Saturday, 14 September 2013

Accentuating the Negative

I’ve never been good at accents. Any attempt at an accent results in people wondering when Ireland went on a gap year trip to South Africa, Peru and the moon, their wonderings quickly followed by a letter summoning me to a tribunal for crimes against voice. So watching Peaky Blinders on BBC2 this week called for my biggest hypocrisy hat. Not only do I have no idea what turn of the century accents should sound like but I also couldn’t pretend to be from Birmingham even if my parents had flung me out the day I was born and ill-advisedly asked Ozzy Osbourne and Jasper Carrott to bring me up (although I do think the world is missing an act who performs rock versions of insurance claims…)

But Peaky Blinders got me thinking about accents and what dodgy terrain they create for actors. I’ve never been blessed with a good ear for accents. In fact, all I really have is a bunion for them, awkwardly and painfully trampling on them wherever I go. The general consensus, whether correct or not, was that some of the voices on Peaky Blinders were on the dubious side of believable. I’m not going to write a blog about that because, frankly, I don’t have any idea on how realistic they really were. Despite how I may look some mornings, I can safely say that I wasn’t around in 1919. But I do want to talk about how tricky changing your voice can be.

My heart sinks when an accent is called for in an audition. Interpretive dance? No problem. Pretending to be a tortoise playing the harmonica? Bring it on. Reading two sentences with a German accent? OHGODWHEREISTHEDOOROUTOFHERELOVELYTOMEETYOUBYE. And, for some reason, I never seem to get any warning of what my voice box will be asked to deal with.

I’ve spent many years wondering what my speciality is. I can’t sing, I can’t really dance and, as we’re learning, I certainly can’t pretend to be from somewhere else. But what I can do a good impression of someone who isn’t phased by accents. As is the problem with most actors, we’re pretty bad at saying “No.” Whatever is thrown at us, we’ll smile sweetly and have a damn good go at it. So that’s always been my approach with accents. I mean, I could just hold my hands up and say, “Look. I’m not blessed with an accepting ear and phonetics classes made me as sad as a dieter at Cadbury’s World, so I’d really rather not.” But I don’t. Instead, I take a deep breath and bloody go for it. Very occasionally something alright comes out but usually I just end up roaring something that ends up with me being forever known as The Pitchy Racist.

And then there’s the reactions that I have to cope with. I’ve had winces, looks of surprise and, more than once, I’ve been congratulated for somehow creating an accent that managed to retain a lot of my own. After each failed audition, another accent is scratched off my CV. The only reason I haven’t had an audition in so long is because it’d be impossible to go into minus accents. Honest guv.

The problem with performing in a voice other than your own is that you’ve got to sustain them. We can all say ‘conjunctivitis’ in Geordie and we all know the beercan/bacon trick but once you go past a few sentences, that’s when it starts on its round the world trip. And of course, especially when that accent is being performed on camera, it’s also got to persist through take after take. Tiredness starts to set in and the need to get the take right becomes far more important than whether your voice might actually start becoming offensive.

But still, those accents were bloody awful, weren’t they?  

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