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Harmless Drudge: How to (Not) Speak With a British Accent
Posted: 22 July 2010 07:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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There is a large number of British actors who are very adept at American accents. In addition to Hugh Laurie, there is Jamie Bamber who played Apollo on Battlestar Galactica. Another is Dominic West who played McNulty on The Wire. I had no clue West was English until I heard his commentary on The Wire DVDs. (I knew Bamber was English from his turn in the Horatio Hornblower series, but otherwise I’d never have guessed.) There are others, but those are the ones at the top of my head.

On the other hand, I can’t think of any American actors who do a truly convincing British accent. (I was going to use Keanu Reeves in Dracula as an example, but he is so utterly bad in everything, he can’t be taken as typical.) Some are passable, but you can still tell (I’m thinking of James Marsters who played Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer; he was pretty good, but slipped up with some regularity.) I think it must be something in the way actors are trained in the two countries.

Regardless of the medium, it is absolutely imperative to employ a British accent when depicting a Nazi or Roman. ;-)

It is acceptable to portray a Nazi using a bad German accent. And Tony Curtis made a great Roman in Spartacus, but he is sui generis and “was taught de classics.”

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Posted: 23 July 2010 07:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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I think you’re a bit harsh, Dave.

James Cromwell’s Prince Philip in The Queen is bang on.

Depp was quite good in Sweeney Todd and From Hell. Robert Downey Jr can also do a decent Pom (and Aussie, for that matter) though he was somewhat wobbly in Sherlock Holmes.

I agree that there is probably a much more extensive list of Englishfolk who can do a flawless American accent. I was going to say Branagh, but then I remembered he’s Irish. He says he adopted an English accent to avoid bullying.

EDIT: with regard to the cause - there are a lot more American TV shows on the box in England than there are English shows on in the US, and American film dominates the British box offices. English people hear American accents for hours every day, more or less from birth. English accents are something Americans hear less often.

EDIT2: On my Facebook notes, along with the List of Cool Mormons and List of Humorous Canadians, there is the List of terrible, terrible accents in movies, which currently reads:

1/ Dick van Dyke’s “cockney” accent in Mary Poppins
2/ James Coburn’s “Australian” accent in The Great Escape
3/ Laurence Olivier’s “German” accent in Marathon Man
4/ Laurence Olivier’s “Quebecois” accent in 49th parallel
5/ Laurence Olivier’s “Moorish-Venetian” accent in Othello
6/ Orson Welles’s “?????????” accent in Ferry To Hong Kong

[ Edited: 23 July 2010 07:28 AM by OP Tipping ]
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Posted: 23 July 2010 07:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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Depp and Downey make valiant attempts but there is no way they could fool an Englishman into thinking them fellow countrymen. I can’t speak to Cromwell, not having seen the film in question.

I don’t think it’s the training so much that gives British actors the edge in transatlantic imitation; I should think it’s far more to do with the fact that the British are steeped in American accents in the media from childhood onwards. Hollywood movies, TV, we are far more exposed to the American accent than the Americans are to ours. Consequently our actors can draw on a vast reservoir of memory when playing Americans. This is no guarantee, of course, that they’ll get it right; they still need the skill to reproduce exactly that voice they’re hearing inside and most of them don’t succeed, but, as I say, I think it’s enough to give British actors the edge in the imitation stakes.

(This would apply to Australians too. I was surprised to find that Anthony La Paglia of Without A Trace is Australian, his New York accent seemed flawless, although I’m not exactly the best judge

[ Edited: 23 July 2010 08:46 AM by aldiboronti ]
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Posted: 23 July 2010 08:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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I’m sure the pervasiveness of American media plays a role, but I think there’s another factor.

My impression is that Britain is richer in localized (and class) accents than the US, and that the British are much more attentive to accents among their countrymen*, which may also have some bearing on the ability of British actors to accurately mimic other accents.

*

An Englishman’s way of speaking
Absolutely classifies him.
The moment he talks
He makes some other Englishmen despise him.

