Do Accurate Accents Matter in Entertainment?

“Mary Poppins3” by Trailer screenshot – Mary Poppins Trailer. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

My American in-laws and I had the pleasure of seeing the Chicago production of Kinky Boots yesterday.  Those in the U.K. would know the title as the 2005 movie based upon the true story of a man who inherited his father’s shoe factory in Northamptonshire and turned to making footwear for drag queens and transvestites to save the company from going under.  Well, what I saw was the Tony-award winning musical crafted in the hands of Cyndi Lauper’s music and lyrics and Harvey Fierstein’s dialogue.

I started to panic when one of the actors came on the stage, in character, and performed a monologue on his cell phone about how he had to go to work in the shoe factory and the audience needed to shut their phones down.  It would have been really clever, if there weren’t slips in the accent punctuated with a distinctive honk in his voice when he said “wanker”.  It only got worse from there.  What I heard afterwards was a cacophony of various approximations of English accents.  Some of the actors did their homework.  Others weren’t up to the challenge.

And I am sure some of you are asking why I am being so picky.  Well, let me explain.  The characters were supposed to be born and raised in Northamptonshire, and they occasionally travelled to London as a counterpoint.  So, this was not a musical that could be just set anywhere.  It wasn’t something like Shakespearean play that could be molded into different settings.  There was a lot emphasis about how they were in a “small town” of Northampton with a dying shoe industry.  (It’s only a city of 212,000 people.  Lauper and Fierstein did not get a good enough grip on England to get their facts straight and build up the tension of what was going on.  It made me wish Eddie Izzard was part of the project.)  If these characters are flittering around with their voices, how am I supposed to believe the story they are telling, when I have lived amongst the real people?

My fellow Americans, imagine sitting in a theater in London, and you are seeing a musical set in Atlanta cast with British actors.  Let’s say this a musical where the setting and context is crucial, say the Civil Rights era.  Imagine what you hear is some of the actors sounding like Cooter from the Dukes of Hazzard after downing a fifth of Jack.  Others have the Midwestern neutral accent that you hear on the national newscasts, but quite a few of them regress back into their regular regional voices every third word.  Meanwhile, there are the few gems who nail it, and you just want to run onto the stage and kiss them.  That was my experience yesterday.

Maybe the best thing we can call this is Dick Van Dyke Syndrome.  In the U.K., the benchmark of an American doing a shite English accent is Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.  Everyone else is measured against him.  Even the Boffin asked me, “Were they as bad as Dick Van Dyke?” when I gave my review.  For the record, some of them were better.  Some of them were worse.

I am only discussing theater, but we can certainly extrapolate this point into movies and TV.  And we have heard our fair share of British actors who have mangled American accents.  Exhibit A:  Sean Connery in The Untouchables.  You mean to tell me he was supposed to be Chicago Irish when Chicago permeated every pore of that movie?  Exhibit B: Ewan MacGregor in Big Fish.  His deep Alabama drawl is absolutely pathetic in comparison to Albert Finney’s older version of the same character.  It somewhat undercuts the credibility of the story.  Of course, the bad accents did not completely ruin the movies, but having the main actors nail the accents would have improved them.

I know I am being negative about the whole accent business, but I promise you I wasn’t sitting through the whole show stewing about the voices.  Trust me, the choreography by Jerry Mitchell and the musical numbers were fantastic everything you want from Broadway.  In fact, I told my in-laws I wanted Kinky Boots to be a rock-n-roll opera to avoid the accent issue entirely.  I am just thinking that those extra details would have made the experience better for me, especially since my in-laws treated me to a very expensive theater ticket.  I felt guilty that I wasn’t getting their money’s worth.

But I am in the minority.  I ended up doing a little research about accents in theater and came up with two interesting articles in the New York Times and the Guardian.   If you only have time to read one, read the Guardian one.  In summary of what the article said, actors and directors are in a no-win situation regarding accents.  What the actors were doing on stage were basically what the American audience expected.  Basically, it expects Dick Van Dyke.  (I have my work cut out for me to debunk a lot of British misconceptions.)  Sometimes the directors tell the actors not to go for accuracy to avoid criticism for not doing the voices correctly enough.  It’s better to miss the archery target completely than to aim for the bullseye and only hit the red.  Meanwhile, those of us more familiar with the nuances have to suffer.

Do accents matter to you when you are watching entertainment?  Why or why not?

24 thoughts on “Do Accurate Accents Matter in Entertainment?

  1. They matter, and I’m not just talking about British and American accents. Have you ever listened to Southern accents in American movies? Sometimes they’ll get it right, but an embarrassing proportion make me want to hide behind the couch, and I’m not even from the South. Can you imagine a restaurant that told the cook, “They’re not used to good food. Just throw some slop on the table, because it’s what they expect”?

