The British are coming – and they mean business

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Film and TV stars were out in force at a mansion in the Hancock Park district of Los Angeles last week to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the house becoming the official residence of the British consul general.

Dame Judi Dench and John Cleese were among the guests munching fish and chips with their champagne, as were the five finalists from American Idol, the singing competition that is currently the most watched programme on US television.

The party also marked the start of BritWeek, a series of concerts, film screenings and marketing events designed to promote awareness of both the cultural and the financial impact of Britain on Los Angeles and California.

While the aim of BritWeek is to showcase creative talent, the organisers also hope to change US attitudes about British business. “Very few people [in California] are aware of the level of British engagement here,” says Bob Peirce, the British consul general.

The brainchild of Nigel Lythgoe, the British-born producer of American Idol and the former head of entertainment at London Weekend Television, BritWeek is in fact a fortnight. It aims to showcase the best of British creative talent. Zandra Rhodes, the British designer, is putting on a fashion show at the Hancock Park mansion, while the Los Angeles wing of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts has created a new British comedy awards ceremony, which will be held in the city on Thursday night.

Duran Duran are playing a special concert at the Nokia Theatre in downtown Los Angeles and across town in Beverly Hills, British brands such as Asprey, Dunhill and Burberry, are hosting a “retail walk” that will take in some of the city’s most exclusive streets. Special screenings of Alfred Hitchcock films have been arranged, while BritWeek organisers are also planning to show films to mark David Lean’s 100th birthday.

Mr Lythgoe, once known by the UK press as “Nasty Nigel” for his biting put-downs during his stint as a judge on the British Pop Idol, the programme that preceded American Idol and The X-Factor, says he was struck by the creeping British influence on US TV schedules. “We sort of run [US TV] now ... all the top shows are UK formats or are run by Brits, from Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance to Survivor. We have changed the face of TV in this country, so I thought it was time to wave the flag.”

A board member of Bafta LA, Mr Lythgoe hascarved out a career in front of camera in the US as a judge on So You Think You Can Dance, a dancing show on the Fox network. “By having BritWeek it’s not like we’re coming over here and saying: ‘we’re the best.’ But no one likes the word failure in this town ... you have to ride the wave when you can. While we’re successful we should be proud of it.”

British influence is everywhere in Los Angeles, from the billboards featuring Gordon Ramsay’s scowling face on Sunset Boulevard – his programme, Hell’s Kitchen, has become one of the big hits of Fox’s spring schedule – to the British comfort food served at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills.

The hotel, a favourite haunt of visiting British actors, directors and producers, is hosting the Bafta LA comedy awards tomorrow night and has worked hard to build links with Britain. The hotel has a British sous chef and executive chef, while the food and beverage manager is also British.

“It’s not deliberate,” says Sarah Cairns, a hotel representative, who also happens to hail from Britain. “But because there are a few of us here it means we put a lot of effort into anything British. Also, the UK is our biggest market outside North America.”

Mr Peirce says BritWeek is “all about creating awareness of the British connection. Britain is the largest investor in California ... most FTSE 100 companies are present here and, increasingly, British companies are choosing to establish US headquarters in California, such as BT, BP and Tesco.”

He admits that people may question the value of pointing out British links to retailers on Rodeo Drive. But he says it is important “because it means we develop brand awareness and a sense of British businesses being important partners”.

One of his longer-term ambitions is to see Americans give more credit to Britain and Europe in terms of their stature as US trade partners. “I’m constantly struck by students here in California thinking that Asia is their economic future, and thinking of Europe only in historical terms, or as a tourist destination.

“We have to change that. We have to make them understand that Europe, led by Britain, is the biggest investor in the US and is its biggest market,” he says.

He would also encourage chief executives of other companies thinking of US expansion to consider California as their first stop. The state has a rapidly changing demographic mix – in the next 20 years more than 40 per cent of the population will be of Hispanic origin.

Californians have backed radical legislative measures to fight climate change while the state is also leading the way in energy-efficient clean technology research and investment.

“What’s happening here is what will happen to the rest of America in the future,” says Mr Peirce. “If I were a chief executive and I wanted to be relevant in the US in the next 20 years, I’d better be in California.”

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