On a Lighter Note …

Martin Chilton of The Telegraph wrote a piece yesterday about Mel Gibson‘s accent in the upcoming film, The Beaver, in which Mel adopts a Cockney accent.  Here’s the trailer:

Chilton, perturbed by Gibson’s accent, had this to say about it:

Although his accent may escape a critical battering in America it will simply amuse anyone in England who knows a London accent (without the requirement of having been born within earshot of the Bow Bells). Gibson’s sounds like someone who has been up all night trying to blend Ray Winstone’s heavy gangster gruffness with the dulcet tones of Genial Harry Grout from Porridge in the 1970s.

I never thought the day would come when I would defend Mel Gibson, but I call BS on Chilton’s piece. First of all, there is no single “London Accent” to serve as a benchmark.  There’s Cockney, Multi-Cultural London English, Estuary, and various permutations of Received Pronunciation. As a (semi-retired) actor, nothing grates on my nerves more than locals of some city referring to a kind of mythical, monolithic dialect that we should all be familiar with.

Secondly, Gibson speaks maybe four sentences in this trailer.  And frankly?  His accent isn’t that bad.  I have some quibbles (a Cockney probably wouldn’t tap the “t” in “better), but let’s not bring up the terrifying specter of Dick Van Dyke‘s chimney sweep.  This is not in same class of awfulness as that.

And lastly, is it too much to ask for a few specifics in articles like these?  Like, I get this is a fluff piece taking some rich movie star to task for his stab at an accent, but if we’re so knowledgeable about said accent, can we maybe elaborate on what is so offensive to our ears?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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14 Responses to On a Lighter Note …

  1. Marc L says:

    Hi Trawicks:
    I don’t have a problem with Gibson’s accent; I have a problem with Gibson. After the reports on the way he treated his woman, and his antisemitism, I wouldn’t watch the guy any where, any way, any time in any thing. Off the topic, but…

    • trawicks says:

      No, it’s not off-topic, because you can’t write about him without addressing his life over the past few years. To be clear, the last thing I want to do is personally endorse Gibson, who is beyond personal redemption at this point. But I felt like this article was an almost perfuctory complaint, as if Chilton whips up one of these any time anybody tries to sound English in a movie.

  2. Bob Hale says:

    I’m British, admittedly from Birmingham not London, but from the limited sample on offer it didn’t sound too bad to me. I wouldn’t call it cockney; it’s more “standard British TV gangster” (and yes, rather like Ray Winstone.)

  3. boynamedsue says:

    I think that commentator is missing the key fact that Gibson is not attempting a cockney accent, he is actually providing the voice of a puppet beaver which is the product of the imagination of an American suburbanite.

    Beaver sounds cool, accent is good, Beaver sounds not cool, accent is bad.

    • Andrej Bjelaković says:

      Exactly. I was gonna say the same thing.

      Gibson is not playing a Cockney, he is playing an average American Joe doing a Cockney voice.

  4. dw says:

    The paradigmatic Daily Telegraph reader is a retired military officer who is nostalgic for the days when the sun never set on the British Empire.

    As a consequence of this, The Daily Telegraph loves to adopt a superior attitude to America and Americans: Although his accent may escape a critical battering in America it will simply amuse anyone in England…

    Here’s another example: [Osama bin Laden] was born into the age of Arab dictatorships, which dates roughly from the end of the Second World War. The British empire was being wound up, and replaced by something more malign. The United States, the new imperial power in the region, chose to govern by proxy through a series of ruthless autocrats…

  5. trawicks says:

    @Bob & boynamedsue,

    It is indeed important to remember that the character in question is, well, a talking beaver. (Slightly off-topic: are beavers even native to England?)

    @dw,

    Very true. There is, alas, a kind of reflexive anti-Americanism in certain parts of the British press. I’m not some jingoistic Yank opposed to anti-Americanism, per se, I just prefer my anti-Americanism to have a little more thought put into it. Chilton’s rant is symptomatic of this, in that his attitude is, “We all know that Americans are bad at accents” (Gibson’s semi-Australianness notwithstanding). Let’s not act as if American inferiority is a priori knowledge, Mr. Chilton.

  6. boynamedsue says:

    Beavers are native but extinct, they were recently reintroduced to Scotland, from a managed estate, but I’m not sure if there’s a wild breeding population yet.

    They do all talk like Ray Winstone though.

  7. Erica Walch says:

    Is that even Mel Gibson doing the beaver’s voice? It sounds like a completely different person. And to me, it sounds like an actual English person’s voice.

    • trawicks says:

      It is Gibson’s voice, believe it or not. Actually, the voice he puts on for the beaver sounds similar in prosody (if not phonetically) to Gibson’s long-retired Australian accent.

  8. m.m. says:

    It does sound like Ray Winstone… Ray does flap t’s and drop h’s, and vocalises l’s among other things I noticed. I dunno if I would call it ‘cockney’, but definitely some kind of south english.

  9. Erik Singer says:

    The beaver sounds like late Michael Caine to me. Trawicks is right to call BS on the journo. On the evidence of the trailer, the beaver hails from Southeast London. Of course, everybody else is right, too, that it wouldn’t matter if the accent _wasn’t_good–it’s an American character doing the voice of a puppet, it doesn’t matter what it is. But the accent _is_ good!!

    Of course, he’s still a dickhead, but give credit where credit is due.

    Incidentally, I believe Mel Gibson was first discovered in Sydney playing Leslie, the British soldier and title character in Brendan Behan’s The Hostage (a role I played in a hit Off-Broadway revival, ahem ahem). Where does Leslie come from? Southeast London, “down the Old Kent Road.”