LOS ANGELES — Once upon a time, British TV was an ace in the hole for Hollywood's American television industry.
Whenever the U.S. networks needed an experienced star with proven talent who American audiences didn't know well, they could turn to the Brits, who have given us everyone from The Wire's Dominic West to Homeland's Damian Lewis and Sons of Anarchy's Charlie Hunnam.
But BBC America's turn at the TV Critics press tour proved that U.S. fans now have a direct pipeline to some of the coolest talent on television, as the channel talked up a 50th anniversary show for its longtime sci fi series Doctor Who and rolled out Broadchurch, a drama about murder in a small town that some critics are calling the best new show of the year.
"There's a huge science fiction culture here (in America); the show plays into the culture and the culture plays into the show," said Matt Smith, the 30-year-old British actor who broke hearts across the world by announcing he was leaving the Doctor Who series after filming the show's Christmas episode later this year.
Smith, with close-cropped hair, a black and white turtleneck and rainbow-colored socks, cut a slightly different figure than the boyish, time traveling alien with tweed jackets and flyaway hair he plays on the BBC's half-century old show. He'll leave after four years – the character "regenerates" after a period, allowing 11 different actors to play the part since 1963 – filming the 50th anniversary special airing Nov. 23 on BBC America.
He wouldn't say why he decided to leave the show, admitting onstage that "I'll sometimes ponder, 'Have I made a huge mistake?' " But after facing the press, Smith admitted "you always have second thoughts, but it's the natural cycle for me. Weirdly, for that first audition, I wore a tweed blazer, that's where it came from. And everything's always been very natural that way. Now, I think it's the right time for me and the right time for the show (for my departure)."
Standing next to Smith, David Bradley was the unanticipated, 71-year-old rock star of the day. An acclaimed stage actor in Britain, Bradley earned late-career fame playing the grizzled custodian at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies. Now he is shining as villainous Walder Frey in HBO's Game of Thrones, a store owner with a murky past in the BBC's excellent Broadchurch series, and as William Hartnell, the first man to play Dr. Who in a TV movie about the show's creation, An Adventure in Space and Time.
"You do Harry Potter and you think 'That's my blockbuster for life,' " said Bradley, whose real-life gentility seems far removed from his crusty characters. "And then this happens. I can't even remember what I expected when it comes to fame, because I never expected it."
One of the big surprises Thursday came from Grey's Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey, who somehow managed to trash the ABC show numerous times while talking up his new series for Discovery's Velocity channel on his passion for race car driving, Racing LeMans.
"You're just telling the same story over and over," Dempsey says of Grey's during one clip from the Velocity show. At the press session Dempsey kept calling his acting work "a job," implying that he now mostly still works on the program to finance his racing.
"I'm very grateful that I have a show that's been on for 10 years. But it's not racing," he said, owning up to his feelings in a way that might not make his Grey's co-stars too happy. "It just isn't."