(I realize that British ≠ English, but I think that this is not limited just to the English.)

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Posted: 23 July 2010 08:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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I agree about Anthony La Paglia.  Loved the show and loved the rather disturbed character he played.  His accent was odd but very New York.

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Posted: 23 July 2010 10:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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I thought Kim Cattrall did a great British accent in Ghostwriter, but I now know she actually is born British although she lived the early part of her youth in Canada. At the age of eleven she went back to the UK where she got her dramatic training so it’s not that strange she got it right (to my ear).

Then I wondered, which accent would be the one she has to act? Does here Canadian background show through in e.g. ‘Sex and the City’?
I can spot a Candian accent if put in some effort ("aboot"), but of course not as good as any of you.

[ Edited: 23 July 2010 10:29 AM by Dutchtoo ]
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Posted: 23 July 2010 11:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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There are two levels of quality to stage accents. On the first level, the actor’s accent is convincing enough that disbelief is suspended. James Marsters, Johnny Depp, and Robert Downey, Jr. are in this category, as are a number of American actors. It’s not that you would actually mistake them for being English, but nothing prevents you from accepting that they are for purposes of the performance.

The other level is an accent that is utterly convincing. I would put Bamber, West, and La Paglia (I had forgotten about him), in this category. I have yet to hear an American actor in this category—there may be some, but I haven’t seen the performances. (I don’t remember James Cromwell’s performance in The Queen. I saw the movie, but I just don’t remember him other than thinking he really looked the part.)

If you think I’m too harsh, remember that I’m an American judging affected English accents, and I’m not finding the American actors convincing.

And I would nominate Keanu Reeves to be in the top five worst accents of all time. He doesn’t quite sink to Dick Van Dyke levels, but he comes close.

Aside: There is a wonderfully funny bit in Season 2 of The Wire where Dominic West, who plays a Baltimore homicide detective, affects a English accent, badly, as part of an undercover assignment. You’ve got an English actor playing an American who is using an unconvincing English accent. If you don’t know West is English, the bit is merely amusing, but if you do, the irony is just too funny.

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Posted: 15 June 2011 05:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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I meant to ask at the time…

Is Laurie’s accent in House _perfect_? That is, is it completely convincing to an American ear?

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Posted: 16 June 2011 05:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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OP Tipping - 15 June 2011 05:11 PM

Is Laurie’s accent in House _perfect_? That is, is it completely convincing to an American ear?

I think his accent is convincing.  To the point that when I see him on, say, the Craig Ferguson show, I find his normal British accent jarring—and that’s even after watching him so many years on Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster.

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Posted: 16 June 2011 09:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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I agree about Hugh Laurie’s House accent being convincing to an American.  I was impressed with his accent in 1999’s Stuart Little, where he played Stuart’s adoptive father, an upper class Upper East-Sider, and I thought he was about 99% there at the time.

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Posted: 16 June 2011 02:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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Likewise, if I only knew Laurie from House, I would have no suspicion that he was not American.

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Posted: 17 June 2011 12:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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On the other hand, I can’t think of any American actors who do a truly convincing British accent.

Think of a couple of brilliant American actresses, then: Lee Remick as Kay Summersby, opposite Robert Duvall’s Eisenhower - or Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman . (Not that I’m the greatest judge of a British accent, I admit; but they could have fooled me).

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Posted: 19 June 2011 08:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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Renée Zellweger did a good Estuary accent in the Bridget Jones films, for a Swiss-Norwegian Texan, and Gwyneth Paltrow certainly didn’t jar, for me, as another American-playing-a-Londoner in Sliding Doors. Are we developing a thesis here that American actresses find it easier to do British accents than American actors do?

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Posted: 19 June 2011 11:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]
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Not necessarily. Maybe they’re just more professionally competent.

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Posted: 19 June 2011 12:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]
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Does anyone remember Laurence Olivier as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1976)? I recall thinking at the time that his accent sounded totally phoney. I suppose everyone has their really awful off days......

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