Thursday, 9 October 2014

I'm good at some accents - but Geordie, Welsh and most American accents defeat me

Some accents just come to you out of the blue – for instance, you think “Brummie”, open your mouth and, after about ten seconds for adjustments, out comes a pretty decent Brummagen accent. Liverpudlian is the same: I do a pretty decent Stephen Gerard post-match interview – you know, whiny and tired and a bit depressed (and that’s when his team has won). When BBC TV News were looking for someone to do an Ulster accent for a John Cole tribute video, I got the gig. I can do a Bernard Ingham-style Yorkshire accent and a broader, all-purpose working-class Northern one. My Cornish is sort of okay, and I do a Mummerset one that would pass muster on The Archers.

Given I’m half-Scottish – and that half mainly from Glasgow – it’s not surprising that I can manage several varieties of Glaswegian, from sing-song Billy Connolly to dead-pan Alex Ferguson to refined “Kelvinsaide”. I can also do a bit of Highlander, but it tends to fall apart after about 30 seconds. And as I’ve lived most of my life in London, I can do a variety of cockney accents. And, as I’ve spent most of my life among middle-class English folk, I can do middle-class, clipped military and posh (though the demotic accent now affected by young Royals chums defeats me). As for old-style posh, the inability of many young British actors (apart from those who were brought up speaking it at home) to get anywhere close to pulling it off is a source of irritation (as is the ridiculous tendency to cast non-Scottish actors as Scottish characters – I mean, it’s not as if there aren’t enough decent Scottish actors available).

So I’ve got quite a good ear, and I’m not a bad mimic. In that case, why are there so many British accents I can’t tune into? For instance, my Welsh and Geordie always end up sounding like a truly dreadful attempt to imitate Peter Sellers on “Goodness Gracious Me”. And I can’t even get close to the appalling “innit-speak” of the modern urban teen (perhaps because I find it so ugly and rootless and hugely unappealing).

Apart from Welsh and Geordie, the accents I’d really like to be better at are American ones. I can do Mafioso, FDR/Katharine Hepburn patrician, uptight mid-West business types, a bit of frontier gibberish (“Consarnit!”), and a few other bits and bobs. But I cannot, for the life of me, just open my mouth and do any of the country’s main regional accents. I love the South – but my southern accent(s) suck. (The furthest south I got on my first visit to the States was Maryland – i.e. Merlin – and I was fascinated by the pronunciation of road as, approximately, “ra-oood” or “rowd”, but I can't even do that properly.)  I watch Fox News quite a bit – but I can’t do that ubiquitous, standard-issue, white-bread, newsreader accent which every British actor now seems to have mastered. And I can’t do any form of black American accent or Boston or Brooklyn or wherever. As for my Canadian, it’s unconvincing – H.A.L. the computer with the “out” sound replaced by “oat”.

I suppose it’s futile to ask why we can master some accents and not others: some people take to playing the piano instantly but find the violin or the guitar difficult, just as some find French easy to learn but can’t even begin to get to grips with German. Anyway, if you’re in the least bit interested in accents – Bristish or American - here are some YouTube videos I found helpful. I'll start with an English girl talking about the differences between standard and Southern American:

Here, in the second in a series of videos, is a Southerner on how to speak Southern:

Now, an English actor on how to do Geordie:

A Canadian on Received Pronunciation (not bad - but he needs to downplay the "en" in "heaven", and his Scottish accent is truly abysmal):

Finally, a demonstration of the impenetrability of some English country accents:


  1. The English lass, bless her heart, has a real future in Hollywood :). I think the problem is we don't talk with our chests...the huskiness comes from the back of the throat I reckon but that's as far down as we go. I guess that's where the Hollywood Southern accent comes from...Midwesterners gasping because of the way they enunciate...then changing the vowels in the mouth.

    The Southern is good :)...but, he's speaking carefully for demonstration.


    And from her Sh%t Southern Women Say...

    Those are quintessential...that's what my sister sounds like.

    Julia Fowler writes the stuff...and she plays the redneck made good in these bits. That's something that's missed in these accent videos...there are class distinctions in our accents. And of course there are differences between Mississippi and Georgia or Georgia and North Carolina...

    The Geordie accent is my favorite outside of Dixie.

    1. Thanks for the video recommendations - I've worked my way through the other videos in the two series, and intend to start using "cattywampus", "bless their hearts!" and "too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash" at every available opportunity from now on. (All those perms that feature in Awkward Family Photos snaps from the '80s have been explained - Southern Mommas!). I saw another YouTube video where a voice coach suggests that Southern accents represent a slackening, broadening, and elongation of English accents -
      - I tried it and it works pretty well, especially if simultaneously applying Bandanaman's lessons on "what", "where", "here" and "there" etc.