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  2. Oh, inaccurate accents bug the snot out of me. It seems to me if an actor is going to get paid that much to do a movie, they should get the accents right. Another thing that really, really bugs me in movies, is when the flora of the scene are not in keeping with the setting. I watched the “Gallows” the other night – and in a scene shot outside – there was a palm tree way in the distance. That would have been fine, except for the fact the movie was supposed to have taken place in NEBRASKA – no palm trees in Nebraska. Details people, details!!!!

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      1. Yes, like a microwave in the early 70s or the cars aren’t just right. Military stuff gets me too, like saluting in places where you are not supposed to salute, the decorations on the uniform aren’t at the right spot. The thing that drives me most crazy is in hospital scenes, you can hear the ventilator going, but the patient isn’t intubated (maybe he only has a nasal cannula on). That drives me nuts!!!! Where are the medical advisors in these films?

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        1. If the inaccurate details infringe on the story, then they bother me. If they don’t, I just let them go. I am a veteran and have somewhat of a medical writing background, so I do pick up on those things too, but if I just sit there and dissect everything, I would just go crazy and enjoy nothing.

          Although, I am a huge Hugh Laurie fan but absolutely hate House because of all the medical ridiculousness.

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          1. I think I watched one episode of House, and after he had conducted the MRI, ran the lab work and did the Neurosurgery – I was like – this is preposterous – I couldn’t watch anymore silliness. I try not to dissect either – but sometimes I cannot let it slip by without making a little comment.

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  3. I’m originally from the Boston area (Massachusetts), and nothing grinds my gears more than an awful attempt at this accent. Some glaring examples are Ben Affleck in The Town, and Leo DiCaprio in Shutter Island. It’s a very difficult accent to get right, and I wish Hollywood would stop trying to do it.

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      1. That’s interesting… I didn’t know that about him. I’ve lost my accent living in the south – maybe that happened to him as well. But I still have a keen ear for it, and certainly know how it doesn’t sound.

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  4. It matters! It sounds like the actors should have not attempted to use any accent but the one they grew up with. This would ruin the acting for me. You are in a great position to see right through the phoney accents. Side note – I lived in Ontario for a while in the 80’s and returned to Michigan using the ‘aye’ thing. I still do sometimes… I love Canada!

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    1. Living in another country is something everyone should do if they have the fortune to be offered the opportunity. It is never easy, but it does wonders for you as a person. It also makes you a big fat pain in the ass because you question more about what your own country does.

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  5. I was just in a play where we tried to do English accents. Mine was cockney and I’ve always been told I have a good cockney accent. I think I was better than Dick Van Dyke but I couldn’t say by how much. Yes, accents matter, accuracy in all things matters, I do not agree with those who bleat, “It’s FICTION!” and “It’s JUST entertainment!” That said, one does the best one can. We couldn’t afford vocal coaches (as for example movie stars can). And I strive to enjoy a piece of theatre with lousy accents.

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  6. I do think accents matter! Quite a bit! And use of foreign languages, too. I still remember being irritated as a highschooler when Friends had a couple Russian guys speaking Russian-sounding gibberish instead of, you know, actual Russian. I figured it said a lot about the presumed ignorance of the viewers. (Oh my gosh, how snobby do I sound right now?)

    That said, I will be the first to admit that my ears are not very well-tuned to regional accents. At all. Even in the US, where I have lived my whole life. I couldn’t tell you the difference between different varieties of Southern accents, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to tell if an accent is fake or not. I’m even worse when it comes to different locations of English-speakers, from different areas of England to Australia and/or New Zealand. I’m so sorry – I hear you cringing from all the way over here!

    I’m honestly better at hearing, say, the Cantonese accent when a Hong Kong native speaks Mandarin, or how a Mandarin accent influences a person’s spoken Japanese (or vice versa). I also know that I LOVE the sound of Christopher Lee’s spoken Russian (random made-for-TV movie called Detonator) but I couldn’t tell you whether it’s a “good” accent or not; I can only tell you that he made an effort and is miles away from the output of most other American-spoken Russian.

    TL/DR: I 100% agree that it’s important, but for the most part I can’t tell. So I’m not the best judge. But I do love reading everyone’s comments!

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    1. No cringing here. Honestly. I admit that I am not an expert on every kind of accent either. I met a mom at the Sprog’s school, and I knew she was from Australia or New Zealand, but I could not guess which one. I admitted as much, and she had a chuckle. She told me not to worry about it. It turns out she is a Kiwi, and she told me the Australians and the New Zealanders can’t figure it out either.

      In some ways, I am more in tune to the nuances of different English accents than I am American accents. I have a grip on the different Northeastern accents because that is where I grew up, but the Midwestern ones elude me. Some of the Southern ones I can get. Forget about the West Coast and the other parts.

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