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Why Are All The Best Spies British?

Illustration for article titled Why Are All The Best Spies British?

Kingsman: The Secret Service comes out this week, the latest in a long line of spy fiction featuring British secret agents. And that brings to mind the question of why so many of our most famous fictional spies are British.

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When you're looking at a comprehensive list of the greatest fictional spies, it becomes apparent very quickly that a lot of the ones we can all name off the top of our heads are British. But why are British spies our favorite spies?

Spy fiction became really popular during the Cold War. Spying and espionage wasn't new to fiction, but the Cold War was a war of proxies and intelligence and paranoia, so spying infiltrated the public consciousness. And while, in reality, there were a lot of people and factors that ended the Cold War, fiction has it that British spies were constantly saving us all.

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Kingsman: The Secret Service presents us with yet another extremely British set of spies. Even beyond the accents, all the trappings instantly scream "British!" to us. Suits, umbrellas, an emphasis on manners... and spying. We love gentlemen spies — we love dressing up lying, stealing, and betrayal in debonair suaveness. And, Americans kind of assume that those qualities are British ones.

It's something that British media encourages, whether on purpose or not. The 60s TV show The Avengers, and its most famous pairing of John Steed and Emma Peel, are routinely described as representing the best parts of their country. Steed's bowler, tailored suits, and umbrella were iconic and old-fashioned. He drove vintage Bentleys and had a very traditional looking home. His full name? John Wickham Gascoyne Beresford Steed.

Mrs. Peel wore catsuits and miniskirts in variety of bright, color-blocked patterns. Her home was white and modern. Her car was a sporty Lotus Elan. She was smart, independent, and a really good fighter. Where Steed was the best of old Britain, she was the best of modern Britain. And they were spies. Britain and secret agents — inextricably tied together in media.

Would Bond be as famous if he weren't British? I actually can't tell. Bond's villains are hell-bent on world domination, not Britain domination. He could do all the same things if he weren't British. And yet, him being British is an essential part of his identity. He's the most famous spy in media, and he's British.

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There's something about British fictional spies. Something that makes them the best.

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DISCUSSION

MarkLayton
MarkLayton

It's not just spies, though. As a Brit, I can't help but notice the number of English villains in American films. We're often portrayed as the 'geeky one' too, either the competent - but socially awkward - science expert or the new kid at secondary, sorry, 'high' school.

Maybe it's a competency thing. Some belief we've spread that Brits are competent at certain 'elitist' roles, like spying, scientific research or world domination. All probably due to our happiness at promoting the merits of an Oxford/Cambridge education and the civility of a cup of Earl Grey.

We're also the home of Shakespeare and Shakespearean actors just scream gravitas.

But don't get me started on why every Englishman in an American film speaks the 'King's Own English' - give me a Yorkshire, Lancashire or Devonshire accent on the next Marvel supervillain and i'll be a happy Yorkshireman.