Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Accent the positive

A couple of weeks ago I finally did what people had been advising me to do for some time. I went and had my head examined.

Well, not the whole head. Just the eyes. My optometrist is a pleasant and chatty Englishman and, invariably, seeing in my paperwork that I formerly lived in Seattle is enough to get him talking about my former home. Two years ago, when he saw Seattle on my previous lens prescription, he thought a moment and asked, “Is there a hotel that sits out over the water in Seattle?” After briefly plumbing my brain, I had it. “The Edgewater,” I said, “down on the waterfront.” It turned out that he had been reading a biography of Robert Plant and there was a passage which described Lez Zeppelin staying at the Edgewater and how the band incurred the enmity of the hotel management by covering the floor of the room with fresh fish they had hauled up from the sea through the room window. That set me off on a litany of all the legendary rock bands I had heard about staying at the Edgewater during its heyday: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, etc.

This time, when my optometrist noted the Seattle connection, he said tentatively, “Seattle… that’s where they film… uh…”

Grey’s Anatomy?” I prompted, helpfully. That popular series came to Irish television only belatedly. But RTÉ made up for lost time over the summer, by telecasting the second half of the second season and the entire third season in marathon of twice-weekly airings. Which is actually a good way to see a TV series—without losing interest or momentum or concentration during hiatuses (hiata?) and reruns. It’s one more guilty pleasure for the Missus and me, and a bit of an antidote to my occasional homesickness. Seeing those establishing shots of the Emerald City (invariably including the Space Needle), as well as plot devices using local color (e.g. a massive ferry-dock collision that kept the young, attractive, lovelorn doctors busy for several episodes), does my heart good.

“No,” said my optometrist, “not Grey’s Anatomy. It’s… uh…”

I reached for my backup answer: “Frasier?” His eyes lit up. “Yes! Frasier! I love that show.”

We shared our appreciation for that classic sitcom’s sardonic view of desperate, aging yuppiedom, and he asked me if the series actually mirrored what life in Seattle is really like. I allowed that, while the series’ delightful puncturing of snobbism was both timeless and universal, that, yes, the Seattle I knew did have a particular segment that was not that far removed from the comic excesses of the Crane brothers—probably engendered by the coffee house culture that grew up there and fueled by a heavy dose of young software millionaires and near-millionaires with a little too much money to spend. But, as I said, the series could really have been set anywhere in the industrialized world.

Then my optometrist told me that, when he first began watching the show, he was certain that the actor playing Daphne, the live-in physical therapist, who was said to be from Manchester, was an American putting on a (bad) English accent. He was taken aback later on to learn that the actor (Jane Leeves) was really from the north of England. I hypothesized that there is a phenomenon I have observed in which the British (and Irish) subtly, or even not-so-subtly change their accents when they appear on American TV. Perhaps, I suggested, she had deliberately (of her own volition or under direction of the powers that be) modified her natural accent to be something like what American audiences supposedly expect English people to sound like. Or maybe just to be more understandable to an American audience.

But I have noticed this phenomenon even when the actor is not playing a role. As more and more movies tend to get released closer together on both sides of the Atlantic (and sometimes virtually simultaneously), I sometimes get the chance to see an actor doing the requisite publicity tour on chat shows on U.S., British and Irish TV within a fairly tight timeframe. The same thespian might be on the BBC’s Jonathan Ross’s couch one Friday, putting in an appearance on RTÉ’s The Late Late Show the next Friday and than schmoozing with Jay Leno the next week. Colin Firth is an English actor who comes to mind as one I’ve seen on telly in the recent past, who seems much plummier and more, well, English, when talking to Leno than he does when on UK television. I was particularly struck by this around the time of the British/Irish release of Woody Allen’s Match Point, when I saw the Cork actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers on the Late Late publicizing the movie. Quite different from the early roles I had seen him in, he was rather stately, dignified, very serious, I might even say, a bit full of himself. A short time later, I saw him on Leno promoting his upcoming miniseries The Tudors, and he was completely different. He was whacky and animated and putting on his brogue a bit thick. He was the quintessential Paddy. Like many Irish people with a flair for show business, he knew what the Yanks wanted and expected and he was giving it to them.

While I am on the topic of chat shows, allow me a quick digression about something that has bothered me for some time now. Why are Irish chat shows so dreary? In the States, the hosts of such programs are invariably comedians, who start out things with a topical monolog. Their interviews of celebrity guests are invariably light, although they do make the odd ostensible pass at being journalistic with guests who have a bit of controversy about them. But in the end, everyone knows they are all there to hawk a movie or TV show or book. British chat show hosts are generally even wackier than their American counterparts. The celebrities on hand are clearly there to participate in the star’s ongoing comic shtick. But Irish chat show hosts seem to have no discernable talent other than being able to host a television show. Ireland’s flagship talk show The Late Late Show is strangely like a hybrid of the standard American/British talk show and variety shows like the one Ed Sullivan did eons ago—plus a journalistic element thrown in, since many topical and controversial topics are fielded. (A newer show, Tubridy Tonight, seems to deliberately attempt to follow the American model.) The result is sometimes interesting but frequently tedious. And this seems very strange to me since the average ordinary Irish man or woman that you meet on the street is usually very entertaining in his or her own right. But the country seems to go out and find the very few existing boring Irish people to put on television. End of digression.

As far as I can tell, there is little or no reciprocal accent-altering behavior on the part of North American or Australian actors, who always seem (to me) to be the same, no matter where in the world they are being interviewed. Perhaps an odd time a Yank will put on a bit of a drawl, emphasizing his American-ness. And, while that may play to the British/Irish view of Americans as latter-day cowboys, it is essentially wasted on audiences who see way more American movies and television than most Americans see of British or Irish TV shows or movies. Still, just because people frequently hear an accent doesn’t mean they absorb it. I am continually amused by Irish people who, when mocking something an American has said, put on an accent that invariably sounds like from somewhere in Georgia—even when the Yank in question is from New York or Boston.

The people who really impress me when it comes to border-crossing interviews are the continental Europeans. As I watched nightly coverage of the Cannes Film Festival last May on France’s TV5, I was consistently admiring of Spanish, Italian and German actors who fielded questions in French and responded fluently. It’s rare to hear an American actor do that.

But getting back to Anglophone celebrities, the sweepstakes for accent chameleons has to go to U2 frontman Bono. On Irish TV, he sounds like the Dubliner he is. On British TV, he nearly sounds British. On American TV, he sounds American (but inserting the inevitable F word, like any good Irishman). I remember years ago when he gave the strangest introduction I ever heard, for Frank Sinatra at the MTV Music Awards. Bono sounded for all the world like he was from Hoboken, New Jersey. And four years ago, the Missus and I happened to catch him on the evening news, picking up a Legion of Honor in Paris. As he offered his thanks for the honor, the Missus and I both looked at each other. Yes, he was speaking (in English) with a French accent.

-S.L., 8 November 2007

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