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).