I have a bit of a ‘thing’ about accents. I don’t mean to blow my own trumpet (but I’m going to), but I’m a dab-hand at accents. I guess I have a good ear and can pick them up fairly easily; be it American, Australian, Scottish – give me time to practice and I can do it. And because of this, I expect others to be able to do the same – especially paid actors.
Now, the picture has given you a pretty damn good clue as to where I’m going to start my rant (honestly, this piece isn’t all ranting, but who couldn’t rant about that?). Dick Van Dyke’s portrayal of Bert the chimney sweep in Mary Poppins has to be the iconic example of bad accents. And being that I myself am a cockney, that ‘cor-blimey‘ lilt grates at me every time I watch the movie. Van Dyke himself said in an interview that he has never lived it down; he has been ribbed by the English for years over it and whilst on set with an entirely English cast, not one of them mentioned that his pronunciation may be slightly off. So you can forgive him – Walt Disney needed a big Hollywood name to entice an audience and Van Dyke was the man. And it was a long time ago and the mistake was made for us all to learn from. But have we learned?
I was watching the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer the other day (shut up, I like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’ve watched it from beginning to end three times). In this particular episode, some potential slayers had been brought over from England to be protected since ‘The First’ (some ancient evil being) was attempting to wipe them all out. Anyhoo, the two actresses used as ‘British slayers’ were quite clearly not English. Molly, in particular, did the most appalling British cockney articulation I have ever heard (after Bert the chimney sweep). And all I could do was sit through it, cringing, thinking, ‘there must be thousands of British actresses in Hollywood!!’. What’s more, they seem to think we say things like, ‘ponce’; I assure you, I have never heard that word bandied about! But to be fair to the, may I say, marvellous Buffy programme, James Marsters (who plays Spike) does a fine English accent and I didn’t even know he was American until I saw him interviewed. You see, it can be done if you practice!
I realise the British accent is hard to do – not so much the upper class English annunciation, the majority of American actors can pass off as a ‘toff’ fairly well (but even that I’ve seen murdered). Renee Zelwegger did a passingly good upper class Brit in Bridget Jones. And Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘Emma’ was pretty damn great. It’s the cockney accent that Americans seem struggle with. And I can’t remember a time that, say. a Manchester accent has been attempted. I guess anywhere north of the Watford Gap is a no-no. Oh wait, but they do like to have a crack at Scottish. Now I’m not a Scot, but if I were, I would be mortified at some of the poor Scottish accents I’ve heard bandied about in Hollywood (Scotty from Star Trek being the mother of them all).
Now it may seem that I’m just here moaning about Americans doing British accents (well I am, but I have pointed out a good few examples of where they’ve got it right too). Like I say, the English (and Scottish/Irish/Welsh) cadences are tricky things to master. As is Australian – I’ve seen that annihilated many times too. I suspect there are a good many times when us Brits have killed the American accent on TV as well (Miles Colby from ‘The Colby’s’ was a little forced – but not bad). But you see, I’m English and perhaps I wouldn’t spot when we do it wrong so easily. Take Idris Elba (Stringer Bell) and Dominic West (McNulty) from The Wire – both Brit’s and I didn’t even know! Perhaps McNulty was a little strong but Stringer? You’ve got to admit, he nailed it! If you are American, you are welcome to correct me – because I don’t quite hear the nuances and cadence you may hear, but I think us Brits do a darn fine US accent on the whole. Still, that’s probably because it’s easier to do than British.
So I think the point I am really trying to make is; if an English accent is required, hire a Brit unless you honestly have no choice. And if you can’t, make sure the accent is practised to within an inch of it’s life. If an American accent is required, hire an American. It’s quite simple really – nobody can do it better than a native (although a Brit will do a pretty fine job).