The Death of Drama School Accent Enforcement

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 ( 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.


About Ben

Ben T. 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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8 Responses to The Death of Drama School Accent Enforcement

  1. Md says:

    Check out Maggie smith in downton (posh) vs best marigold hotel (middle class?) – not sure what sort of accent she has naturally though.

    • AW says:

      Maggie Smith grew up in Oxford and went to a private school, so RP is probably natural for her. She has a lot of accents in her repertoire, remember Miss Brodie ?

  2. Laura says:

    I’ve noticed this before. Martin Freeman doesn’t really speak RP when playing John Watson in Sherlock, but his real-life accent is less RP (he uses a glottal stop in this clip from the BAFTAs, and he doesn’t use it when playing Watson).
    Alan Cumming is another example. He’s done all sorts of accents in films, but his real accent is totally Scottish.

  3. Sooryan FM says:

    She sounds pretty posh to me, very different than Adelle who speaks with a more working class accent.

  4. Ed says:

    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.

    I have wondered whether RP speakers talk in RP when they’re with their family and friends, as opposed to when they’re speaking on television or the radio. I doubt that many people can annihilate their original speech.

    There has been a social change with regards to “regionalisms” though. It is very unlikely that a young, rich Londoner would feel any embarrassment that someone can tell that they’re from London by the way they speak. Wealth is so concentrated in the London area now that there’s not much incentive for a Londoner to purge their speech of regionalisms. This wasn’t the case in the past, when many northerners grew rich from industry.

    Another example is the singer Dido. She went to the very prestigious Westminster School – the same as Nick Clegg. However, she has an obvious London accent.

  5. garicgymro says:

    Is it quite right to say that Michelle Dockery’s normal accent is “within the RP family”? I find it very regionally marked — identifiable as a London accent (perhaps even an East London accent), in other words. Perhaps RP-influenced, but certainly not “leagues away” from Cockney.

  6. I’ve never watched an episode of Downton Abbey, but I’m familiar with Michelle Dockery. Had no inkling of a connection.

  7. Thank you for your post! I am a Dialect Instructor at an Acting School in LA and I work on set and in theater as well. I see the same thing happening over here, with less and less students being trained in “Speech.” In the US, we are no longer calling “Standard American” the “right way” to speak, or anything like that, but there is something to be said for the training that allows an actors to maximize the use of potential sounds in the language, and even move through the dialects of English. Sigh.