Nov 4 2013 3:00pm

Bastards with Fancy Accents

Magnificent Bastards Accents Princess Bride

For better or worse, the stereotype of the “Evil Brit” is certainly nothing new; Hollywood has been using classically trained actors to class up its films since the dawn of the talkies, recruiting many of its early stars from the British stage. I was surprised, however, when we began planning Magnificent Bastards week, just how many of my favorite male villains fit into the category of Charming-Yet-Menacing Aristocrat. And, while this isn’t necessarily true of my favorite female villains, most of my favorite bad guys have English accents. I can’t be the only one who feels this way: check out the list below and tell me if I’m wrong...

Now, some people might blame Disney movies for perpetuating this character type, and some folks (Eddie Izzard, for one) blame Star Wars and the Bond films for enshrining the character of the Fancy English Bastard in popular culture. Personally, I blame George Sanders. I grew up in love with old movies, and even if I hadn’t been obsessed with his appearances on Batman or as Shere Kahn in Disney’s The Jungle Book, there was no escaping Sanders’ perverse magnetism once I’d seen Rebecca and All About Eve.

Magnificent Bastards Accents George Sanders

Sanders is the prickly patron saint of a very specific subset of villainy: the epitome of the arch, cultured, imperious villain, whose influence can certainly be felt in the success of fan-idols-of-the-moment Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston (both of whom have managed to balance the haughty brusqueness of their best-known onscreen roles with humor and warm, fan-friendly charm off screen).

Of course, Sanders (like Hiddleston and Cumberbatch) doesn’t always appear as the villain—in fact, all of the actors listed below are all capable of portraying a dazzling range of character types and hitting all points on the old moral compass. But somehow, when good actors go rotten, we all win—so without further ado, here’s my list of actors who manage to commit all manner of felonious onscreen evil while maintaining both an aura of undeniable suavity (and a reliably impressive accent)...


Magnificent Bastards Accents Tim Curry Legend

Tim Curry…in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Legend, Muppet Treasure Island, FernGully: The Last Rainforest, etc.

When Curry was rehearsing for his first full-time stage role (which would eventually catapult him to stardom), he first performed Frank-N-Furter with a German, then an American accent before settling on the odd, upper-crusty accent that launched a million midnight screenings. Curry has said that his speech patterns in the film reflected a combination of Queen Elizabeth’s manner of speaking and his mother’s telephone voice. Whatever the origins, Curry has parlayed his highly recognizable, sonorous voice into a hugely successful career in movies, music, theater, and voice work, with all manner of interesting accents along the way (looking at you, Congo. Although maybe we should just agree to ignore Congo, for everyone’s sake).

While he’s played plenty of villains in his career, I’d argue that he’s at his most undeniably villainous as Darkness in Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985). As striking as the character is, visually—he looks like Satan somehow got stuck in Jeff Goldblum’s telepod with an unfortunate bull and an oversized lobster—it’s Curry’s voice that makes the character so memorable. Sure, Darkness put a hit out on some unicorns, then kidnapped Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend and gothed her out against her will…but every time he opens his mouth, rich, buttery, evil magic happens. He’s like the Barry White of hideous demonic creatures.

Tim Curry is always incredibly fun to watch, whether he’s playing a good guy or the embodiment of pure evil, a demented alien scientist, a scurvy pirate, or a jazzy, disembodied rainforest-hating spirit. He manages to make all of his villains unreasonably appealing, on some level…except , of course, for Pennywise the Clown. Proving once and for all that clowns are just plain irredeemable, and to be avoided at all costs.


Magnificent Bastards Accents Princess Bride Christopher Guest

Christopher Guest…in The Princess Bride.

As a kid, I loved both The Princess Bride and This Is Spinal Tap, but it took me a few years to make the connection between Count Rugen, the infamous Six-Fingered Man, and Tap’s lead guitarist/resident man-child, Nigel Tufnel. Once Guest began writing and directing his own movies in the mid-90s, his ability to completely lose himself in diverse characters became more and more apparent, but his status as a genius was already unassailable by then (at least for me). The fact that he is equally as convincing as a childlike, Gumby-loving, hilarious idiot one hand and an ice-cold, murderous arch-sadist on the other is really all you need to understand the force of his talent. Guest’s quiet, calculated turn as Rugen is brilliant: utterly twisted and sinister without ever being over the top, even when explaining the bizarre obsession with pain that is his “life’s work,” as he sucks an entire year of Westley’s life away. The performance is equal parts warped comedy and dead-eyed Sadean menace, making Count Rugen one of my favorite villains of all time.


