The Van Dyke Controversy

wikimedia/Public Domain

wikimedia/Public Domain

Disney’s 1964 Mary Poppins adaptation has been in the news lately, in light of both film’s 50th anniversary and Saving Mr. Banks, a new film about the contentious relationship between Walt Disney and Anglo-Australian “Poppins” creator P. L. Travers. Of course, no discussion of Disney’s film would be complete without addressing Dick Van Dyke‘s Cockney accent, probably the most commented-on dialect in cinema.

Calling Van Dyke’s accent bad isn’t quite appropriate. It’s just very strange, an uncategorizable mixture of (yes) Cockney, Irish (maybe?), and American. To be fair, the film is set in an Edwardian London curiously free of pollution and Mediterranean of climate, so verisimilitude was not exactly what they were going for (the movie also has dancing penguins). Still, enough people have been offended by the Van Dyke’s accent that it’s still a conversation topic half a century later.

So who was to blame? Van Dyke has fingered his vocal coach, but history seems a more likely culprit. Dialect acquisition resources were simply much scarcer in the early 1960s than they are now. That’s why I measure most “dialect work” before the 1980′s with large amount of historical relativism. VHS changed things entirely in this regard, because it enabled private, repeated viewing of content in a way previously impossible on such a scale. An actor learning Cockney accent in 1986 could rent, say, The Long Good Friday at a high-end video store and rewind helpful scenes dozens of times. Only someone connected to a film archive and an obliging projectionist could do this in 1964. That’s not to overlook great dialect imitators of that era (the same year saw Peter Sellers’ bravura turn in Dr. Strangelove), but a dialect novice without a good coach would have had a steep uphill climb.

The internet obviously took amateur accent research to a new level. By the mid-90′s, you could categorize and contextualize accent-related content as never before. One might search IMDB to figure out where actors hailed from. Searchable speech and other recording databases became available. The explosion of streaming video content that accompanied YouTube in the mid-2000s, of course, led to unprecedented access to different dialects, news reports and almost anything else that might serve as a guide.

The point being, I don’t judge Dick Van Dyke and other actors from that era that harshly given the limited tools available. Van Dyke became a target, unfortunately, because a major American movie actor imitating a regional British accent was very unusual for the time*. And although I can’t say for sure, I doubt that most American movie stars of the time would have done much better.

*It was actually fairly common, in 1964, to simply import British actors to play British characters (as was the case with most of Mary Poppins’ cast).

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began 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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22 Responses to The Van Dyke Controversy

  1. bill says:

    I don’t think it’s so much people (i.e. Brits) being “offended” by Dick van Dyke’s accent as amused by it. I remember when the film came out that people thought his attempt at “Cockney” screamingly funny. In fact, I believe that since that time there’s been an (unofficial) “Dick van Dyke award” for the worst attempt at a British accent. But actually, far worse was Marlon Brando’s “English” accent in Mutiny on the Bounty, which came out a couple of years earlier. It’s just that Brando gets a free pass because, well, because it’s Brando, I suppose?

    But that was then. Nowadays, I’m constantly amazed at how many American actors’ English accents are virtually perfect (I have some English friends who tried to convince me that Gwyneth Paltrow was actually British). There are still some exceptions to the rule, though (Brad Pitt’s version of “Northern Irish” being a classic).

    I’d be interested to hear the views from the other side of the pond: which British actors’ American accents deserve the equivalent of a “Dick van Dyke” award?

  2. Mike Ellwood says:

    Hi, a British commenter here (but I don’t have a Cockney accent…).

    I was a big fan of Dick Van Dyck’s when I was a kid / teenager, from his 1960s show, with Mary Tyler Moore as his screen wife. It was thus a big surprise to hear him attempt Cockney in “Mary Poppins”. I think “distracting” is the word I would use about it, but I think he got away with it because of his charm, and the magic of the whole film.

    Yes, it’s true that American actors seem to have become very much better in doing British accents nowadays, probably for the reasons mentioned. Even by the time of “Spinal Tap”, the American actors playing the parts of the band members were extremely convincing, and it was years before I even realised that they were not British. In an interview, I have read Christopher Guest, who had an English father, but grew up in the USA, used to come to England in his summer holidays as a boy, to stay with his Dad, and learned the accent while, here, and it was he who coached the other members of the fictional band.

    I get the impression that in general, British actors can only do the so-called “General American” accent, and would be hard-pressed to do convincing regional variations. But there may be exceptions, and I’m not the best judge.

    • Nico says:

      A lot of British actors have been in Southern-themed films, but they almost always used the old time, non-rhotic Southern accent like from “Gone with the Wind”. That accent has largely disappeared over the decades and is found primarily among the elderly in coastal areas. Most of the South now is fully rhotic. I’ve yet to see any British actors pull off the modern Southern accent convincingly.

    • Nico says:

      Catherine Tate makes an excellent and convincing valley girl (Southern California), however.

      • m.m. says:

        listening to this video, theres a few things that struck me as off, like her lack of /u/ fronting, backing and near monopthongizing /oʊ/, and a very back /aʊ/ in the beginning with “wow”. but i think with all the lexical items being thrown about, it could convince most because of, like, the associations with like, valley girls, you know?

