But, I've got actors in Death in Paradise who have also been in Father Brown & Midsomer Murders, over and over.
In 2020, Washington Post columnist John Kelly described the experience of frequently pausing British shows to look up all the actors whose features rang a bell, in a piece headlined, “Apparently, there are only 10 actors in England. I’ve seen them again and again.” A Twitter search of “same actors in British TV” will find dozens of examples of people making the same observation. (If there’s anything more prone to repetition than the casts of British TV shows, it’s the jokes on Twitter.)
Have binged a TON of British TV for research over the past two weeks, I can now say with absolute authority that there are precisely ten actors in all of the United Kingdom. The same people are in every show. And Olivia Colman is half of them.— Jonathan Spector (@spectorjon) December 8, 2020
Every veteran viewer of British TV can probably summon an example of an actor or series that illustrates this trait. One recent standout in the overlapping-actor realm was Vigil, a submarine thriller/murder mystery that aired on BBC last August and some months later crossed the pond via Peacock and the USA Network. Almost every recurring character in Vigil was played by someone previously seen in some other well-known show made in the U.K. Suranne Jones from Gentleman Jack. Martin Compston from Line of Duty. Rose Leslie, Stephen Dillane, and Daniel Portman from Game of Thrones. Shaun Evans from Endeavour. Paterson Joseph from Peep Show. Gary Lewis from Outlander. Adam James from Belgravia and I May Destroy You. Connor Swindells from Sex Education. Anjli Mohindra from Bodyguard. It was like a little reunion of actors who’d entertained spectators during past quality TV time. Now, though, they were all on a submarine, or trying to track one down.
i miss watching british tv.....seeing literally the same five actors in everything... a truly cozy feeling— doctor doom updates account (derogatory) (@foeyeahboi) January 27, 2019
IMDb doesn’t make it easy to analyze shows by country of origin, but it does publish lists of the most popular U.S. and U.K. TV shows. If we take the top 500 entries from each ranking and filter out projects that appear on both—Thrones, for one, places toward the top of both lists—we get decent samples of the most prominent U.S. and U.K. small-screen releases. What we find is that for any number of the top-listed actors in a given project, British shows have a higher rate of those actors having earned the same billing in another qualifying project. For instance, 13.7 percent of actors listed as the top cast member in one of the most popular American shows also appeared as the top cast member in another of the most popular American shows. Among the British shows, though, the overlap rate was 21.9 percent—roughly 60 percent higher. Expand the criteria to the top eight listed actors, and the respective rates are 18.9 percent and 30.2 percent—again, about 60 percent higher.
The difference is especially striking among the most prolific leads. No actor has received a top-four billing in more than three of the most popular U.S. shows, but five actors (Keeley Hawes, Nicola Walker, Rowan Atkinson, James Nesbitt, and Sean Bean) have appeared in the top four of more than three of the top U.K. shows. If we lower the top-four-billing bar to at least three shows instead of more than three shows, 11 actors clear it in the US.. sample, compared to 25 for the U.K. group. Walker, who has starred in five series that have aired since 2020—Last Tango in Halifax, Unforgotten, The Split, Annika, and Marriage (the last of those with Bean)—is perhaps the present poster child for British actor overlap. In each of the past three years, three of those five shows were going concerns concurrently. Walker’s near-overlapping parts in two mysteries, two domestic dramas, and a comedic soap opera has not gone unnoticed online.
Every episode of UK cop shows, I have https://t.co/fUF2u6cc3a open so we can immediately find out what else we've seen actors in. So many have been in Downton, of course, but amazing how many things we've seen with them. Is Nicola Walker in half of them?— Nick Martin (@NickMartin14) January 28, 2019
We’ve established that there’s truth behind the belief about the incestuousness of British TV casting. The next question is why actors overlap more often on British TV. One reason must be that there are simply fewer U.K. actors to go around. (Hence Gilroy’s tongue-in-cheek comment about having auditioned them all.) The U.S. population is almost five times larger than the U.K.’s, as is the combined membership of American stage and screen unions SAG-AFTRA and AEA relative to the U.K.’s Equity. There’s an even greater disparity in the geographic size of the two regions. U.K. actors are less numerous and less spread out, so it figures that the same ones would show up more often—especially considering fewer actors and audience members means fewer networks, series creators, talent agencies, casting companies, and so on. British casts also tend to be less diverse, which has recently led the BBC to impose “inclusion riders” and make (likely insufficient) investments in “diverse and inclusive content.”