Magnificent Bastards Accents Christopher Lee The Last Unicorn

Christopher Lee…in The Last Unicorn, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Star Wars prequels, The Wicker Man, various Hammer Horror/Dracula movies, and so on and so forth.

Here’s what you need to know: Christopher Lee is FASCINATING. Seriously, go read up on him, if you haven’t before—he’s just an incredibly interesting human being, even beyond the scope of his long, illustrious, and eventful career. Best known for playing villains, Lee has always managed to bring additional dimensions to his darker characters. While he was initially typecast as the heavy in horror films following his success at Hammer Films, he broke out of the mold and moved on to more interesting roles after playing Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970):

I’ve never been typecast since. Sure, I’ve played plenty of heavies, but as Anthony Hopkins says, “I don’t play villains, I play people.”

An extremely well-read and intelligent actor, Lee is known for the research and preparation he brings to a role, whether it be Dracula, a Bond villain, a treacherous wizard, or a sinister pagan lord. I first encountered his work in The Last Unicorn, a movie I was utterly and completely obsessed with as a child. I remember finding the doomed King Haggard rather frightening, but also deeply interesting and very sad—he was a far more complex villain than I was used to seeing in animated films (at least the ones aimed at children). His obsession and intensity resonated with me, long before I was old enough to read the book for myself. Never a one-note villain, Christopher Lee finds depths and shades into the darkness of his characters, turning villainy into high art.


Magnificent Bastards Accents Peter Cook Bedazzled

Peter Cook…in Bedazzled.

Like Christopher Guest (his costar in The Princess Bride), Peter Cook only needed one role to elevate himself into my private pantheon of villainous weirdos. Cook plays the Devil, more casually known as George Spiggott, in Bedazzled, a comic revamp of the Faust legend for which Cook also wrote the screenplay. Admittedly, the movie may seem a bit dated now, more than four decades later, but Cook’s performance remains luminescent as he torments sad sack Stanley Moon (Dudley Moore) through a series of increasingly ridiculous set pieces; louche but likeable, his Satanic Majesty is a mischievous cad for the ages. His constant upstaging of Moon’s well-intentioned attempts at impressing his love interest drives the film, using Stanley’s best and worst impulses against him—here, in my favorite scene, he grants Stanley’s wish to be a rock star...only to swagger onstage and steal his thunder (and the object of Moon’s affection) as the most nihilistic, self-absorbed pop idol of all time:

Best. Devil. Ever.


Magnificent Bastards Accents Charles Dance

Charles Dance…in The Golden Child, Last Action Hero, Game of Thrones, etc.

Even when Dance isn’t playing a villain, he’s often been cast in rather severe, humorless roles (Ali G Indahouse aside, of course). Perhaps that’s why it’s so delightful to watch him truly having fun with a role…especially when that role involves being an utter and diabolical bastard. His first line as postmodern meta-bad guy Benedict in 1993’s Last Action Hero, for example, is “If God was a villain, he would have been me.” He only gets more badass from there, gleefully shooting people and snarling zingers and having a fabulous time, and generally making us appreciate how boring movies would be without proper, gregarious, extroverted villains.

And then there’s the fact that he took the coldest and most hateable man in all of Westeros and made him fun to watch. In the books, Tywin is such a distant, epic figure that we only get close to him through his children’s eyes…and frankly, those glimpses don’t help to humanize or demystify him very much at all. On the series, Dance captures Tywin’s frigid demeanor and Machiavellian brilliance while still making him seem human, with a charm and intelligence that complicate—but don’t detract from—his coldness and cruelty. Tywin Lannister is a magnificent bastard in either medium, but Dance has made the character more intriguing than I would have thought possible.


