Although I enjoy the series Downton Abbey, I know little about the personal lives of its cast members. So the other day, after watching a program on PBS, I was startled by a promo interview with the actress who plays Mary Crawley, Michelle Dockery*:
Dockery is from East London, and her accent, though leagues from Cockney, is less “stuffy” than how she speaks on the show. Dockery’s starting point for the diphthong in words like “right” is further back here than in than the Crawleys’ post-Edwardian RP (aɪ vs. ɑɪ), she frequently uses a glottal stop for /t/, she vocalizes /l/ frequently (note “teww you” at :13), and the diphthong in words like “day” is a fairly open and lax.
Anyway, what I find interesting about Dockery is not that her accent is unusual (it isn’t), but rather how different it is from Lady Mary’s. She very much “affects” an accent when she steps into the shoes of her television counterpart, rather than simply tweaking a vowel here or there.
Dockery attended the prestigious Guildhall School, and thus exemplifies a real change from the way things were sixty years ago. Of course, there have always been British actors with regional or vernacular accents (particularly after World War II). But for Michael Caine to posh up his accent in Zulu (rather than restricting himself to playing Hackney gangsters) was slightly unusual for the time; more typical of the early 60’s was Peter O’Toole, who, despite his Yorkshire upbringing, spoke in interviews more or less as T.E. Lawrence would have.
But for the past 50 years, British drama schools have largely moved away from the fundamentalist doctrine which demands all regionalisms be obliterated an actor’s personal life as well as his stage speech. In her The Actor Speaks, voice coach Patsy Rodenburg describes this evolution:
There was a period in British drama training (roughly up to the 1960s) when every student actor was told that he or she must speak RP and that his or her own accent was irrelevant, unintelligible or, at worst, ugly. Actors who learned RP in this way could often sound disconnected and false. Their own natural voices, full of regional variety and sounds, had been lopped off crudely. Since the 1960s most voice and speech teachers have accepted that this rigid and somewhat elitist attitude to RP is morally wrong and artistically unsound.
And thank goodness for that.
So Dockery is an actress with an accent already within the RP family who must nevertheless alter her own speech quite a bit in order to play an RP speaker from 90 years ago. In other words, it seems likely that “mid-Century” RP, an accent which many actors once spoke both on- and off-stage, is increasingly going to become an something which young British thespians have to “put on.”
*This is a different interview than the one I saw on PBS, obviously.