Why Can't All Brits Act Like Tim Roth In America?

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Brits abroad: they’re the worst. Especially when they’re cast in US TV shows as Americans. Hugh Laurie is our most famous embarrassing accent export, but Eddie Izzard, Minnie Driver and, most horrifically, Michelle Ryan, have all had a go. So it’s ironic that one of the very few British actors who has proved he’s capable of making us believe he’s a Yank (see Reservoir Dogs) has kept with his natural voice for his first big TV role. Of course, we’re talking Tim Roth in Lie To Me (Thursdays, 9pm on Sky1).

Roth plays Cal Lightman, a cocky cockney body language expert who specialises in reading facial “micro-expressions”. From these, he can tell what people really think and feel and, most usefully, whether they’re lying. Lightman runs a consultancy that helps dig out the truth for clients including the FBI and suspicious spouses wanting to know if their beloved is cheating. He’s dangerously driven and fizzing with a hoodlum barrow-boy energy that can make him seem mildly deranged.

At first, Roth’s truth-man appears to be an over-acted mess. He pumps the same intensity into a benign conversation about, say, whose turn it is to put the rubbish out as he does to fishing facts from a suspected serial killer. But the more you watch the human polygraph at work, the less his indiscriminatingly frantic style grates. Eventually, it’s the reason to love Lie To Me.

Lightman is a huge muddle. His marriage has ended, he can’t connect with his emotions and he’s troubled by his past (parts of which have been revealed in recent episodes). Plus he’s on the verge of going bankrupt most of the time. It’s only his sensible teenage daughter and level headed psychologist partner who keep him from abandoning all traits associated with reasonable human behaviour. But these are mandatory flaws and crutches for a person who can only breath when throwing himself at a case.

When he’s trying to tease information from suspects, Lightman will slump into a chair at minimum 45 degrees (sometimes he’s practically lying down) and start goading. Or he’ll stick his chest out and sidle up to his target like a grease ball trying to get laid. It’s a technique designed to confuse and disarm. And it nearly always works.

Like all Fox’s maverick, petulant supermen – Jack Bauer, Gregory House, Dexter Morgan – Lightman can’t be tamed. Though he opens up to a select few weary minions, it’s very much his word that’s final and his genius that gets results. There’s no place for democracy when bad guys run free. Oh no.

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