Over there and overlooked

Observations on British celebrities

In Los Angeles, the Beckhams' heads droop as they slink about the sunlit boulevards of Beverly Hills's commercial district. The celebrity couple can't understand why the manager at Fred Segal refused to lock the doors and allow them exclusive access to his store.

For they are, after all, the Beckhams. But while they may be pseudo-royalty in Britain, their celebrity just does not register with the American public. "I have never heard of either of them before," said one worker at the expensive Ivy at the Shore restaurant, where the couple drew only blank looks.

Many British celebrities fail to register on the American consciousness. The Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow says that in the US, "the people have no sense of who you are and no sense of anything outside their own country". He holidays regularly in Cape Cod, and despite having worked as a correspondent in Washington for many years, he is still a nobody.

The pop icon Robbie Williams can't crack the American code either. Despite a well-organised marketing campaign in 2002, his Escapology album bombed in the US, selling only 29,000 copies.

When Ainsley Harriott, the television chef and presenter of the BBC's Ready, Steady, Cook show, made the trip across the Atlantic to record a US version of the popular programme for NBC, the formula didn't quite work - and the chef returned to Britain.

Harriott's spokesman, Jeremy Hicks, blames the chef's failure across the pond on a fundamental difference between American and British cultures: "He is a very tactile person - he likes to hug and touch people . . . Americans are more reserved. They are not used to that."

There are exceptions to the British celebrity rule. Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant have become major Hollywood stars, and NBC adapted the caustic dominatrix Anne Robinson's game show The Weakest Link for the American audience. The debut screening in April 2001 netted a staggering 15.1 million viewers, but soon Robinson's invective wore thin, and the show was scrapped in July 2002 when it pulled in just 5.6 million viewers.

When I asked NBC's director of ratings and programme information to name a British celebrity in the US, he had to go all the way back to Patrick Macnee and The Avengers in the 1960s.

So why, given the difficulty of climb- ing to the dizzy heights of American celebrity, do Britons persist in their pursuit of success across the Atlantic? The answer is money and public exposure. One Briton who is adamant he can achieve both is the BBC's world affairs editor, John Simpson. The newsman's profile has exploded in the US since the BBC doubled its viewership during the war on Iraq. To capitalise on his new-found fame, Simpson is about to publish an "amalgam" of his books chronicling his life as a foreign correspondent.

"The American public became more discerning during the war. They wanted alternative sources of information and consequently my profile over there grew," says Simpson.

It may be down to misguided marketing, or simply that celebrity is a commodity that seldom travels well, but Victoria Beckham and other British celebrities are being forced to recognise that they are big only over here.