Magnificent Bastards Accents Alan Rickman Prince of Thieves Nottingham

Alan Rickman…in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and the Harry Potter series (although his villain status there is dubious, he certainly counts as a major antagonist throughout most of the series).

Was there any doubt that Rickman would make this list? I mean, there’s a reason that both Cumberbatch and Hiddleston are asked so often to bust out their Rickman impressions. From Die Hard onward, he’s carved out an iconic place for himself at the heart of pop culture using only his voice and his eyebrows—whether he’s playing a German terrorist or a romantic figure in a period drama or an irritated B-list actor with a wacky catchphrase, Rickman’s distinctive voice and ability to wield both gravity and sarcasm, as needed, with virtuoso skill make for compelling viewing.

Like most of the actors on this list, Rickman takes issue with attempts to pigeonhole him as a villain by trade, noting that the Sheriff of Nottingham in 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is the last “stock villain” he’s ever played. Even in the role of a stock villain, however, Rickman is absolutely brilliant—arguably the best thing about the movie, whether you’re a fan or not—and he won a London Film Critics’ Circle Award as well as a BAFTA for his performance as the manic, dastardly Sheriff. So perhaps it’s no wonder that Rickman’s turn as the more nuanced and ambiguous Severus Snape turned out to be one of the highlights of a series largely characterized by shrewd and fortuitous casting.

Snape is the most complex and nuanced major character in the series, and Rickman’s portrayal of a flawed, damaged, conflicted man is one of the emotional touchstones of the Harry Potter films. I honestly couldn’t care less about the Oscars…but the fact that Alan Rickman has never been nominated still sits badly with me. We should put together an award ceremony that’s actually relevant one day, and demand that every single presenter bring their best Rickman impression to the stage. At least it would be fun to watch, right?


In any case, that’s my own personal take on the Best of the Worst of a distinguished subset of Magnificent Bastard: sometimes suave and debonair, sometimes caustic and cunning, the strain lives on in newer stars like Hiddleston and Cumberbatch as well as a host of other established actors (the great Ian McShane, Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Irons, and Mark Strong are all quite adept at playing compelling villains, as is Gary Oldman, of course).

And while I do enjoy this particular type of Hollywood villain, I also like a bit of variety in my bad guys—they don’t all have to be guys, for example. And as much as I love a testy aristocratic glowering down from the screen and proclaiming his pompous superiority to the world, I also wish these sorts of glorious opportunities for strutting and stealing all the best lines were more readibly available to a greater range of actors in genre films. Everyone should have a chance to have their Bastard flag fly, after all. I look forward to catching a glimpse of George Sanders’ magnificent style of malevolence in a more and more diverse array of amoral grimaces, quips, and eyerolls as Hollywood slowly catches up to the 21st century. The luminous (and rather smirky) Ruth Negga’s recent appearance on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might be the best thing that’s happened to the show so far, to cite just one example...I hope she’ll stick around to wreak some classy, classy havoc for many episodes to come. In any case, let’s hear about your favorite villains (past, present, and possibly future) in the comments!

Bridget McGovern is the managing editor of She grew up in Philadelphia, where everyone speaks exactly like the characters in The Philadelphia Story. Except not at all.

1. TomDoyle
How about David Warner's heavies?
Bridget McGovern
3. BMcGovern
@TomDoyle: Yes! Excellent--I actually had him in my notes (and then started down a long, tangential "Villains of Doctor Who" rabbit hole that eventually got scrapped for the sake of time, space, and relative sanity), but Warner is, of course, amazing. As is John Simm as the Master, while I'm on the topic :)
yo sil
4. catperson
@3 BMcGovern: What about the first (and IMO, the best) Master from Doctor Who, Roger Delagdo? He was amazing! Classy, sinister, AND he liked childrens' programming!
Del C
5. del
Peter Ustinov and Terry Thomas in the Disney Robin Hood, as lion King John and python Sir Hiss.
Colleen Palmer
6. arianrose
Interestingly enough, this article illustrates that many of these men have excellent comedic chops as well. While discussing this list with my wife, I learned she'd never seen either GalaxyQuest nor Clue.
Brian R
7. Mayhem
You have to include Sir Ian Richardson, the gloriously magnificent evil scheming bastard himself, Francis Urquart from the House of Cards series.

