A few weeks ago, I went to the theatre to see Kim Cattrall reprise her role in Shakespeare’s Anthony & Cleopatra with a group of friends. It wasn’t bad, save Shakespeare’s usual fault of making the final Act forty-five minutes too long – the woman, for all her histrionics and manipulation, would not die – and the general consensus was that Kim Cattrall was quite good, especially in her seductive physicality and rare comedic moments.
However, us being British and her being, for the most part, American, meant that inevitably the first thing any of us went for was her mock British accent. The fact that she had one at all was a little confusing because Cleopatra of course wasn’t British, so why adopt one at all? But then Cleopatra wasn’t blonde either, so maybe that’s a conversation for another day…
This is no rare thing: an American adopts a British accent for a role and we all have a field day commenting upon it. A good one can win you hearts and minds, nay, honorary citizenship: Gwyneth Paltrow’s exquisitely tuned turns as both Emma and Sylvia mean that I myself often forget she’s not British; same goes for Renée Zellweger, who everyone was so sceptical about, but then absolutely nailed Bridget Jones. When it’s bad though, it’s excruciating: Anne Hathaway’s verbal-tour-of-the-British-Isles in One Day – which is, of course, a beloved British modern classic – made me want to make the film industry at large apologise to each and every real-life Northern actress who wasn’t given the part, for reasons so far out of their hands as Julie Andrews has never played their grandmother and their version of Catwoman didn’t really rock a cat suit. I was completely distracted throughout the film by this and can’t help but like Anne a little less than previously, however shallow that might seem.
But why is this? Why does this bother us, and me, so much?
Part of it, I think, is that our accents are a huge part of our regional and national identity; the famous quote from Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, ‘the moment [an Englishman] talks he makes some other Englishman despise him,’ perhaps give an indication of how deep this goes. That whole film actually demonstrates our attitude towards accent and dialect fairly comprehensively: we use word choice and pronunciation to pigeon-hole people even before their first sentence has ended, and fighting this is an uphill struggle against a dizzying number of factors.
I can actually speak quite confidently about this at a personal level myself as, since leaving home to go to University, my West Country accent (think ‘Hagrid-lite’) has dropped off to leave something much more neutral and ‘received’, and I notice the difference that makes when I’m talking to people, particularly on the phone. If I’m riled or want something done, my pronunciation will become crisper by degrees as people are more apt to respond to it; if you listen carefully, the characters in Downton Abbey actually do the exact same thing: Lady Mary is never more posh than when hurling a polite insult. It’s a little messed up but hopefully it demonstrates my point: this stuff is important to us as a nation, to say nothing here today of the Northern Irish, Scottish or Welsh, which are a whole other story besides.
So, taking on a British part but not mastering the required British accent is a little like putting on the costume but not bothering to understand the character. It could not be more integral to education, class and background, however wrong that might seem. Harking back to Emma again for a second, this clip from the film uses small variations in accent and intonation very well to reinforce the fact that although Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith are from the same place geographically, in all other respects, they are from completely different places.
I think we also get especially piqued by Americans actors doing it poorly in particular as it offends us along historical and colonial lines: however unconsciously, it goes something like ‘look what you’ve done to our shared language already; and now you come back and do this?!’ It’s a little unkind I know, but that’s the truth of it. I will admit quite freely that we give actors of other nationalities, especially non-English ones, far, far more grace.
Also, I suppose it’s also a question of identification. It’s no coincidence that the examples I gave – Gwyneth, Renée and Anne Hathaway – are women of around my age, playing literary characters that I love and want to see properly represented. They are also playing British women in these literary roles, which is another group I want to see properly represented for reasons I shouldn’t need to explain.
So at the heart of this, it’s a simple case of ‘if you’re going to represent me, respect me’, which doesn’t seem so different to any issue of representation or portrayal of any group across the world really, does it?