Friday, May 27, 2016

Dodgy upper lip

A few decades ago, it seems like actors weren't traveling across the Atlantic as much. There were, yes, a number of Britons who had relocated to Hollywood, where they'd heard the money was. The inverse, American actors staying long-term in Britain, was rarer by far. And the cost of getting someone to make a special trip was expensive, Like, major motion picture expensive.

The upshot is that if you saw an American character on a British show, the accents were very faux. I've noticed this in, among other things, reruns of Danger Man. This show, Patrick McGoohan's pre-Prisoner outlet, was eventually marketed as Secret Agent in the US, with Johnny Rivers's "Secret Agent Man" tacked onto the credits in place of the original spritely instrumental. It was a mostly high quality program, making good use of McGoohan's moody anti-charisma, but it wasn't a big budget affair by any means.

The tell isn't the accent itself. In terms of phrasing, these players could often pass for people from the larger Midwestern cities, say. But sometimes the scenarist doesn't know the right word to use, so someone says "rubbish" when they'd really say "garbage." Or the stress is on the wrong syllable. Hearing a Yank soldier say la-BORE-a-tree instead of LAB-ra-tore-e is enough to break the illusion.

It need hardly be said that this era saw a lot of painful British accents on American TV as well.


susan said...

The dominant accent in American entertainment these days is the midwestern version of English but for a long time it was the mid-Atlantic mode of speech that was most popular on the stage and in movies. Patrick McGoohan was American by birth but was raised in Ireland and the UK so wasn't really American by culture. I've looked at a couple of excerpts from 'Danger Man' and he just sounds mid-Atlantic to me, someone who enunciated well and was accepted by audiences in the US and UK pretty much equally.

Less well known actors than him playing Brits in England have always had the problem of sounding authentic. I'm not sure if it's the stage training most English actors undergo that made them so much better at taking on regional accents but it could have been the simple fact that for a long time Hollywood was the place for actors to look for success. Nowadays, it's different and English speaking actors from both sides of the Atlantic are more flexible in being able to define their characters through their local speech patterns. Of course, the ones who do British accents best are still the ones who spent at least part of their childhood in the UK.

Yes, I agree 'la-BORE-a tree' sounds weird.

Ben said...

In theory you'd think the Midwestern accent would be the default, but I think it's actually Far West these days. Not too surprising, since a number of actors working in Hollywood aren't from that far away. Plus another popular filming location is Vancouver, and the British Columbia accent blends into the Western US better than Ontarians do in the East.

But yeah, McGoohan, who was raised in Ireland in Yorkshire, was a wily and versatile actor. I believe he turned down the chance to play James Bond a couple of times.

One other explanation I've heard is that the UK has a greater number of local accents in a smaller area. The old saw about how Britons think that a hundred miles is a long distance while Americans think that a hundred years is a long time.