Saturday, February 14, 2009

Accent and the Ascent of Evil

Hey guys,

My very good friend and talented writer,
Nicholas Horwood, submitted an article for publication in Script Magazine. Unfortunately, they’re not accepting new pitches for the time being as they have had to cut pages and are working hard to keep their writers on staff.

But it’s a hilarious article, and I begged him to allow me to post it on my blog. His comedy scripts are the only ones I’ve ever read in my career that made me guffaw with laughter. I’ve
written about Nicholas before in a piece that should give you a sense of how funny his scripts can be, although he has branched out into some quality dramas. He was also a third place finalist in the Final Draft contest not long ago and won the comedy category at Page International.

His article is not only fun but also good for writers today, because a large part of what we do is rethink stereotypes.

Anyway, hope you enjoy it,



Accent and the ascent of evil
Nicholas Horwood

Someone once said that when it comes to being vilified on film the British are the only “ethnic minority” who don’t seem to mind. Italian Americans may object to being portrayed as gangsters and Russians may protest that they are no longer a legitimate target in this post Cold War era, but we Brits tend to accept our fate with a stiff upper lip.

The British toleration of this victimisation may have something to do with the guilt that many Brits still feel about the past behaviour of the British Empire. Rising to power at a time when stealing other people’s land was all the rage lead to a certain amount of unpleasantness that many of its descendents still feel guilty about. Despite the many positive things that were achieved by the British Empire (America, golf, Risk, etc.) its memory, for most British people, is a pain in the collective arse.

For this reason many of the films that show the British at their historical worst are either British or made with strong British involvement; Gandhi, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Michael Collins, In The Name of the Father are all good examples. This collective guilt would certainly explain why UK audiences are happy to line up to see themselves symbolically flogged in Hollywood films such as Titanic, Braveheart and The Patriot.

And when it comes to cinema British villainy is not just limited to recent history but extends to a long time ago and to a galaxy far, far away; as is documented in George Lucas’s Star Wars series where we see the tendrils of the British Empire extending to every corner of the galaxy and includes in its armoury planet obliterating doomsday weapons!

The leader of the Empire (no need to specify which one after all) is Emperor Palpatine, played by veteran British actor Ian McDiarmid. Palpatine is a former republican pen-pusher who, after being elevated to power by a certain Jar Jar Binks (whose origins we do best to draw a veil over) goes on to abolish the republic and replace it with an Empire so brutal that it makes its Earth-based cousin look like an ewok. Palpatine then recruit’s a series of evil Britons to help run his little operation, including General Moff Tarkin (of the Buckinghamshire Moff Tarkins) played by Peter Cushion and Count Dooku played by Cushion’s former Hammer Horror nemesis Christopher Lee.

The exception to the “All Brits rule” rule is Palpatine’s junior apprentice: Darth Vader, or Lord Darth Vader to give him his far more evil name. Vader is an interesting case study here in that he is not voiced by a distinguished British actor but by distinguished black American stage actor James Earl Jones. Dave Prowse, the actor who physically embodied the role of Vader, was quite put out to have his own voice dubbed over, but Lucas felt that Prowse’s broad West of England accent (think Long John Silver) didn’t quite create the right sense of menace.

However, we are later to find out that the Dark Lord of the Sith is in fact neither American nor African American, as it turns out that his accent is merely the product of the electronic voice built into his helmet!

In fact if we follow Darth Vader’s journey to the dark side we find some interesting facts about the correlation between accent and evil. Young Darth, Anakin Skywalker, started life as a sweet and precocious tussle-haired American youngling on the desert planet Tatooine. He is then rescued from his day job of being a slave by a friendly Irishman named Qui-Gon Jinn, a closet Queen named Amidala (who insists on calling the boy “Annie”) and, most bizarrely of all, a not evil British Jedi named Obi-Wan Kenobe!

Young Anakin is then given a job as a Jedi Knight and grows up to become a fairly normal moody teenager. Unfortunately poor Anakin falls into the clutches of evil after experiencing a spectacularly bad day at the office which sees him having his arms and legs chopped off by the British Jedi (ah-ha!), falling crotch-first into some moltan lava and culminates in him being imprisoned in the mother of all gimp-suits in an act of outrageous body fascism.

The newly christened Darth Vader is then left for several years to stew in his own evil juices, not emerging again until the end of Return of the Jedi when Luke Skywalker removes his dying father’s helmet to reveal… British stage actor Sebastian Shaw!

It just goes to show: if you spend too long walking on the Dark Side you are going to do terrible things to your accent, old chap.

And British villainy is not just restricted to historic films like Star Wars but extends to every genre imaginable. Both cinematic incarnations of Thomas Harris’ Boston raised serial killer Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter are played by British actors Anthony Hopkins and Brian Cox.

So why do we Brits get treated so badly on-screen by our American cousins? What’s the skinny? Is it because to Americans we still represent that cruel yoke of tyranny that they strove so long to overthrow? Are we the archetype of overbearing authority? Are we in short The Man?

