Bloody Accents!

Curator's Note

Anticipation is growing for the Fox remake of the British ITV hit Broadchurch, not least because Scottish star David Tennant will be playing an American in the adaptation, which is titled Gracepoint. The primary remnant we have of Tennant trying out an American accent for a US series is offered here, and as the comments on the clip illustrate, this snippet was posted to elicit laughter at how awkward Tennant sounds. Of course, there’s nothing new about Tennant altering his natural accent; he spoke seamlessly with an English accent in Doctor Who. He’s also commonly acknowledged as one of Britain’s finest actors, with his Shakespearean stage stints offered as primary proof. So is performing a foreign accent a tougher acting challenge than iambic pentameter? What of the challenge audiences have of accepting anachronistic sounds emanating from a familiar face on screen?

Of course, viewers don’t always know when an actor is affecting an accent. British and Australian actors are now all over US television playing Americans, and if viewers don’t explore extratextual material, they may not know that Michael Sheen on Masters of Sex is Welsh, Kevin McKidd on Grey’s Anatomy is Scottish, and the actors who deliver American southern accents as Scarlett and Gunnar on Nashville are actually Australian and English, respectively. When television viewers do discover this, the actor’s native accent becomes the novelty that is sought out on YouTube, and the performed accent undergoes subsequent scrutiny week after week, a circumstance that film actors don’t face. Many take note of English actress Archie Panjabi’s speaking voice on The Good Wife, for instance, and say that her real accent “slips through” in certain moments (though this could be intentional, given her character’s enigmatic backstory). Conversely, Matthew Rhys has been praised for “hiding” his Welsh accent on Brothers and Sisters and now The Americans.

So is such accent performance about embodying another identity, as we typically characterize physical performance, or about subsuming one’s own? Is there a distinction between acting with an accent and just mimicking one? And how does extratextual knowledge of an actor’s nationality come into play when we assess such performances, especially given scripted television’s long-form status? Regardless, I’m already certain the biggest problem I’ll have with Gracepoint is that “Bloody Twitter!” just won’t sound as good when delivered in an American accent, no matter how much David Tennant has been practicing it.


Thanks for such an insightful piece. I know that a lot of international actors must be able to perform an American accent before an agent will take them on as a film actor. This is certainly the case in Canada, where I know quite a few actors who were informed that they wouldn't get film roles unless they could do a passable accent in the Standard American Dialect or take several classes to improve. Perhaps this is simply part of the new realities of global casting, but it seems to be the case. I think you're spot on about our re-discovery of people's accents and our somehow infusing them with more or less quality depending on how well or badly they disguise their accents. I do feel like the idea of international casting is somehow meant for to dissuade us (perhaps unsuccessfully) from finding out that our actors are performing with an accent in the first place.

I really enjoyed this, Christine. It taps into something I've been thinking about a lot over the last few weeks as I've re-watched Game of Thrones. In particular I've been thinking about the evolution of Peter Dinklage's accent. I find myself connecting his changing accent (which is noticeably different in season one versus season three) to an improvement in his overall performance, both b/c it sounds closer to the broader range of non-American English spoken on the show (at least to my ear) and, I think, because I carry relatively low expectations for American performers who attempt such accents. Side note: in revisiting the show, I'm struck by just how varied all of the English accents are. To my untrained ear, even members of the same family talk as if they've grown up in completely separate regions. I wonder how this show is received among audiences more familiar with those distinctions. I'm glad that you are calling attention to the role of language in television performance. I wonder how the particular status of television performers--often known but not too well known--may affect the ways in which audiences make sense of tv acting. I wonder how television's information economy with regard to knowledge about players' accents stacks up against the economy of film in the age of touted "prestige" tv?

I really enjoyed this this piece. I've often wondered why it always, or sometimes necessary for actors to adopt an American accent at all. Sometimes, in the case of Matthew Rhys, it seems critical to both of the shows [Brothers and Sisters, The Americans] to have an American accent. In other places though it seems less necessary for storytelling purposes, why can't the American remake of Broadchurch feature David Tennant with either an English or Scottish accent? Or with Kalinda's already enigmatic backstory, would the fact that she's British be too much for the audiences to take? I guess I'm just afraid that the answer boils down to a fear that American audiences would be unwilling to accept accents on "their" television shows. Is it just about national identity? Are producers afraid there would be no non-accented actors left on Television? To preserve continuity or to avoid Mackenzie McHale style explanations?

Well done, Christine, on pointing out one of the particular pleasures of assessing performance. In particular, your reference to extratextual knowledge is a useful reminder that the evaluation of acting is not only frequently a comparative endeavour (how well an actor lives up to previous performances), but also a matter of responding to novelty (how well an actor performs in a new situation). Certainly a Whovian rushes to Gracepoint to see Tennant "go American." Moreover, Tennant's accent also becomes the locus of concern for broader debates about cultural and industrial differences in televisual adaptations. Here an actor shoulders the burden of audience scrutiny: if Tennant's accent is "unconvincing" or "wooden," then what an audience is listening for are audible signs of Fox "idiocy" in Americanizing (read: dumbing down) quality British programming...

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