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From the Green Room: Speaking Like Brits

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We are three weeks into rehearsal for the Actor’s Civic Theater’s production of A Christmas Carol, and I am taking a break from the British accent CD I should be listening to. At last night’s rehearsal, a dialect coach appeared and gave us some helpful hints on how to speak like 19th century English gentry; tonight he’ll be back to help those of us who are going to attack Cockney. I have the good fortune to be dealing with both. In the first act of this production I play Marley’s ghost, portrayed as an upper class ghost in this production. In the second act, I turn into Old Joe, the rag man who buys the stolen property from Scrooge’s death bed. He is about as slimy as can be, and sliminess in Englishmen is, as often as not, signified by a heavy Cockney accent.

Now, while my upper class British accent needs some fine tuning, it can pass. The Cockney, on the other hand, is a complete joke. I seem to be all over the place. I can drop my ‘aitches’ like a veritable Eliza Doolittle; I can even get rid of the “t’s” in words like better and button, substituting some sort of glottal grunt. Some of the words, however, torture me: sugar tongs, blankets, teaspoons. But even more important, when the words are all strung together sometimes they come out Cockney, sometimes something that smacks of Southern Baptist, sometimes hybrid Brooklyn (my natural accent, being Brooklyn born and bred), sometimes Scotch with a smidgeon of nasal Eastern European. The rhythms of the line are all wrong. I can’t seem to wrap my tongue around the phrasing. Besides, whenever it seems to be going well, if that ever happens, no one can understand a word of what I’m saying. My Cockney accent is a joke.

I should no doubt have my ear glued to the dialect CD. I should be practicing getting the sounds from the back of mouth where, according to our dialect coach, Cockney lives. Unfortunately, Cockney doesn’t seem to live in the back of the particular mouth residing on the front of my face, or if it does, it is clearly on life support. All I can think of are all the critical reviews I’ve read about actors, sometimes very good actors, butchering British accents. I can hear the snickering now.

“Keep at it; keep practicing.” I can hear the soothing voice of the dialect coach, a nice, gentle sort of man. “You’re getting better. I can hear the difference, already.” “You’ll be fine,” adds the director, a believer in positive reinforcement. The trouble is I too can hear what I sound like, and it isn’t pretty. All I keep thinking is Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Perhaps it’s begging the question, but wouldn’t it be better to get rid of the accent altogether, rather than make fools of ourselves (I am not the only one struggling) in the vain attempt to sound like Bob Hoskins?

Why do 19th century Englishmen have to sound like Englishmen? While it seems absurd to even ask this question, hold on for a minute. Think about it. The 19th century French men in the highly acclaimed Les Miz don’t speak in French accents. In fact they speak is beautiful British accents, and the master of the ‘ouse has a Cockney “to die for.” I remember reviewers of Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie pointing out that his American accent was less jarring than other actors playing Germans with their British accents. Surely a good accent is valuable; if nothing else it helps in the creation of verisimilitude. But clearly, a bad accent does nothing but destroy.

The obvious answer here is to cast actors who can do the accents, if the accents are in fact essential. While that may well solve the problem in any particular production, it doesn’t really deal with what may be the more central aesthetic question. To accent, or not to accent: that is the question. I recently was in a play about some older Italian immigrants for the third time; we didn’t use Italian accents. The first time I did the play we all used Italian accents. The second time, none of us used them. None of the audiences seemed to care. None of the audiences seemed to notice. How should the actors in Othello speak? Romeo and Juliet? What if you were producing Moli`re or Cyrano de Bergerac? I don’t know that Jose Ferrer would have been any better if he sounded like Peter Sellers doing Jacques Clouseau. It is certainly something to think about.

On the other hand, it may just be the sour grapes of someone simply trying to avoid going back to the dialect CD. Repeat after me: “The rain in…” Where is Stewie Griffin when you need him?

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About Jack Goodstein

  • STM

    The real trick, here, Jack, is to remember two key things: that the American English accent is rhotic … that is, all the Rs WITHIN words are prounounced “hard” – and that in non-rhotic accents like cockney, the R is almost not pronounced and the vowels tend to be flattened. Simply dropping the aitch and substituting a soft glottal sound from the throat instead of a T is a dead giveway of someone who can’t do a cockney accent.

