You’re not fooling anyone, you know.

A small note to people who make movies and television with actors not using their native accents:

It really doesn’t help when the non-native character’s dialogue is decidedly… native.

An example?  Sure, I can give you an example.   For unknown reasons, BBC America has decided to air the television show “Demons ” for us Yanks.  Aside from making a sane person wonder why they produced a show which is essentially “A British Buffy in London” (you can see why I don’t write titles for television), they decided that the teen-with-a-destiny’s mentor had to be American.  And for that American, they cast the toweringly magnificent blusterer, Philip Glenister.

So, okay.  Glenister is apparently working on his American accent.  Why?  Maybe he looked at Hugh Laurie’s career and said, “Well that bloke seems to be doing pretty well for himself,” and signed on.  Maybe he wants to get into Hollywood movies.  Maybe… who cares.  At any rate, he wanted to stretch his skills.  All fine so far.

Except, he seems to be having trouble with it.  And again, I don’t really care all that much.  Accents can be tough, and I would imagine doing an American accent in England is probably doubly tough.  It is probably easier to do an accent when you are filming in that country: after all, you can just turn to upwards of 90% of the crew or walk down the street on your lunch break and hear the accent you’re going for in that case.

But here is where my patience breaks down.  If you are a British* writer, please consult an American about the American character’s dialogue.  If you don’t have an American friend, find one.  Because the final nail in the coffin of an actor’s attempt at an accent is to hear them say something that 99.9% of the people in that country just wouldn’t say.  When Philip Glenister, struggling manfully with a midwestern-neutral American accent** says something about the main character’s dad dying in a “car smash,” that’s where I just stop giving the benefit of the doubt.  Because we say “car crash” or “car wreck.”

Unless you’re a pretentious git*** like me who has spent a fair bit of time in the UK, read a lot of British literature,  and watches more British media than is probably good for her, then the following sentences wouldn’t come out of an American’s mouth unless it was put there by a writer:

  • So Jess, I says, get your skates on or we’re going to miss the queue for the motor-coach.
  • Her problem is she would always take the lift in an emergency, when the notices all say use the stairs.
  • The Skoda wasn’t half ruined in that lorry smash, but you don’t hear me whingeing about it.
  • That bloke’s bird is a silly cow.
  • Eat your tea.

I could go on.  But I won’t.

*Or an American writer writing a British character, I am sure – but I am not British, so I don’t get to do that rant.

**Hint: pick a geography.  Make the character a New Yorker or a Bostonian or Texan… ANYTHING but the neutral news-anchor “nothing” accent, because those accents will give you something to anchor the accent to.  Dipthongs are your FRIEND, Phil.

***We don’t say this either.

Comments

  1. This is so funny I’ll put my comment here as well as on your Facebook stream:

    Doubly amusing (well, triply, because it’s funny overall) because:

    1) in Facebook, you’re accented characters aren’t displaying, they’re being displayed as their entities instead (another form of non–native dialog)

    2) Love the quote: “Dipthongs are your FRIEND, Phil.”

  2. I saw the title and assumed you had just watched Avatar, too. No mis-colloquialisms, but slips of accent by the main character.

  3. Well, could have been worse – they could have gotten Glenister’s American “substitute” Harvey Keitel to play the role. But I’d like to think even he would know what a crap show it is to begin with.

  4. I hope by now you really do know how awful that substitution was, Richard.

  5. The original is being aired on a local PBS station two episodes at a time. Haven’t seen a whole lot of Gene Hunt yet, will let you know.

  6. Ever since “Life on Mars” and “Ashes to Ashes” I have become a huge Glenister fan. Tuning in to “Demons” only to find him struggling desperately with the worst American accent I’ve ever heard was a real disappointment. Barring some as yet unrevealed plot detail, it seems so unnecessary to have an American character in the show at all. It’s as if all of his energy is caught up in the struggle to get every syllable right, and in the process he is unable to be the extroverted, crusty mentor he should in that role.

    By the way, I think Harvey Keitel is a great American analog for Philip Glenister.

  7. Welcome, Omar!

    Yes, P. Glenister is a huge talent and it’s criminal watching him struggle not only with the accent but with just the general American-ness. We keep watching just out of curiosity, and even having him listening to country music seems tacked on. Glenister + Charley Pride = one big mess.

    I don’t know if you saw the US version of “LoM,” but it did start Keitel in the Glenister role. Richard loved him in it, but I thought he was a disaster. To each their own…

  8. Yeah, that ultra twangy country music thing was sadly funny. It was so absurd I had to laugh. I have no idea if that was real music from an actual country music personality, or if it was just a bunch of comedic country music noises strung together for that scene. I’m not a country music fan, but even the people I know who actually wear cowboy boots and hats as part of the normal wardrobe wouldn’t listen to that, whatever it was. It was what I imagine the Grand Ole Opry would sound like if it barfed.

    Aside from the continuing hope that I will see a ray of the real Glenister shine through, it’s interesting to see what American stereotypes look like through the eyes of foreign entertainment. Stereotypes exist because there is a grain of truth involved, but that grain is always wrapped in many layers of distortion. I know it’s not PC, but I kind of like that cocky, swaggering, overly self-confident, I can do anything if you’ll kindly step back, stereotype of the average American. I mean, would we have been able to put people on the moon if there weren’t some truth to it? Neil Armstrong’s foot prints are on the moon today largely because we wouldn’t listen to the people who said it couldn’t be done.

  9. I think there’s a huge difference between cocky and arrogant and can-do optimism. Many other countries have achieved astonishing feats of technology – and most of those before European settlers and explorers ever reached our shores. The US doesn’t have a monopoly on inventiveness, creativity, imagination, or ingenuity. The very medium we are communicating on was devised by Tim Berners-Lee, a Brit.

    Having spent time in Europe and seen how our countrymen behave, there’s an unfortunate plethora of reasons for the negative stereotypes. As tourists, Americans have an irritating tendency to wonder (loudly) why everyone doesn’t do things like we do.

    Stereotypes are also EASY. I also think back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s treatment of Giles – the stiff, repressed Brit. It did have the complicity of an actual British actor – maybe that makes a difference, I don’t know.