“Stand by for the opening night of the national television service!” announced a perfect British voice in November 1956. Except it wasn’t the birth of British television. It was the birth of Australian television.
Few things recall this bygone era as much as the sound of an affected, rich British accent. It was how newsreel narrators talked. It was how glamourous movie stars like Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn talked. Such accents dominated the airwaves of the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, to say nothing of the subcontinent.
Nations take time to find their voices, so it was perhaps predictable that they would adopt the “upper class” accents of another country instead of embracing their own. In Australia this was bound up in the institutionalized inferiority complex of cultural cringe.
Yet half a century later, Hollywood films and television series still fall back on familiar tropes when it comes to accents. Fantasy worlds are British, Disney villains inevitably sound like they’re stepping out of a first-class carriage with a glass of Pimms, and films set in foreign lands are populated by English speakers with heavy “foreign” accents. Why are we still drawn to these stereotypes?
“Eliza,” says Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, “You are to stay here for the next six months learning to speak beautifully, like a lady in a florist’s shop.” When this musical was written in 1956, the notion of Speaking Correctly was already ripe material for parody, and yet in some ways we still haven’t managed to shrug it off.
Received pronunciation is also known as RP, the Queen’s English, Standard English or BBC English. You know it: that clear, authoritative accent from southern England, shorn of all regional variations and color. The voice of the British Empire in all its glory. This is the sound that was heard on evening news bulletins all over the world when television was invented. It was the default standard among the colonies, as well as in Britain.
In America it was a slightly tweaked version known as Mid-Atlantic, or Transatlantic, a consciously learned blend of English RP and Standard American. Think of Cary Grant’s distinctive plummy tones, or if you prefer a retrospective example, Pete Campbell in Mad Men. It denoted class, status and education. Commonplace in the 1930s following the introduction of “talkies” (sound films), it gradually receded over the next thirty years.
This deference to a single, homogenizing accent was even more pronounced in class-conscious Britain. In Patsy Rosenberg’s The Right To Speak, actor Sir Ian McKellan describes the silent war on regional accents that took place in Britain:
“Back in Lancashire as a child, I spoke with a flat northern voice… My would-be posher schoolmates went to ‘Elocution’ to have their native sounds taken out like the tonsils. Similar violations were perpetrated in drama schools at the time. At Cambridge, undergraduates from public schools mocked my northern vowels and I taught myself to disguise them.”
Thou art a villain
Have you ever noticed how in Hollywood movies all the bad guys are played by Brits?
Ever since Alan Rickman captured American audiences in Die Hard and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – or go back even further to Peter Cushing in Star Wars and Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs – the default evil accent of choice is RP. Educated, suave, sneering, English. This could be because of the tendency of big American movie stars to go for more heroic roles, or some distant collective memory of British imperialism. Or maybe there’s something about a moustache-twirling villain with a posh English accent that’s just easy to dislike.
Disney seems to have a particular penchant for female British villains. From the evil queen in Snow White to Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians, and more recently Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent, Disney villainesses seem to share a common Transatlantic accent – that curious English-American hybrid from the 1930s. According to University of California linguistics lecturer Bob Kennedy, by the time Cinderella was released in 1950, “there had been an established kind of prototype of the mature female villain and part of that prototype included using a Transatlantic accent (which had a connotation of power).”
Accents and dialects provide cultural shorthands to tap directly into popular stereotypes. Take another common character type: the Cockney working-class-loveable-scamp, the Eliza Doolittles and Michael Caines. As soon as they open their mouths, you know their background, their status, and probably the role they will play in the drama. It’s interesting to note that these subtle cues are usually overlooked when films are synchronized into other languages: overdubbing tends to use standard accents unless regional varieties are central to the plot. For example, the German version of My Fair Lady dubbed Eliza Doolittle’s Cockney into the Berliner dialect, while the Italians used a mix of Napoli, Ciociaria and Apulia dialects. Lord knows what they made of Dick van Dyke’s regrettable attempt at Cockney in Mary Poppins.
Cockneys can occasionally be bad guys too, like Sir Ben Kingsley’s character in Sexy Beast or the host of nasties in Guy Richie’s Snatch, but they are a different kind – brutish, impulsive, visceral – rather than the haughty evil-genius type. Speaking of Snatch, an honorable mention must go to Brad Pitt’s rendition of an accent that is pretty much unintelligible. It presented quite the challenge to dub for overseas markets: the Spanish used their own regional variant of “Traveler slang,” while the Germans and the French just mumbled very fast.
Other worlds, familiar sounds
The history and fantasy film genres are dominated by British accents, whether they take place in the fictional realms of Middle Earth and Westeros, or the actual ancient world depicted in sword-and-sandals epics like Exodus, Gladiator and the TV series Rome.
In Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, the plan was for the hobbits to speak with a rural Gloucestershire accent, except for the more educated Frodo and Bilbo who naturally speak in RP. In fact almost all the accents are RP, with a twist here and there to differentiate them. This is perhaps reflective of the classic “high fantasy” genre that Tolkien helped to shape.
There’s no such hegemony in Game of Thrones, however. Regional accents abound, from Sheffield to Scotland to Wales. There is tremendous variation although not quite as much consistency – there are some very unusual pan-European accents, and then there’s Peter Dinklage’s bizarre concoction.
But why British? Are there not sufficient varieties of American accents? Game of Thrones novelist George R. R. Martin himself has said that English accents work best for fantasy, as the genre is rooted in the Middle Ages. Another possibility is that by using foreign accents that are still familiar (and understandable) to American audiences, filmmakers can nudge viewers out of their ordinary world, into a place that is both strange and familiar. There are practical considerations too: Game of Thrones is partly shot in the British Isles and often casts local actors.
For anyone who still thinks that fantasy and period dramas should drop all the pretense and utilize modern American accents, we dare you not to cringe at Kevin Costner’s inexplicable American accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
Same same but different: Non-English English in Hollywood
It’s a daring Hollywood filmmaker who will test his audience’s knowledge, and patience, with foreign languages. No surprise then that Quentin Tarantino broke all the rules with Inglourious Basterds, and wrote long scenes in German, French and Italian. He put language front and center – like when Colonel Landa deliberately switches from French to English so the Jews hiding under the floorboards won’t understand, or when Lieutenant Archie Hicox must speak German to go undercover.
Such authentic treatment of foreign languages is extremely rare – see The Passion of the Christ for an even more extreme example, all shot in Aramaic and Latin. Normally when we think of foreign languages in movies, it’s most likely a bunch of Nazis standing around speaking heavily accented English. Vee haf seen zat before, ya?
Hollywood has been moving away from this convention which was de rigeur thirty years ago, but now feels dated and clumsy. Instead, movies that deal with foreign characters or events take a different strategy: Characters that we know “should” be speaking a different language have a slight accent, an odd vocal twist or speech rhythm, rather than a complete caricature of a foreigner speaking English. A Most Wanted Man is a recent example. The accents are certainly foreign, but not easy to place – just sufficient to nudge the audience into another world.