    (Think: that awful performance and the shocking rendition of a cockney accent by American Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins).

    The cockney accent and many other English accents both within the UK and outside it, in places such as Australia and New Zealand, are non-rhotic – the R is pronounced “soft”.

    For instance, roof tilers in a non-rhotic accent would be pronounced “roof-tylahs”, or roof-tylah (singular). However, even the R at the beginning and is softened somewhat compared to the American rhotic accent. In “tylahs”, the A is soft and very subtly pronounced).

    Get my drift old boy??

    There is also a considerable flattening of the vowels. In “Now”, the o is softened so that it almost becomes a double-A sound. “Naawh”.

    Here are some great examples of ‘Strine, the old-school colloquial Australian accent which is a non-rhotic combination of Irish/Cockney, but which will have resonance in your case. Some words will be identical as speakers of both accents tend to run their words together and both flatten the vowels to a greater or lesser extent.

    1) “They ought to (as in – fix the roads, the power network, the bloody tax system, etc)” … becomes aorta (with a soft R, almost an H. And here, the T in aorta is pronounced pretty much as a very soft D). Thus: Pronounced a-ordh-a. Remember always not to overpronounce the R.

    2) “Terrace house”: pronounced terra-souse. Again, lose the hard accent on the double R.

    3) Did you go to tennis? Becomes: D’ja-goeda-tennis?

    4) Law and order. Becomes: Lauhra-Nohrda (again, taking the hard accent off the two Rs).

    5) “Glorious home” (as in Mrs Smith has a glorious home) … becomes Gloria-Soeme. In this case, the D is pronounced, but not as hard as it would be in the United States.

    In many cases, you could substitute a W for some Rs and get away with a plausible sounding cokcney accent. “All right” would then become “Orr-wight”. Soft double R, almost an H sound, again.

    My tip for you: best google up some cockney accents on YouTube. Try a couple of episodes of the London TV soap opera “Eastenders”. That’ll be good enough to give you a clue.

    But, seriously, don’t overplay the accent. An overdone cockney accent is cringe-worthy and is actually far worse than no cockney accent at all.

    Less is best.

    Good luck!

  • http://elderlythespian.blogspot.com/ Jack Goodstein

    I’LL check. Thanks for the advice.

  • STM

    Here’s another one for you. I’m working with a cockney as we speak.

    All words beginning or ending in a “th” … replace it with an F. Also applical wityhn a word.

    Ie, teef (teeth), Keef (Keith) Richards, feef (thief), uvver (other) etc.

    Ah, and there’s so much more … but you’d need years to pick the bloody thing up. Even some cockneys can’t understand each uvver.

    There’s anuvver one ‘ere I can’t understand at all.

    Perhaps the real trick is to talk like you’ve got a mouf-ful of marbles

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    ‘The 19th century French men in the highly acclaimed Les Miz don’t speak in French accents. In fact they speak is beautiful British accents, and the master of the ‘ouse has a Cockney “to die for.”‘

    Ah, but the characters in the original production of Les Mis DID speak in French accents – because it’s a French musical! The version that’s become so popular in the US and in Britain is a translation.

    Nevertheless, you hit on the crux of the matter here. In my view, it’s quite all right to use standard accents to portray foreign characters whose speech has been translated into English – whether it’s a translation of a foreign play (Brecht, for example) or an English-language play set in a foreign country (nobody expects Hamlet to have a Danish accent!).

    However, if you’re doing A Christmas Carol, you’re performing an English-language play in English, and if you don’t do the accents everyone is going to ask: since when are Scrooge et al American?

    As far as Kevin Costner goes, I think he was wise not to try for a British accent. The people of that era didn’t speak anything which would be recognisable as modern English anyway.

    Good luck with the dialect coaching!

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    . . . nobody expects Hamlet to have a Danish accent!

    And certainly not after the Olivier performance.

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