By Thom Geier
Updated July 15, 2009 at 04:00 PM EDT

Takeyour seats, class: We’re starting up week 3 ofEW University with a weeklong look at the pop culture influencesin the Harry Potter films. Check out yesterday’s class on Harry Potter‘s use of teen-move tropes, or our gallery HarryPotter: 10 Teen-Movie Parallels, or jump ahead and test your Harry Potterknowledge with our finalexam. Stick around all summer long for future EW University courses on Lost,Quentin Tarantino, and more.

Harry Potter:
There’s a moment in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Prof. McGonagall attempts to control her unruly pupils by proclaiming, “I will not have you behaving like a babbling bumbling band of baboons.” Dare I say that very few actors – particularly American ones – could pull off that line with the aplomb that Maggie Smith does. Of course, Smith is a six-time Oscar nominee, a two-time winner, and a venerated member of the pantheon of great classically-trained British actors.

She’s also one of the leading indicators of the success of the Harry Potter films as a kind of privately financed Public Works program for British thespians of a certain age.

There is a fine and noble tradition of great actors picking up Hollywood paychecks for kiddie-leaning popcorn fare. And Brits tend to fare much better in this commercial compromise: Alec Guinness got plenty of criticism for playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in 1977’s Star Wars, but the role also goosed his career and drew awareness of his greatness to a whole new generation of audiences. (Marlon Brando, however, did not fare nearly as well from his brief turn as Jor-El in 1978’s Superman.)

But the Harry Potter films have effectively become an all-star summer stock for British talent. Seldom has so much acting firepower been assembled in a single film – or series of films. In addition to Smith, we’ve seen Emma Thompson (five Oscar noms and two wins), Kenneth Branagh (four Oscar noms, including one for directing), Julie Christie (four noms and one win), Julie Walters (two Oscar noms), Irishman Richard Harris (two noms), Ralph Fiennes (two noms), John Cleese (one nom), Helena Bonham Carter (one nom), and Imelda Staunton (one nom). This month’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince also introduces 2002 Oscar winner Jim Broadbent (Iris) to the cast. Even the James Bond series, which has stretched over four times as many films, can’t rival the depth of talent in the Potter casts.

One reason that classically trained actors do so well in the Potter films is the noble British tradition of the panto. Short for pantomime, but not to be confused with mime. Panto is a stylized family-oriented stage show hugely popular in the U.K., particularly during the holiday season. Typically an adaptation of a fairy tale, pantos call for an over-the-top performing style for exaggerated comical effect. Over the years, just about every great British actor has played in one at some time. Ian McKellen is a panto vet, and his performances in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the X-Men series owe much to the form, as he plays his lines to the rafters but never quite brushes over into self-parody.

The grown-up stars of the Harry Potter films take a similar relish to their parts, perhaps none more so than Alan Rickman as potions master Severus Snape. Rickman approaches his role as the stern and complicated Snape with what can only be described as gleeful malevolence, but the actor’s obvious pleasure in playing the role is not a private act. We share in his enjoyment too, and are thus beneficiaries of the collective training of this great band of players. And if the Potter films can keep all of these great performers acting — and perhaps inspire Potter fans to seek out some of the more grown-up films on their resumes — then the series has done a great service to the arts.

Extra credit viewing: Check out Maggie Smith in her Oscar-winning role as an equally influential (but much earthier) teacher in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; see also Richard Griffiths (a.k.a. Uncle Vernon) as a flawed but influential instructor in The History Boys.

Extra credit reading: It’s Behind You: The Story of Panto (2004) by Peter Lathan

For discussion: Are classically trained actors slumming when they appear in Hollywood fare like the Harry Potter films? In what way does their training help or hinder them in playing these roles? Will the younger British cast members like Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint be able to sustain long-term careers without the classical training of their older costars? Or does the preeminence of film and TV call for a different sort of training for which movie-trained stars like Radcliffe are very much prepared? Please discuss in the comments section below.