Brits playing Poles

There is no easy way to explain why I was listening to Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, so we’ll just assume there was an inexplicable internet protocol error that prevented me from listening to classic rock like a real man and leave it at that. One of the regular features of Woman’s Hour is a drama segment, usually featuring salt-of-the-earth women being let down by their men and achieving redemption through bio-active yogurts and consequence-free affairs with swarthy exchange students – not that I would know anything about it.

Last week it was the tale of a Polish housekeeper and her first-hand account of the breakdown of her employers’ marriage. The segment, billed as a “domestic thriller” was called A Domestic and caught my ear because it was based around a Polish character. It caught my ear even more forcibly when I quickly realised the actress playing the Polish character wasn’t Polish and had a very hazy idea of what a Polish accent sounds like. This became particularly hilarious when they slipped Polish phrases into the dialogue.

Nie ma problemu

Mariola, the eponymous domestic, is played by Lydia Leonard, who is of Anglo-French-Irish extraction. I’m sure she’s a lovely lady and highly talented, but why couldn’t the BBC have found a Polish actress to perform the part? There must be thousands of them kicking around London these days.

From rain to gutter

Maybe there is a good reason why Polish actors and actresses can’t be employed by the BBC – something to do with equity cards or some other sophisticated showbiz shenanigans I know nothing about. This was only part of the problem. The writer, Peter Jukes, seemed to be just as hazy about Poland as the actress was about the accent. Mariola, like every other domestic in the history of drama, is terrified of being sent back to to her rubbish country if she makes any waves, which is a plot device that hasn’t made any sense for a Polish character since 2004. This is partly explained away by making her an ethnic Pole from Belarus, which kind of begs the question why he didn’t just make her Belarusian. She also has some bizarre superstitions. I’ve heard the one about not putting handbags on the floor because it encourages money to escape, but is there really a Polish superstition saying you shouldn’t buy your wife shoes because she will walk away from you, or gloves because she will wave goodbye? Maybe it’s a Belarusian thing.

The BBC television sitcom Lead Balloon also features an “Eastern European” character played by a British actress. Magda (definitely not Polish then), played by Anna Crilly, spends much of her onscreen time being perplexed and stolid, as in this scene where we learn that Eastern Europeans have apparently never come across sophisticated concepts such as lying so as to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.

And to finish, a sketch from Armstrong and Miller that looks like it’s incredibly insulting to Poles, but turns out not to be…

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10 thoughts on “Brits playing Poles

  1. Karolina says:

    Funny you should mention that. I wrote to the BBC only last week expressing my amazement how on earth did they manage not to employ a Pole to play a Pole… or at least be more accurate with the accent… Cheers!

  2. Maggie says:

    I don’t think BBC would have any problems finding a half-decent Polish actor/actress in London – I just think they couldn’t be bothered to try. As for the shoe superstition, I have indeed heard of that one. Still, my boyfriend regularly buys me shoes and we’ve been together for 6 years now, so I reckon it’s as true as the handbag-on-the-floor one (and all other superstitions, for that matter).

  3. scatts says:

    I’ve watched Lead Balloon a few times and I never got the impression that Magda was supposed to be Polish, more likely from an imaginary Borat country further East. Mind you, she could fulfill her role in the plot just as easily if she were from Yemen or Tasmania so I suppose they just chose Eastern Europe because it was topical at the time of writing.

    I’m aware of the handbag & shoes things but not the gloves.

  4. Serratus says:

    Interesting topic indeed…
    But how is it relevant to the myth of the “English amateur”?

    Unless… wait…

  5. odrzut says:

    BTW – in Hollywood movies Poles often play Russians. I don’t think anything’s wrong with that – as long as they play good.

  6. Daniela says:

    I’m Polsky born and bred and I’ve been in love with Magda of Lead Balloon since I first saw her going on a trip to this fine English countryside that is Luton;). I don’t care if she is or isn’t Polish (as a character), but I’ve always fancied the idea of her being an ambassador for the Polskis out the there working on the British isles. Plus, Anna Crilly is a brilliant actress who specialises in comedy. I’m happy with her being Magda much more than with any random Polish actress that could be chosen instead of her just because their Eastern European accent is a real deal. So, thumbs up for Mrs Crilly! Great accent indeed :)

  7. Sylwia says:

    “I’m Polsky born and bred”

    Then why do you transliterate the word “polski” from Russian?

  8. Sylwia says:

    “Nie ma problemu” in Polish translation would be “nie ma sprawy”, no?

  9. Peter Jukes says:

    Slightly less hazy about Poland than you, Jamie. As your commenters have pointed out, all those superstitions are indeed Polish, and many of the colourful phrases Mariola used were direct translations from the Polish.

    How do I know this? I’ve been a regular visitor to Poland for the last 12 years, and my long term partner lives in Warsaw. Many of her family remain in Grodno, which indeed is a tough place to return to if you’re a Pole.

    However, Mariola is deliberately misinformed about her status (she could easily get Polish and EU citizenship) by her employers. If you’d followed the play – rather than leaping to misinformed conclusions – you’d discover she ends up safely in Hel.

    Nie ma problemu

    (A common Polish phrase of course)

  10. I’m a Polish actress (working as an actress, not just part time!) in London and Dublin and I exactly understand what are you talking about. It’s very painful when they don’t even audition Polish actors! Give me an audition/chance if I’m shit then cast an English actress but at least audition me! Thanks for posting this text! Natalia

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