Best of British
A cut glass English accent can fool unsuspecting Americans into detecting a “brilliance that isn’t there”, says Stephen Fry. So is a British accent - of any variety - the route to success in the United States?
“Gee, I just love your accent.”
Any Brit crossing the Atlantic will have heard that line many times. Like the rest of us, Americans are rarely immune to the charms of an accent different from their own.
There’s the amusement value of listening to someone who sounds like they might just punctuate their sentences with “oh, behave”. And a British accent can conjure up a stereotype of a polite, droll, self-effacing race.
But very few Brits are like Hugh Grant (Grant himself has kicked over the traces of his Four Weddings and a Funeral persona), and Stephen Fry speculates that Americans may be dazzled by the British accent.
“I shouldn’t be saying this, high treason really, but I sometimes wonder if Americans aren’t fooled by our accent into detecting a brilliance that may not really be there.”
Fry - who puts his own melodious tones down to having “vocal cords made of tweed” - made the suggestion after seeing a “blitz of Brits” scoop many of this year’s Golden Globes and Oscars.
His comments come as a new generation of British stars are trying to prove themselves in the US, while staying true to their regional roots (and more are landing plum jobs in US hit shows with accents other than their own).
About to try their luck are Ant and Dec, who will record the pilot of a new ABC game show - not a bad score in a country where they are best known for a brief cameo playing themselves in Love Actually, and as tone-deaf American Idol contestants playing a joke on judge Simon Cowell, currently the US’s favourite pantomime limey baddie.
The network hopes they will enjoy more success than previous imports Anne Robinson and Johnny Vaughan - his 2005 game show My Kind of Town was cancelled after four episodes, with entertainment industry paper The Hollywood Reporter describing the Londoner as “heavily accented (and equally heavily annoying)”.
America’s most wanted
Another Brit currently feted in the US is Borat creator Sacha Baron Cohen, who gave Rolling Stone a rare interview as himself, rather than in character. The magazine was much taken with his “deep, genteel British accent”, which in the UK might be described as educated north London.
“For most Americans, there’s no distinction between British accents. For us, there’s just one sort of British accent, and it’s better than any American accent - more educated, more genteel,” says Rosina Lippi-Green, a US academic and author of English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States.
“It’s a way of speaking that is all tied up with the Old Country, the Queen.”
This perception extends to any UK accent, she says, divorcing the voice from any regional or class associations it might carry for a fellow Brit.
“There was a sitcom called Dead Like Me with a Brit [Callum Blue] in it. He was a scruffy, 20-something drug dealer. Even he had that sort of patina - his was not an RP accent, it was a working class London accent.”
As for Parminder Nagra, plucked from Bend It Like Beckham to star in ER with her soft Midlands accent intact: “Oh, she’s thought to be very, very classy, very Oxbridge.”
And Simon Cowell, minting it as an American Idol judge? “He’s the classic stereotype of a stuck-up Englishman - and stuck-up is something that goes with that perception of Britishness.” Little wonder he’s found success - the British baddie is a Hollywood staple.
Master and servant
As is the English butler. Henry Pryor, the founder of primemove.co.uk and the Register Of Estate Agents website, worked for Savills International in the late 1980s and early 90s, helping wealthy US buyers purchase flashy dockside apartments, gracious town houses and country piles in the UK.
“Our accents added a huge amount to what they thought they were buying into. This was the age of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Brideshead Revisited - and Arthur, in which John Gielgud played a butler. They approached having an English broker in the same way as having an English tailor or butler - it was a trophy of sorts.”
And with a classic public school accent, Mr Pryor played up his Englishness. “It added cachet - you were buying a piece of English real estate from a guy who spoke just like Hugh Grant, and might look foppishly like him. I suspect it’s the flipside of what my mother’s generation found during World War II - the English seduced by American accents.”
Katharine Jones, author of Accent of Privilege: English Identities and Anglophilia in the US, says the cultured associations have a long history. “British etiquette books have been used for years; and although Americans say they have no class system, they do - and the American upper class apes the British upper class.”
Then there is the air of authority such a voice carries, hence the number of ads that use English-accented voiceover artists for products such as insurance and mouth wash.
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