Or is the explanation simply to do with market forces? After all, with the poor state of the UK film industry there is no shortage of unemployed distinguished actors hungry for a bite of that tasty American lettuce. Was it money that lead Sir Nigel Hawthorn to don a kimono to play the totalitarian Dr Raymond Cocteau in Demolition Man (safe in the knowledge that no one in his social circle would ever see the film?) after all, didn’t Orson Welles end up advertising frozen peas on British TV? Then again maybe Sir Nigel just wanted to work with Stallone.

This explanation would certainly explain why Die Hard villains Alan Rickman and Jeremy Irons played the brothers Gruber with German accents and why Sir Ian McKellen played Magneto with an American accent.

Then again, perhaps Hollywood producers believe that British evil transcends the clipped received pronunciation accent that Professor Henry Higgins admired so much. A rose by any other name?

If we turn our attention to Hollywood historical films where the British are not historically the villains, we still find the old RP accent in abundance. If Hollywood casting directors are a little squeamish about asking German actors to play Nazis, they are more than happy to ask British actors to take on those same roles. For some British people this is quite frustrating as World War II is a period of history where the British were undeniably not the baddies!

Could it be then that portraying a villain is considered so difficult that only a veteran British stage actor has the skill necessary to pull it off? Surely not, I mean… it iz zimply a matter ov talkink like zis. Nein?

And what of those other popular movie villains, those prototype Britons: the Romans? No problem here surely, after all, the Roman Empire has been on its best behaviour for many years. Even the British have forgiven them for their aggressive road building policies. Surely, therefore, Italians would be the perfect people to play Romans, right?

No? Us again? *sigh*

As already stated, there is a notable exception to the evil Brit stereotype: the Wise Old Dude, as embodied by the likes of Alec Guinness, Ian McKellen, Denholm Elliot and Michael Gambon.

The Wise Old Dude is the flip-side of the Evil Brit and provides another great opportunity for the British stage actor to sneak away for a few weeks and earn a little extra pocket money. Wise Old Dude is usually a mentor or boffin that the spunky American hero has to seek help from when his hero’s quest throws up a certain kind of challenge. Perhaps he needs to decode a rune, translate a parchment or do some tricky math.

The Wise Old Dude will then lend the hero the benefit of his ancient wisdom. But beware! For the Wise Old Dude is sometimes an Evil Brit in disguise; as in The Da Vinci Code, where seemingly wise old Sir Leigh Teabing (Teabag surely?) played by Sir Ian McKellen, turns out in fact to be an Evil Brit in disguise.

In the Luke Skywalker/Obi Kenobi relationship there may be a clue to the strange treatment of Brits in film. The mentor/mentee relationship is common in legend: a young, virile hero just getting started on his journey, seeks counsel from a wise old man who is coming to the end of his life (see also Dragonslayer). The young pup learns from his symbolic father but it is he who saves the day and gets the girl. Hmm, is that a growing sense of symbolism I detect… or are you just pleased to see me?

It seems then that this vilification of Brits in film is not dissimilar to a child who rebels against their parent. The seeming hostility is, for the most part, just an attempt to establish a separate identity. An independence if you like.

Still, as I leave you now I make this appeal to the people of American, Ireland and Alderaan, to spare a thought for our feelings. To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit: we aren’t bad... it’s just the way we talk.



Anonymous said...

You so funny Nick. :) That was a great article.

I'd like to know...what category does Hugh Grant fall into? Personally, I'd like to poke his eyeballs out he annoys me so much.

I loved your take on Darth Vader. I'm a Star Wars freak and was watching one of the many docs on the making of Star Wars and Kevin Smith said the funniest thing. It was something like if Anakin Skywalker were a teen today he'd be an Emo kid. :)

crossword said...

Excellent, Sir Nick!

Peter Cushing (Cushion?) has always been a fav of mine - yes, ever since those Hammer-time days of yore.

Surprised you didn't mention the Potter films, but then again those are quintessentially British anyway. It stands to reason that he-who-will-not-be-named comes from Blighty, though one doesn't traditionally associate Suffolk with stock villainy. :)

One interesting factoid you might enjoy - the popular tv show "Frasier" showed the struggles of the protag with his family in general and often his dad in particular - the dad being of course the excellent John Mahoney (born in Blackpool) lol

Nick H said...

Thanks for posting that, MM. I can't believe you posted that picture of me in the cowl though! How embarrassing!

Marnie - I think Hugh Grant has only ever played one villain, in AN AWFULLY BIG ADVENTURE. When 4 WEDDINGS became a hit he clearly decided to keep playing the same character: The Foppish Brit.

Len - Since almost all the characters in the Potter films are Brits there are technically no Evil Brits or Wise Old Brits.

Anonymous said...

I think Hugh Grant very often plays a villain of sorts. A scoundrel. :)

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