It says just how good he is that Keyser Sose comes off as second best.
Not to mention in a bit of inspired casting, he played the voice of Death in Hogfather, where Death is playing the leads like a fiddle.
Bridget McGovern
8. BMcGovern
4. Third Doctor/Essential Episodes post (and particularly "The Daemons"). He certainly seems like my kind of guy :)

5. del: Absolutely. You will never hear any arguments from me about the genuis of Disney's Robin Hood. I know some people consider it one of Disney's poor efforts in terms of animation, but how do you argue with a cast like that? Phil Harris, Andy Devine, and Roger Miller are fun, too (although the villains, as usual, are my favorites). I'm going to have "The Phony King of England" stuck in my head all afternoon, now...
9. J-P-C
I love this list, and only wanted to add one character to Alan Rickman's parts: Elliot Marston in Quigley Down Under. I was only 10 when the movie came out, but I remember being enamored of him (and totally ignorant of just who he was). I was thrilled when "that guy from Quigley" showed up the very next year as THE Sherrif of Nottingham.
Bridget McGovern
10. BMcGovern
6. arianrose: I think that's true--there tends to be a fine line between villainy and comedy in the characters I like the most. Not that good guys can't be funny, but if you want an effective villain, giving him a sense of humor (or at least casting actors with great comic flair and timing) is a good place to start. Also, I hope your wife is ready for the world's greatest movie night...

7. Mayhem: Agreed! The hardest thing about putting this list together was sticking to SF and fantasy, but if we're branching out, Richardson's Urquhart certainly belongs in the pantheon of bastardry (I couldn't get into the Kevin Spacey version of House of Cards, partly because his accent reminded me of Foghorn Leghorn, although clearly it's become a hit). I haven't seen Hogfather, although I should add it to my queue--it looks like David Warner pops up there, as well.

I'd also throw in Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker as long as we're talking political satire (unless we need a separate list for Scottish accents :)
Alejandro Melchor
11. Al-X
Alan Rickman stole Robin Hood from under Kevin Costner's feet. I wouldn't have enjoyed that movie if he hadn't been on it :)
David Levinson
12. DemetriosX
Speaking of Robin Hood, let us not forget Claude Rains. His Prince John is delightfully evil, and while Captain Renault eventually turns out to be all right in Casablanca, he's certainly an antagonist for most of the film. And the Invisible Man isn't terribly nice either.

For that matter, Basil Rathbone often played bad guys. Guy of Gisborne, Pontius Pilate, Levasseur.

And getting back more firmly to genre: Boris Karloff. One of the most distinctive voices in film.
Tom Smith
13. phuzz
Wayne Pygram does great things as Scorpius in Farscape, (not to mention Harvey).
Del C
14. del
"Mother always did like Richard best."

It wasn't until I was much older that I realised most adult viewers taking their children to see Robin Hood would have seen Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitane in The Lion in Winter just a few years previously.
15. ChuckEye
Leo McKern would certainly make my list.
Peter Erwin
16. PeterErwin
James Mason.Who's played a number of villains, but my choice would be Phillip Vandamm in North by Northwest.
("Apparently the only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead." "In your very next role. You'll be quite convincing, I assure you.")
Marie Veek
17. SlackerSpice
Throwing Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Operative from Serenity, and Ian McKellen's take on Richard III.
Alan Brown
18. AlanBrown
I think this whole villian with a British accent thing probably has its roots in that whole Empire thing, where they conquered, occupied, oppressed, dominated, and generally irritated at least a third of the people on the planet.
19. Dianthus
I know he's a Yank (and a Cali boy at that), but I'd like to add James Marsters (Spike) to the list. At least he had the accent. Talk about a fun villain. Otherwise, all the good ones I can think of are already here.
Bruce Arthurs
20. bruce-arthurs
The Sheriff of Nottingham seems to be a popular choice for Magnificent Bastards.

But the best Sheriff, I submit, was Nicholas Grace in the 1980's ROBIN OF SHERWOOD television series. Here's a a YouTube compilation of some of his best lines from that role.
21. helbel
#17 - saw Ian McKellens Richard III at the theatre when I was at school, so about 20 years ago. It was superb, and I remember scenes still.
22. a1ay
in a bit of inspired casting, he played the voice of Death in Hogfather, where Death is playing the leads like a fiddle.

