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Accents speak louder than words

In britain, unlike in the US, we virtually divulge our postal district the moment we open our mouths.

I remember one time, when I lived in the States, a telephone operator - just when I thought she was going to give me the number I'd asked for - sank strangely into a long silence. Eventually I asked, "Er, are you still there?"

"Oh, yeah, but don't stop talking! I love your accent!"

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Having been born with my standard English accent (well, almost), this seemed quite quaint to me. I'd assumed I didn't have an accent. I felt that I'd moved to a country where everyone else had accents - American accents! But then that's the thing about accents. They are what other people have.

I say American accents in the plural, but the fact is I wasn't very discriminating about variations. I was conscious of Texas-speak being stretched out and laid back, and that Massachusetts English was abrupt, hard, and "Hahvid Yahdish." I was not unaware that the Bronx was unmistakably Bronxian and Yonkers decidedly Yonkerish. But with other things on my mind, I tended to simplify matters and think that what everyone spoke was just ... American.

As a matter of fact, I still partly believe this. Am I mistaken in thinking that there is a kind of uniformity about American accents? Tiny though the island I come from is compared with the vast expanse of America (Britain would, I believe, fit inside New York State), there were, and still are, an infinitely greater variety of accents in it than can be imagined. Perhaps we still don't move around as much in our land as Americans do in theirs.

In Britain, accents are our vocal geography. They signal our origins and provinciality. The moment most of us open our mouths in the UK, we virtually divulge our postal district. I exaggerate a bit. But I do remember once hearing a radio program about a study of accents conducted in a Yorkshire town (Halifax). At the end of the project, the latter-day Professor Higgins conducting it said he had learned to distinguish which street someone lived in by the pattern of their speech.

If I tended to lump American accents together, it has to be said that Americans sometimes do the same thing in reverse. A famous - notorious - example of a Hollywood actor making a not-very-effective attempt to separate one English accent from another is Dick Van Dyke impersonating a cockney in "Mary Poppins." Presumably he thought he'd get away with it.

Actually, he didn't. It has become an often-quoted blunder. It seems Mr. Van Dyke simply forgot that Hollywood movies are shown outside the US. That they are even watched in London where cockney speech is ubiquitous.

I saw "Mary Poppins" in the northern town of Kendal in Cumbria. And although Cumbrians have a round-sounding speech that is even different from the matter-of-fact Lancashire and blunt Yorkshire spoken no more than 40 miles away, that local Cumbrian audience would have instantly known that the fictional chimney sweep was an American and not remotely a Londoner. But he was extremely good at dancing over rooftops, so we took him to our uncritical hearts anyway.

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"Mary Poppins" is ancient history by now, though. To my ear, American actors on film and TV have become far more conscious, and much cleverer, at accents. There are occasional glaring exceptions, but Meryl Streep did a perfect English accent in "The French Lieutenant's Woman," and Kevin Kline did a highly credible Frenchman in "French Kiss."

In Kenneth Branagh's odd film version of "Hamlet," recently re-aired in Britain, at least two great American actors played surprisingly small roles. Jack Lemon, wearing a funny helmet as a kind of court guard, I think, tried to be very serious and intense. Charlton Heston was the Player King. While it was not the finest hour in the career of either actor, Mr. Heston did come up with an impressively accurate English accent. He spoke Shakespeare as he should be spoken. Mr. Lemon, representing traditional Hollywood, sounded uncannily like one-half of "The Odd Couple."

But what of the other way round? I feel sure that English actors must frequently leave much to be desired when they take on American classics, though some do their utmost to get it right, emulating Streepian professionalism. I find it hard to judge their success or failure, though.

Descending alarmingly from such heights to the low-lying attempts of our local (Glasgow) amateur group of Players, we find ourselves nevertheless in precisely the same boat. Our recent production of "Our Town," set in New Hampshire, was a typical test of our proficiency in the accent department. Probably the best we could manage was a kind of generic American. Not that we have a shortage of models to imitate. We are so exposed to American English on TV that it is almost verbal wallpaper for us.

Playing an American newspaper editor, I based my own accent on a man who ran the copydesk of a paper I once worked for in Boston. I fancy this particular character came from somewhere near New Hampshire. He had a rumbling, laconic, gruff, bluff, tolerant way of talking, and under the vowels and consonants ran deep currents of sardonic joviality. I thought of him before my first entrance each night....

Nobody in the cast complained that I had got my accent wrong, not to my face anyway. And if the audiences contained any real Americans, wincing, they graciously kept good and quiet.

But one thing I know for certain. I do not have the temerity to play the part of a Scotsman in Glasgow. The audience would be on to it like a bevy of beagles. "Where does he think he comes from?" they'd holler. I'd be hounded out of the city.

The only time I have dared to play a Scot was 173.04 miles away, down south in Yorkshire. I felt fairly safe about it. But my accent was without doubt atrocious. I wore the kilt, too. And leapt over a sofa in it. But that is - and should be - another story.