      As for North American accents, well, one key source has to be Ulster, I reckon - Van Morrison and Rory McIlroy, for instance, sound part-American (at least, New York) to me (they've both spent a lot of time there) apart from the double-o sound.

      You're right about the class thing in the videos - someone should do one (what about you???). Ditto a decent video on the sheer variety of Southern accents (Tim Wilson's comedy routine was good, but I'd be interested in a more academic approach, dull fellow that I am).

      Despite the current state of Newcastle, Britons who have to phone call centres regularly vote Geordie and Scots as their favourite accents, because they trust the person they're talking to.

  2. Very interesting post, indeed. Thanks. My computer is not working well at the moment so to my regret I am unable to play your various clips.
    Some things that mystify me about accents/actors:
    1. Generally, British people cannot do American accents with the exception of the Old Etonian trio of actors [ Damien Lewis, Dominic West, Hugh Laurie]. This is according to American commentators. Cockney actors are hopeless - Caine, Stamp, Hoskins, Oldman, Roth. The worst offender was Laurence Olivier [catch him in the 1978 film "The Betsy"].
    2. Scottish actors cannot do any accents. No matter what nationality Sean Connery is portraying the character is always broad Edinburgh. And non-Scots cannot master the Scottish accent [exception: Peter Sellers and Alec Guiness]. See Orson Welles as Macbeth.
    3. Actors from the Irish Republic and Australia do superb American accents [too numerous to mention]. The Welsh are distinctly iffy...well, you know.
    4. Brando worked hard at his English accent. Passable in "Julius Caesar" [John Gielgud spent a lot of time in his trailer], but he lost control in "Mutiny on the Bounty" and "Queimada" when there was nobody to control him.[His German and Irish accents are, on the other hand, pretty good].
    The only accents I have ever wanted to master are those of James Mason [see Rich Little] and Alan Rickman [the trick here apparantly is to stop your teeth from making contact with the inside of your mouth. So now you know!]
    It's a huge subject.

    1. I think you may have to revise your opinion of Britons doing American accents - the number of English (and Scots, irish and Welsh) actors passing for Americans in US drama series and films is astonishing. When your computer stops acting up, the incomprehensible old rustic in the "Hot Fuzz" clip is currently one of the main characters in a new horror series, "The Strain", where he's doing a good job playing a New York pawn-broker.

      The previous inability of English actors to do American was played on nicely by Hugh Grant in "Little Mickey Blue Eyes".

      Agreed on Australians doing American - there's evidently a natural fit.

      I disagree with you on Brando's Fletcher Christian - I thought he did a pretty good job, although he severely over-clips - "You bleddy barstid!" Mind you, his main competition at the time was Dick Van Dyke in "Murray Poapins".

      I hate to blow my own trumpet, but I have received praise for my Chames Mason on several occasions. Not so good on Alan Rickman.

  3. You also do a good one of Del Toro in 'The Usual Subjects.'
    An actors life for me."

  4. That was after his role in 'The Usual Suspects.'
    In brief this explains one of many reasons why actors should hang on to their day jobs-failing to memorize lines is one of them.In my case it was a complete inability to act at all although I did once have seventeen lines in dialogue with Peter Ustinov only fourteen of which were left on the cutting room floor.
    You could probably if you so wished make a decent living doing radio plays if they still have them,and voice-overs.

    1. Please remind me - which Ustinov film was it? And what were the three lines that made it? And is it available on YouTube???

    2. The only voice-over I ever did was a corporate video for a company I was working for at the time, which doesn't really count. Afterwards, my boss told me I had a "dark brown" voice. Not quite sure what he meant, but I suspect "woofly". Unfortunately, whenever I hear myself, I'm reminded of Rabbi LIonel Blue of Today Programme fame - "Hello Sue, hello listeners."
      I did a few "simultaneous translation" voice-overs for TV news reports (we all did) - several times as Sadam Hussein, until my editor told me I made "an unconvincing towel-head". Cruel world, television.

  5. Flattered,how long have you got?
    It was the NBC 1989 tv miniseries 'Around The World in 80 Days' starring Pierce Brosnan,Julia Nickson,Peter Ustinov and a stellar cast which Wikipedia describes as "multiple cameo appearances."I could'nt agree more.
    With the help of an agent who shrewdly steered me towards parts that did'nt require the sorts of accents you mention,I made a decent living in the mysterious Far East doing 'gweilo' heavies in forgettable Canto gangster films,and innumerable bits in tv/newspaper/magazines advertising booze,restaurants,clothing,hotels,airlines;you name it.
    Not so much 'failed' as bored with the hanging around.Its a funny job for a grown man to have,although I still admire the truly great actors.