This weekend I had a few drinks with Paul Thompson, a film professor at NYU and noted Brit playwright. Well, more than a few actually, since I basically sat next to the swan pond all weekend long, scattering the grounds with fallen soldiers of white wine bottles, while supporting Paul in his effort to read through six scripts over the weekend ― so we covered a lot of ground, including dialect and all its various meanings.
My family and I had joined Paul and Veronique (a French-born internationalist and TV production-type heavy hitter, who seems to have settled on a charming Australian accent for whatever reason) at a place they had for the weekend in a posh corner of the Garden State. We went along so that we could let our daughter go and keep their daughter company on Easter weekend whilst their parents sunned by the swan pond.
Paul has a great take on American actors doing a British accent, which sounds like an extreme version of that old Boston accent gag, “I pahked my cah in havahd squah.” I fancy I can tell the difference between all those British accents, with all their regional and class markers. For example, I am driven nuts by the current talent we use for the voice prompts on a phone system, since it sounds like some kind of bounder or poser. Just off, not sure why. We’ve got to get Colette back into the studio again, since I much prefer the dulcet tones of what I hear as something just short of the plummy tones of “Received English” (the “Queen’s English” of what we Yanks think of when we try on our own mock “jolly-good” English accents). So does Colette speak advanced received English, or something else, I don’t know? I’ll have to get her to comment.
Why the British accent on our phone system? We thought it would help us sound international. Renato Benninato, who consulted on sales for us when he was with Common Sense Advisory, always said that “accent equals access,” maintaining that a young woman speaking with a foreign accent will make more connects and get more meetings more easily than the fog-horned, rapid-fire patter of a guy like, say, me.
Personally, I try to speak standard, but my demeanor is such a ridiculous caricature of a pushy New Yorker that I can’t pretend to be other than what I am. I had a saleswoman once who actually took diction to shed the flat, nasally tones of her outer borough birthright; Queens English apparently carrying less cachet than the Queen’s English.
Roger, my friend and neighbor, is the last person I know who speaks that lovely upper class New York dialect which you hardly ever hear anymore, except in Betty Davis movies or anything with Kitty Carlisle (What’s my line?). I’d love to be able to do that. Or better yet, the 1850s working class accent used by Daniel Day-Lewis in “Gangs of New York.” At first listen, it sounds really odd, but ancient and correct too, or at least it did to my ear. Apparently, Day-Lewis got hold of an old wax cylinder that Thomas Edison had used to record Walt Whitman, who hailed from Brooklyn and had an interest in the rough trade offered by the Bowery Boys and the soap lock set back in the good old days.
So if the accent can be mastered, then we can own the role and all the benefits that occur thru cast and class. But woe to any who are found out. That’s the kind of exposure and humiliation every bounder must fear.
Meanwhile, back at the swan pond, we had two 15-year olds bent on their own nefarious purposes, speaking in a fake hillbilly accent, which seemed to involve ending every sentence with “born and raised” (which surprisingly worked pretty well).
Love to hear from any Brits on what is wrong with our voice prompt talent, and from others with stories to tell of fake accents.