I love watching quality British TV because it’s the same fifteen actors in everything but they’re all incredible— Tania Fordwalker (@TaniaWalker) February 23, 2020
There’s another variable that contributes to British TV actor overlap: short seasons (or “series,” in U.K. TV terminology). For various reasons—smaller creative teams, smaller budgets (because shows are publicly funded or supported by ad revenue that’s proportionate to the size of the audience), shorter filming seasons for shows shot on location, longer individual episodes—scripted seasons of British TV, soaps aside, tend to be much more economical than their American counterparts. As the Simpsons joke about fictional British sitcom Do Shut Up goes, “Not hard to see why it’s England’s longest-running series. And today we’re showing all seven episodes.” (Speaking of recycling, The Good Place made essentially the same joke, imagining a British show called Deirdre and Margaret that “ran for nearly 16 years on the BBC” and “did nearly 30 episodes.”)
Is there only like 12 British actors? Why’re you all in the same goddamn tv show together for like the third time— Evil Finn ️⚧️ (@hyenawithgun) May 8, 2020
In the IMDb-derived samples of U.S. and U.K. TV we used, the median U.S. series featured almost twice as many episodes per season as the median U.K. series (12.2 vs. 6.7), and also ran for one additional season (four instead of three). In recent years, this gap has closed as American TV seasons have shrunk to suit the streaming era: In 2005, the median length of the most popular U.S. TV seasons was close to 21 episodes; this year, it’s a bit above eight, just two more than the U.K.’s standard six.
The great thing about being a fan of British TV is that because there are only about a dozen British TV actors and each show only has a handful of seasons, you get to see the same actors in all your favourite shows!— Ashleigh Bogart (@ash_a_leigh) August 28, 2021
As the British and American models have converged, the latter has borrowed a few pages from the former’s playbook: less filler, a reduced emphasis on syndication, and greater focus on finely crafted storytelling; more variety, the better to attract a wider cross-section of subscribers; and more flexibility to accommodate recognizable actors’ schedules. That last factor is key to certain U.K. actors’ omnipresence; someone like Walker wouldn’t be able to star or co-star in so many series at the same time if each one ran for more episodes and required a more demanding production schedule.
Rampant actor overlap isn’t unique to British TV; it’s largely a function of the size of the market, so it’s not uncommon to see similar observations expressed about the TV produced by other countries that are less populous than the U.S., like Denmark or Canada. Even so, the difference can be striking for American audiences. Because U.S. viewers are exposed to a selective, skewed subset of British TV shows that’s less likely to include Coronation Street or EastEnders, they may even encounter a disproportionate number of repeats—which could increase further as British TV continues its takeover of U.S. screens and British TV makers take marketability to American viewers into account when casting.
I love how there are only like 15 actors in the UK so every show in the British TV Universe has to cast the same people.— prison mike (@MikeHornick) December 20, 2021
Like it's sick that the owner of AFC Richmond and Margaret Thatcher are both parents in Sex Ed.
Just as British TV’s actor-repetition rate allows some screen regulars to work steadily and show off their range while preventing some aspiring stars from breaking in, the pattern may please some viewers while exasperating others. Many may find it distracting. It’s one thing if, say, Ruth Wilson plays cold-hearted killers on both Luther (Alice Morgan) and His Dark Materials (Mrs. Coulter). It may be more difficult to accept, say, Gillian Anderson as a reclusive, jilted, would-be bride on Great Expectations, a Russian socialite on War & Peace, a detective superintendent pursuing a serial killer on The Fall, a warm-hearted mother and sex therapist on Sex Education, and Margaret Thatcher on The Crown. (Which is no knock against Anderson’s acting chops.) But what disrupts one viewer’s suspension of disbelief, or bothers them until they pause and second-screen IMDb, may provide a kind of cozy comfort and a sense of place for others. Seeing the same faces in new guises summons memories of old fictional friends.
I do love British TV, but the fact that it's always the same actors in it takes you out of things a little. I'm watching the BBC's new adaptation of Les Miserables and Filch from Harry Potter just showed up (aka Walter Frey from GoT)— Kristina (@krishart_) January 1, 2019
For better or worse, British actor repetition probably won’t subside soon. Just look at a list from last month of this autumn’s most-hyped U.K. TV dramas. Line of Duty alumni are mentioned five times. Raine and Hawes have new series, as do the 10th and 12th Doctors. Like The Royle Family, Toast of London, and The Missing before it, the forthcoming Funny Woman—a Sky adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel Funny Girl that premieres in the U.K. this month and will likely come to the U.S. thereafter—features six repeat players from other popular U.K. shows: Rupert Everett, Morwenna Banks, David Threlfall, Rosie Cavaliero, Leo Bill, and Alexa Davies. Gilroy may have been kidding about Andor’s actor shortage, but fans of his series will have to hope the Force is with the folks casting Season 2. The Star Wars galaxy is limitless, but the pool of British actors isn’t.