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We British are notoriously chippy about Americans attempting one of our accents. We think nothing of our actors swanning over there and attempting to be House or Superman, but the spectre of Dick Van Dyke casts a long shadow over our national mythology – that’s how we think you think we speak.
So in the interests of international diplomacy, and in the shadow of an astonishing performance by Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, here are just five of the many American actors who have nailed one of the accents which are native to the British Isles.
Gwyneth Paltrow – Shakespeare In Love
The fact that she won an Oscar for this performance should not necessarily be taken as a concrete sign that she got the aristocratic accent right. To find that, just look at the open jaws of the British people watching the film for the first time and smugly telling themselves our way of speech (which is, by the way, every bit as varied and different as the many different accents which exist across North America), is like a sudoku puzzle hidden in a crossword on Stephen Hawking’s encrypted laptop. How could some (Rickman sneer) AMERICAN possibly grasp its subtle nuances and fine top not…oh! She actually DID it? Blimey.
Angelina Jolie – Tomb Raider
Context is everything. There is no reason, in the film of the video game Tomb Raider, a film with THIS many explosions, for Angelina Jolie to have such a good English accent. That cut-glass frostiness, the clipped delivery, it’s all perfect. The only sour note is a twinge of DVD* here and there, in the vowels. Nothing a few explosions and an upside-down rope-hang can’t cure. mind.
Renee Zellwegger – Bridget Jones’ Diary
A slightly controversial choice, in that some people I know say she’s got a kind of unreal, home counties drone, which sounds fake. However, in the scenes where Bridget talks to her friends, all of whom are played by British actors, they all sound a little unreal and droney, from the home counties, and a smidge fake. It might just be that that is who these people are, and if so, extra points must be awarded to Ms. Zellwegger for going the extra mile.
Robert Downey Jr. – Sherlock Holmes
Having already proved himself to be rather good at a generic southern British accent in Chaplin, the aristocratic, lordly bearing with which Robert infuses his muscular Holmes contrasts strongly with his maniacal energy, in short, he’s a British toff with American fighting spirit. And this juxtaposition is a good portion of why his Holmes works. Less bookish and scathing than Benedict, and more instinctive, it all hinges on whether the greatest British detective of all time can sound British enough to fool, well, a great detective like himself. And whaddya know, he can.
This might shock some of you – it certainly shocked Liam Gallagher – but Spinal Tap aren’t a real British heavy metal band. The reason we’d all like to think they are is to do with their accents, which are band on the money. Top marks have to go to Harry Shearer, who plays the Derek Smalls. His command of the accent of the London suburbs is uncanny. That’s not to dismiss the fine work of Christopher Guest or Michael McKean, and you have to bear in mind that all of these men are also improvising, so they haven’t just learned how to say their lines while working with a voice coach. And before anyone points at Christopher Guest, saying that he’s a British Lord, so he’s got an unfair advantage, British Lords don’t talk like Jeff Beck either.
Who would you add to this list? Tell us here:
* Dick Van Dyke. It still hurts after all these years.
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic