Sunday, April 18, 2010 | Los Angeles Times
Members of the Sunday lunch crowd at the Palihouse in West Hollywood have been known to order dishes that don't appear on most local menus: "toad in the hole," "potted pork belly" and "sticky toffee pudding." Many of those same diners have been known to tuck their copies of the Guardian UK under an arm as they gather there to partake of the 6-month-old Sunday roast, sitting at long farmhouse tables and rubbing shoulders with other Brits who call Los Angeles home.
Or they meet up at the Brit breakfast club at hot spot Cecconi's or party at Soho House, the newly opened members-only social club in West Hollywood. And they may very well encounter one another at BritWeek LA, which in fact turns out to be about three weeks of events including programs that focus on design and fashion, an appearance by Jeff Beck and enough "salutes," "receptions" and "galas" to fill the social calendar of a mere mortal for a year.
It seems as though England is having a "moment" in Los Angeles. Hollywood especially seems to be awash in English accents, an asset in a town where native speech is typified by a certain laziness in inflection and use of the word "like."
"There is definitely an increase of Brits recently," says Oliver Trevena, an actor from East Sussex, England, and one of the hosts of Palihouse's Sunday roast who relocated to Los Angeles five years ago. "My accent is not as special anymore," he jokes, adding that his Hollywood United soccer team, which once counted four "token" Brits, is now dominated by his countrymen.
The British Consulate estimates that there are an estimated 200,000 Brits living in Los Angeles County (out of 10 million plus people), the majority in the Santa Monica area. Perhaps it just seems as if every fourth person we encounter greets newcomers with "Hello, luv." Nonetheless, the social and cultural landscape of Los Angeles is abounding with references to Britannia.
A community group called Brits in LA — whose members touch base via Facebook — has seen a dramatic increase in activity, with people attending events, such as a weekly Brit breakfast or volunteering for airport runs and posting listings for cars, jobs and restaurant recommendations. Members don't necessarily have to be British (although about 85% are). "You just have to like us," says Eileen Lee, a founding member of the group.
BritWeek LA, an annual event that aims to educate people about British culture and promote the contributions of L.A.'s British population, is perhaps the most prominent example of L.A.'s Brit moment.
Bob Pierce, a former consul general in Los Angeles, started BritWeek in Los Angeles four years ago with television producer Nigel Lythgoe (who's also a judge on "So You Think You Can Dance"). The events were popular enough that similar functions are being held in Orange County and San Francisco this year.
"We felt that with how many Brits there were in L.A. doing interesting and prominent things it was worth bringing all of that together," Pierce says.
Starting Saturday and running through May 7, the "week" includes an appearance by designer Zandra Rhodes at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, a gala dinner with Sir Richard Branson and an art show of British artists. Ye Olde King's Head Pub in Santa Monica will host events that include a darts tournament anda British karaoke night. Not surprisingly, Pierce extols the virtues of British food, especially British food in Los Angeles. A number of restaurants will include British food items on their menus and the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills is staging a "Royal Afternoon Tea."
If you're wondering why the British are coming (apart from seeking out our temperate climate), several transplants interviewed for this article cited a certain "can do" attitude as a key attraction.
Pierce says there are three factors that explain the allure of the City of Angels: "There is an innovative culture here that's not one of cynicism or inhibiting ideas, even crazy ideas. Another is the eclecticism of the place, and it's not just a one-industry thing.
"There is a very significant scientific community here and a lot of business innovation. I cannot think of another city, with the possible exception of London, that has this to offer in a fairly small radius.
"And third is the sense of optimism," he added. "Even when the headlines and economy are bad, somehow here people don't allow themselves to be completely crushed. And at the best of times there's tremendous optimism."
In the five years he's lived here, Pierce has witnessed a steady stream of people moving from England to Los Angeles.
"It's certainly becoming a trend, a huge trend, to move here," says Nikki Pennie, a fashion stylist who moved from London to Los Angeles a year ago and now styles celebrities for red-carpet appearances. "More and more of my friends who are in their midtwenties to mid-thirties want to move out here from London. Especially if they're not attached, and career-driven, then there are definitely a lot of career opportunities here. Four to five years ago, people would have naturally moved to New York. Now they're coming here."
It's not easy. "Coming here" requires an 0-1 visa to be able to work in a specific field over a period of several months to several years, and obtaining it can be a trying and tedious process. "If someone is coming to L.A. to work in the arts or entertainment, you have to be really, really special," says Encinobased immigration lawyer Bernard Sidman, whose British clients make up about half of his business. "The bar has really been [raised]."
"You must really be at the top of your game and have the press to prove it," says Catherine Lyn Scott, an entertainment publicist whose L.A.-based agency represents only British actors and actresses. "Some TV shows will not even accept an 0-1 visa [from an actor], in case it expires while filming. They require a green card."
Pennie's process to obtain a work visa was lengthy. Among other things, she had to collect more than 50 letters of recommendation from fashion stylists and editors in the U.K. to finalize her documentation. That level of determination appeals to the expats.
The Brits "who come here are so different," says Darren Darnborough, an actor and another founding member of Brits in LA. "It's like, 'Hats off to you. I respect whatever you did to get here. I respect you because it's hard.' "
Adds Zen Freeman, a DJ and cohost of Palihouse's Sunday roast: "With a strong work ethic, one can advance a lot quicker here. I find it very refreshing to be in a city where every Brit is here for a reason. When they're a specialist in their field and good at their job, they are generally going to have an interesting personality."
Hollywood, of course, has been a lure for Brits for decades. In the 1930s, L.A.'s expat community was large enough to field its own cricket team. Their numbers included notable architects, artists and writers such as Christopher Isherwood, who famously addressed skeptics of the city when stating why he loved living here, saying, "Either they understand it's the only place or they don't."
The ranks of present-day transplants still include writers and artists, and actors and TV personalities continue their exodus across the pond. (Think Simon Cowell, Cat Deeley and Gordon Ramsay, for starters.)
"It's a logical next step, especially for actors who want to make it in film," Scott says. "There's more work, and it pays so much more. Hollywood is the world's stage, and this is the place to be to take your career to the top."
Scott says she has witnessed a recent surge of actors coming from England to L.A. to audition for roles.
"The floodgates really opened with the success of Hugh Laurie in 'House,' " says Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University. "It's a trend we started seeing back in 2007 when there were 20 or so pilots being made with Brits playing significant roles."
Thompson says that the trend continues in present-day Hollywood due to the growing globalization of the American TV industry and Tinseltown's never-ending desire for new faces. "By going to the British pool of talent, you can get fresh faces that haven't yet been seen."
Meanwhile, anyone stopping by the Palihouse on a Sunday shouldn't be shocked by the ubiquity of the English accent or to see Victoria Beckham enjoying the traditional British fare with her kids.
"You'll always bump into someone else from England who you didn't even know had moved here. There's always a smattering of British celebs here as well," says journalist and regular Palihouse patron Tony Horkins, who, during his first visit to the Sunday roast, witnessed the Beckhams and their brood enjoying some sticky toffee pudding. "You really can't go wrong with sticky toffee pudding."
Photographs, from left to right: Gina Ferazzi Los Angeles Times; Kirk McKoy Los Angeles Times; Genaro Molina Los Angeles Times; Axel Koester For The Times; Axel Koester For The Times; Axel Koester For The Times; Kirk McKoy Los Angeles Times; Kirk McKoy Los Angeles Times.