And they even got in a reference to House of Cards: Susan finally realises what's been going on.
"You planned this all along! You knew that the best way to get me to start investigating this was to forbid me from doing it!"

I think this whole villian with a British accent thing probably has its
roots in that whole Empire thing, where they conquered, occupied,
oppressed, dominated, and generally irritated at least a third of the
people on the planet.

But that would imply that American (and global) audiences wouldn't want to watch heroes with British accents, which is sort of undermined by, eg, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes.
23. vole
To my mind, the archetypal English cad was played best by Terry-Thomas.

As others have mentioned, he and Peter Ustinov were great in Disney's Robin Hood.
Shelly wb
24. shellywb
I never understood how Marian could possibly prefer Kevin Costner's Robin to Alan Rickman's Sheriff. Sure, there's the issue of evil and all, but honestly, I'd be willing to overlook that.

About Tim Curry, if you never heard an audiobook read by him, find one. It's an experience.
Colleen Palmer
25. arianrose
shellywb @24: Oh my goodness, he's read audiobooks? I could listed to a laundry list from him!

BMcGovern @10: I know! I was trying to figure out what she would know the actors from (well, she knows Tim Curry), and thought she'd at least have seen Galaxy Quest. They're both queued up in Netflix for the next time she needs a good laugh. (For the record, I eventually hit upon Die Hard for Alan Rickman.)
26. a1ay
I never understood how Marian could possibly prefer Kevin Costner's Robin to Alan Rickman's Sheriff.

"You. My room. Ten-thirty tonight. You. Ten forty-five. ...And bring a friend."
Anthony Pero
27. anthonypero
Seriously, this being Tor and all, shouldn't this list at least include a reference to this man?
Chris Nelly
28. Aeryl
This list is incredible!

And yes on Charles Dance. I have to admit though, I still can't watch GoT without going "Dear Cousin Noompsie" in my head(or out loud, it's THAT kinda house)
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
29. Lisamarie
You beat me to it @27 - I used to go around cackling and imitating Palpatine after seeing Return of the Jedi - he immediately became my favorite characters, and is definitely one of the bright spots in the prequels.

I still kinda get chills from the Tale of Darth Plageus the Wise.

Not to mention Peter Cushing, who'll blow your planet up!

But, honestly, I just wanted to see that Alan Rickman was on here ;)
Christopher Andrews
30. DrBlack
No Peter Cushing? Was Grand Moff Tarkin too obvious to even make the list?
Anthony Pero
31. anthonypero
Well, if they were rebooting Star Wars, Charles Dance would be Tarkin, right?
32. Jesper Haglund
Ian McKellen for his turns as Magneto in X-Men, but more importantly as Richard III in, erm, Richard III.
Joanne Center
33. thegloop
arianrose @25 "Oh my goodness, he's read audiobooks? I could listed to a laundry list from him!"

Better still, he reads freaking SABRIEL with such gorgeous vocal talent that if they ever made those books into movies, I can't imagine anybody else possibly trying to voice Mogget
Cheryl Sanders
34. RestlessSpirit
Here's my problem with Tim Curry. I watched too many episodes of The Wild Thornberrys with my daughter back in her Nickelodeon days. I can only hear his Nigel voice saying "smashing!" then snickering/snorting in that delightful way. Love Tim Curry though!

All of the actors mentioned are excellent examples. One of the things that tie them together besides their British accents is their ability to deliver a deadly sincere threat in a silky, smooth voice.
Chris Nelly
35. Aeryl
See I love the fact that Tim Curry can be both Nigel Thornberry and Hexus.
Zorila Desufnoc Eht
37. AlirozTheConfused
"Mother always did like Richard best." It wasn't until I was much older that I realised most adult viewers taking their children to see Robin Hood would have seen Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitane in The Lion in Winter just a few years previously.

It's funny, because Elanor of Aquitaine really did always like Richard better than John (at least, while Richard was alive). It was her husband, Henry, who liked John better than Richard.

Then again, after Richard died, John and Elanor grew closer and regained the affection that had been lost.

