I spent the day getting a haircut and irritated. (Pedantry note: that’s a rhetorical trope known as “zeugma.”) After returning home from the shearing, I decided to watch a DVD of Shooting the Past, a BBC drama from 1999. IMDB.com concisely describes the show as follows:
A US property developer realises that he has a battle on his hands when he tries to renovate a London building containing a vast photographic collection and discovers that the library employees will resort to anything to thwart him.
What irritated me about the show were the Americans—not that they were depicted as philistine, heritage-bashing money-grabbers, I can live with that—but the fact that on British television and in British movies they can’t get American voices right. And it doesn’t matter if the American is played by someone from the British Isles or by an American himself (in Shooting the Past, one by an Irishman, another by a San Franciscan) he or she is going to sound wrong. It’s as if all the drama schools told everyone playing an American (who isn’t instructed to bellow his or her lines in exaggerated Southern twanginess or alleged Nooyawkese) to pronounce every “r” as if it were as important as the last trumpet and to speak generally as if a clothespin were a permanent fixture on one’s nose.
It’s not as though British actors can’t be believable as Americans; they are—when they don’t try to sound American, don’t attempt to act the voice. For example, quite recently, I watched a DVD of Bugsy, a movie I had seen years ago. When the final credits rolled, I was surprised that the actor who so perfectly played the Jewish New York gangster Meyer Lansky (and without the Nooyawkese) was Ben Kingsley, of all people (although I had noted his name in the opening credits, I promptly forgot about him). But, of course, that was an American movie.
Cary Grant, James Mason, and Anthony Hopkins are a few other British actors who have played American roles in American-made movies and were successful—because they didn’t do acting-school American-ese, which no one in the 50 states speaks. Oh, they may have sounded at times a bit moneyed and cultured, but they never sounded wrong.
Then again, there’s the otherwise wonderful Hugh Laurie, whose comic Prince of Wales (in Blackadder) was only bettered by his embodiment of Bertie Wooster; he has so de-Britished his accent for House that he sounds neither British nor American, but perhaps a native of some yet-to be-discovered landfall in the middle of the Atlantic.
But probably the worst British portrayal of an American was perpetrated by a Scotsman—Sean Connery—who. in A Fine Madness, uttered some Bronxish babble in his role as the eccentric poet Samson Shillitoe. It almost, but not quite, makes one yearn to hear once again Dick Van Dyke doing cockney in Mary Poppins.