  3. Jack Trawick says:

    Poor Dick van Dyke. It’s hard to imagine that people would criticize the accent, given the film’s range of fantasy (e.g., umbrella-borne nannies, magical banister levitation, projectile chimney sweeps). Seems like people would have found Audrey Hepburn’s accent in My Fair Lady all the more offensive, since the accent was in that film the heart of the matter.

  4. Dee says:

    “Because, unlike some other Robin Hoods, *I* can speak with an English accent…” (Robin Hood: Men in Tights–and a slap at Kevin Costner in Prince of Thieves, I’m told, speaking of poor accents)

  5. bill says:

    I agree about Audrey Hepburn’s “mockney” accent, but the only resentment I recall at the time was because she got the film role in the first place, and not Julie Andrews (who had played it probably hundreds of times on the stage). And of course Julie Andrews did actually sing the songs as well!

  6. Marc Leavitt says:

    Dick Van Dyke’s accent has become an “in” subject for so-called language sophisticates. Yes, it wasn’t authentic, but he was playing a chimney sweep in a children’s fantasy! The accent, however imperfect, got the idea across.

    I really don’t like to praise people who have blogs entitled “Goop,” but Gwyneth Paltrow’s accent is pretty darned good for this American from New Jersey. I only found out after I saw “Shakespeare in Love,” that she was from California.

    I had the samecreaction when I watched Hugh Laurie on “House.” His bropad American accent bis nearly flawless; I only heard him make a slight mistake once, when he referred to an EL-ectrician, instead of an “ahlec-TRICI-an.

    Most of the actors on both sides of the Atlantic (it’s not REALLY a pond, is it?) do very credible jobs of assuming accents. I you want to see a classic example of how not to do an accent, listen to Leslie Howard in”Gone with the Wind.” The poor guy just couldn’t master a southern accent.

    • bill says:

      Sorry to get right off message, but Marc mentioned “Gone with the Wind”: I recall a story about the author, Margaret Mitchell. On being asked what she thought of the idea of an English girl playing Scarlett O’Hara, she apparently said “I don’t care care, as long as it’s not a God-damned Yankee!”

  7. Petex says:

    I find it astonishing that no one in the studio pointed out to DvD – or the director, for that matter – that his accent could do with a bit of work.

    • John Mclaine says:

      He was reportedly too busy learning his lines and rehearsing musical routines to really hone in on his accent.

      • Tim says:

        I am a real DvD fan – I think it extraordinairy to think that this man who never had a dance lesson in his life, achieved such fame & plaudits as a great film / show dancer – due to purely natural talent! His accent however in Mary Poppins, if you’re English, is hysterically funny – so much so that they are our family’s favourite parts of the film.

  8. Ed says:

    There’s one example that stands out in my mind as an unforgivably bad British accent by an American. There’s an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (a favourite of my childhood) where the butler’s son comes to visit. You can see a clip of it here. (The son is the one with the tie and smart jacket.)

    You’ll notice that the butler, Geoffrey, has an RP accent. Couldn’t he have given a bit more training to the actor playing his son?

  9. bill says:

    I remember one episode of “House” in which Dr House, played of course by the very English Hugh Laurie, drops into an “English” accent for a one-liner. Amazingly, his English accent was pure Dick van Dyke (actually, it was a DvD version of an RP accent, if you follow me?). Was this Hugh Laurie throwing a little (British) irony into the mix? Or was Laurie so much into character at this stage that he naturally slipped into an American version of British? Who knows? But it was fascinating.

  10. Pingback: That Tricky "Oh" | Dialect Blog

  11. Inchoative says:

    Surely there must be a “worst attempts at foreign accents” youtube playlist or tumblr or something out there.
    The most awful I remember was in the Washington, DC radio market. The largest diamond dealer in town is Mervis Diamond Importers run by a South African chap named Ronnie Mervis. He spoke in all of their radio & television adverts, making a South African accent practically synonymous with diamond rings in the DC area. Well, an upstart called “Charleston Alexander” decided THEIR radio adverts better have a South African speaker too. Rather than actually find one, which shouldn’t have been too hard, they had an American voiceover artist attempt one. Ouch. It was really bad. These ads only last a couple months and were never heard again as far as I can remember.

  12. Ngamudgi says:

    Fifty years after “Mary Poppins”, Disney may have given us another dialect controversy with “Saving Mr Banks”. It will be interesting to see (and hear) how Emma Thompson portrays P L Travers, a Queenslander. From the trailers they have shown, it seems she simply speaks in an English accent and does not even try to sound Australian. Has anyone seen the film?

    • bill says:

      I haven’t seen the film either, but I have seen interviews with Travers, and she sounded pretty posh to me. She was a helluva snob, and did everything she could to hide her Aussie origins. Also, I think Emma Thomson is a good enough actress to have a bit of Aussie in her accent, if that’s what was called for.

  13. Danny Ryan says:

    As a big Star Wars fan I recently watched a few episodes of the animated “Clone Wars” series, and what struck me about the character Obi Wan Kenobi’s voice actor was that despite a convincingly British phonetic rendition (save the occasional slips in rhoticisms) he kept strictly to an American phonemic set. Words like “commander” with /æ/ rather than /ɑ(ː)/ and the arbitrary suppletion of British /ɒ/ with a whole variety of a- and o-type vowels really stick out like sore thumbs… These are also Afflec’s and Paltrow’s hiccoughs in “Shakespeare in Love” – rather than actual “mistakes” in pronunciation. Accent and dialect ain’t the same ;-)

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