John's one great moment, the one time when John did something so spectacular and militarily awesome, the great victory at Mirabeau where he rode faster than the chroniclers could believe to rescue Elanor and capture Arthur; that great moment was motivated by John's love for his mother.

I like ot imagine that in heaven, Richard was up there watching with pride, saying something along the lines of "Great job, little Bro. I couldn't have done it better myeslf".

Of course, everything fell apart within twelve months of that.

Still, the relationship between Elanor and John fascinates me; and I just love to imagine John being a Richard once in his life. There's something about the so-called coward (or Softsword), always overshadowed, doing something unbelievably brave.
Bridget McGovern
38. BMcGovern
I've been reading comments and wanting to respond enthusiastically to ALL OF THEM, but it's been a busy few days (so many bastards, so little time...). So, I'm just going to say that all of these suggestions are fantastic, and clearly we'll have to do an expanded list sometime down the line featuring greats like Mason, Rains, Karloff, Rathbone, Ustinov, Terry-Thomas, along with The Operative and Spike (James Marsters TOTALLY counts!), Ian McKellen, and of course Peter Cushing and Ian McDiarmid (although I may have to embed the full Eddie Izzard Star Wars bit if we go there :)

Leo McKern is an excellent pick, and since he sends my brain into The Prisoner territory, I may have to include Patrick McGoohan in the next round (I love, love, love Patrick McGoohan, and his eyebrow of doom).

It's also occurred to me that I should have included Peter Serafinowicz, in all his hilarious/occasionally dastardly glory. And before this gets far too long, I'll just say that I'm now making it my life's mission to listen to a Tim Curry-narrated audiobook, but in the meantime, I'm just going to leave his bonkers rendition of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" here, for anyone interested. It's a thing of beauty...

Thanks for all the excellent suggestions!
Anthony Pero
39. anthonypero
Also, while its not a British accent, the distinctive vocal stylings of Jack Nicholson belong on any list of Magnificent Bastards, especially this clip, which is one of the best monologues in American Cinema, and rather timely, given the Richie Incognito story going on in the NFL.
Bridget McGovern
40. BMcGovern
39. anthonypero: Hm, I feel like that's a completely different list. Nicholson's a great actor--not one of my personal favorites, admittedly--but his characters rarely have the sense of charm and humor that tends to inform my favorite performances. It's just a matter of taste--to me, he's more of a forceful, tough guy actor, while I prefer my villains to approach evil with finesse, and even a bit of whimsy.

As much as I love Tim Burton's Batman movies, for example, Nicholson will never be the definitive Joker for me. His Joker is certainly memorable, but more of a thug, in my opinion--I infinitely prefer Heath Ledger, or Cesar Romero, or Mark Hamill in the role. I do like Nicholson very much in Mars Attacks, but again--as far as this list: no fancy accent, no dice :)
Anthony Pero
41. anthonypero
I agree its not charm... its more smoothness and cool. Plus I needed an excuse to watch that scene, lol. "DID YOU ORDER THE CODE RED?!!" has been going through my brain all week while listening to ESPNRadio at work.
Pernilla Leijonhufvud
42. Therru
Dont forget that Charles Dance also played Lord Vetinari with great panache in Going Postal.

I'd like to add Craig Parker, who did a delicious Darken Rahl in Legend of the Seeker, and the reason I was thinking of him is that he did a great Evil Guy just recently on Sleepy Hollow -- I had to look him up and realised that he was the hottest villain ever in LotS.

Edited because I wanted to add one of the most excellent female villains ever: Jacqueline Pearce as Servalan on Blake's 7. She could run rings around a lot of the guys above.
Donia L
43. Donia
Charles Dance was also an incredibly Magnificent Bastard in the 2005 BBC adaptation of Dickens' BLEAK HOUSE!

(if you haven't seen it, watch it now, it's fantastic, and thankfully a long mini-series so you get to savor its greatness - it's available for streaming on Netflix)
44. Robin Pasholk
The villains with British accents thing actually arose in the early days of talkies, when the Germanic/Eastern European American directors wanted what to them was an exotic foreign accent for villains(!) By the way, hownell did you manage to miss Vincent Price on your list??!

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