LONDON — Anyone who’s been to a soccer match in Blighty will attest to the huge cultural significance of regional accents; a popular taunt across the terraces is “if you can’t talk proper, shut your mouth.”
But which thesps are best at capturing the many different accents and dialects, and how does drama school prepare actors to effortlessly switch from Geordie to Mancunian via Welsh?
“Watch Robert Carlyle,” praises acclaimed Brit helmer Danny Boyle, “It’s particularly difficult for Scots to lose their accent and feel comfortable in it, but he’s brilliant at it.”
To Boyle, whose Mumbai-set “Slumdog Millionaire” is generating frenzied buzz, maintaining authentic accents is essential to good filmmaking. “You’ve got to be specific,” he says. “If you try and generalize and make an accent that everybody is comfortable with, you end up with no one, really, because you end up in nowhere.
“Why not protect the specifics of where your film is set?” he says, adding, “the realism you get in reward is worth it.”
For this reason, Boyle insisted that the children in “Slumdog” speak in Hindi despite concerns from the money folk that it would slow the action. Likewise, his breakthrough pic, “Trainspotting,” was thoroughly Scottish down to the thick accents.
Leading Brit dialect coach Penny Dyer, who has voice-coached Helen Mirren (“The Queen”) and Cate Blanchett (“Elizabeth”), among others, says success comes when “an actor understands the process to obtain an accent or dialect, and has the attitude to come at it in an organic way.”
To Dyer, it’s “not just about putting little sounds on top. That’s what you hear from a lot of people when the accents aren’t good. You can hear the cogs turning.”
Dyer’s immersive method involves making actors understand the origins of accents, and she’s passionate about the impact of geography on sound.
“Wales is a mountainous country,” she says. “As a result, the Welsh go up the mountains and down into the valleys with their speech. They musically mark the landscape with their voice. Likewise, coast dwellers protect themselves against the sea salt air, and, as a result, they shut down the muscles at the back of the mouth and have nasal voices.”
Dyer raves about Brit actors’ voicework ability, particularly Matthew Rhys, Michael Sheen, Keira Knightley, Toby Jones, Cillian Murphy, Kate Winslet and Daniel Day-Lewis (who does not use dialect coaching), and refutes suggestions that Brits struggle to speak American convincingly.
Like Boyle, she praises Scottish thesp Kelly Macdonald’s turn as a Southern gal in “No Country for Old Men.”
While Brit A-list stars are hitting their notes, how well prepared are the stars of tomorrow?
To fast-rising Brit thesp Benedict Cumberbatch, who came to the fore playing Stephen Hawking in 2004 TV film “Hawking” and has since turned heads in “Atonement” and “The Other Boleyn Girl,” it can be difficult “to class up and down in the U.K. compared to the U.S.”
The well-spoken Cumberbatch went to leading English public school Harrow before studying at the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and has made his name playing mostly upper-class Brits in period pics. But Cumberbatch is eager not to get typecast as a toff.
“At school, I had a reputation as a good mimic,” he says. “I would constantly take off other kids or teachers. It was why I was drawn to acting — it lets you be someone other than yourself.”
However, Cumberbatch says it is harder for Brit thesps who naturally speak Received Pronunciation (RP), or “Queen’s English,” to win parts as lower-class characters.
“It can be very frustrating. Actors are constantly criticised for mockney (mock Cockney) accents, but if a Glaswegian inner-city kid pulls off a posh accent he is lauded,” Cumberbatch argues.
Thesp Alex Lanipekun, who has been attracting attention in the hit TV show “Spooks” and on the stage, has a different experience of drama school. At the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Lanipekun had to work hard on RP — not his natural speech — and was also taught a variety of dialects.
“When I got out of RADA, I had worked really hard on my RP and I got ‘Spooks.’ After that, some casting directors had to be convinced that I could do a urban street accent. I didn’t do that London ‘rudeboy’ thing in my final showcase because I can do it in my sleep,” jokes Lanipekun, who used to be a rapper in U.K. hip-hop act One.