Ac­cent on pro­nun­ci­a­tion

You may laugh at Dick Van Dyke’s cock­ney but Amer­i­cans can also mock Bri­tish ac­tors’ fail­ures, says Cal­i­for­nian ac­tress

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Misti Traya

This De­cem­ber, the most fa­mous Bri­tish nanny in his­tory makes a come­back in the film Mary Pop­pins Re­turns. Along­side Emily Blunt as Pop­pins, the film stars Dick Van Dyke, 93 this De­cem­ber, whose ac­cent was so woe­ful in the 1964 orig­i­nal that he is still apol­o­gis­ing. When re­ceiv­ing the Bri­tan­nia Award last year, he said, ‘I ap­pre­ci­ate this op­por­tu­nity to apol­o­gise to the mem­bers… for in­flict­ing on them the most atro­cious cock­ney ac­cent in the his­tory of cinema.’

In prepa­ra­tion for his role of Bert, he only had one hour with a di­alect coach – an Ir­ish­man called Pat Mahoney. I think Dick has apol­o­gised enough – not least be­cause even the most highly trained English thesps can go wrong when they try to cross the At­lantic.

We all marvel, es­pe­cially we Amer­i­cans, at the legacy of clas­si­cally trained Bri­tish ac­tors such as Lau­rence Olivier. But some­thing luvvies are not specif­i­cally taught to do is speak with con­vinc­ing Amer­i­can ac­cents. Why would they? The Tam­ing of the Shrew wasn’t set in Chicago, and no­body at Rada ever put up a pro­duc­tion of The Bac­chae that took place in Bos­ton.

When I talked to fam­ily and friends in the States about this, many of them had no clue that some ac­tors – I’m look­ing at you Clive Owen and Michael Fass­ben­der – were even at­tempt­ing Amer­i­can ac­cents; they were that ter­ri­ble.

Some ac­cents aren’t nec­es­sar­ily bad but they come and go like Jeremy Irons’s in Long Day’s Jour­ney Into Night, which was de­scribed by some­one I know as ‘Con­necti­cut by way of the Home Coun­ties’. He should take a leaf from Sean Con­nery’s book and not even at­tempt an ac­cent; just proudly play the only ever Soviet naval cap­tain with a Scot­tish ac­cent ( The Hunt for Red Oc­to­ber, 1990).

Then there are ac­tors whose ac­cents come across as car­i­ca­tures. Damian Lewis’s char­ac­ter in Bil­lions sounds like he is do­ing a Pa­cino im­pres­sion. And it pains me to say it but Colin Firth’s Texas ac­cent in Main Street (2010) is rem­i­nis­cent of Mick Jag­ger’s ter­ri­ble broad coun­try twang on Far Away Eyes. Even the great Mag­gie Smith could not do a con­vinc­ing South­ern drawl in Di­vine Se­crets of The Ya-ya Sis­ter­hood (2002).

Per­haps, as an LA ac­tress who’s been hired to do Amer­i­can re­gional ac­cents, I should set up as a di­alect coach for Bri­tish ac­tors. I’d start with vowel sounds that should be as loose as the Amer­i­can women in Richard Cur­tis films. They’re formed at the front of the mouth and are wider than they are long. Hence ‘of­fal’ and ‘aw­ful’ be­ing homonyms. Ditto ‘Don’ and ‘dawn’. If you’re one of those Brits with a plum in your mouth, re­move it.

Now say your Rs so they vi­brate in your throat. Don’t roll them like the Scots. Amer­i­can Rs rum­ble like a vol­cano wait­ing to erupt. Don’t overdo this, though. While you want to hear the R, you don’t want to sound like you’re from the West Coun­try. Or a pi­rate.

Don’t for­get that Amer­i­can ac­cents come in many forms. Since I’m from LA, I’m go­ing to start with the Val­ley Girl. This ac­cent is about bore­dom. It’s punc­tu­ated with uptalk and vo­cal fry, that low-pitched, creaky way of speak­ing com­mon among Kar­dashi­ans.

The Mid­west ac­cent is nasal and em­ploys flat A sounds. It’s slightly Scandi, just like in the film Fargo (1996). Pro­nounce ‘egg’ as ‘ayg’. Above all, what­ever you say, say it with­out ag­gres­sion. Mid­west­ern folk are nice.

Lots of peo­ple think the South­ern ac­cent is the eas­i­est, but it can be a grave­yard even for Amer­i­cans. Look at Kevin Spacey in House of Cards. The dan­ger is go­ing too broad when drop­pin’ Gs or addin’ As to thangs. Note that there are two kinds of South­ern ac­cents. Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Ban­dit (1977) sounds worlds apart from Scar­lett O’hara. Now that was a great ac­cent. Amer­i­cans never guess Vivien Leigh was born in Bri­tish In­dia. Also, ku­dos to an­other Brit, Idris Elba, for his spot-on Bal­ti­more ac­cent in The Wire. One of the main char­ac­ter­is­tics of this ac­cent is the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of words end­ing in -ow: ‘pil­low’ be­comes ‘pilla’.

The Eastern seaboard is a smor­gas­bord of di­alects. My favourite is the pa­tri­cian, transat­lantic, 1940s, Katharine-hep­burnin- The Philadel­phia Story ac­cent that’s a breath away from be­ing English.

And who could fuhged­dabout Noo Yawk? Noo Yawkas tawk with the words com­ing off their teeth. They pro­nounce the ‘a’ in the mid­dle of words as ‘aw’. So ‘call’ be­comes ‘cawl’. ‘Ma’ be­comes ‘maw’. Rs at the end of words get dropped and Ts are pro­nounced like Ds ex­cept when the last T isn’t pro­nounced ad awl.

Like South­ern ac­cents, Bos­ton ac­cents come in two va­ri­eties. There’s ei­ther the Kennedy clan or Matt Da­mon in Good Will Hunt­ing. Both are non-rhotic and best ex­em­pli­fied with the phrase ‘Park the car in Har­vard Yard’ which Bos­to­ni­ans pro­nounce, ‘Pahk the cah in Hahvuhd Yahd.’

My ad­vice for ac­tors look­ing to make a ca­reer in Hol­ly­wood is to watch Amer­i­can ad­verts. Study­ing Ice­land and Mor­risons com­mer­cials helped me iden­tify Bri­tish di­alects – though I’m still a long way from a con­vinc­ing York­shire ac­cent. It’s hard.

Let’s not judge Dick Van Dyke harshly. Af­ter all, a charis­matic per­former can over­come the dodgi­est of ac­cents. Michael Caine won an Os­car for The Cider House Rules, set in Maine, and he didn’t even use one, so whadda I know?

’Avin a larf: Bert with Mary Pop­pins

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