Putting the Accent on Accuracy: Blow Dry, Billy Elliot and Benicio…

For Josh Hartnett, Blow Dry probably seemed like a sharp career move. With summer behemoth Pearl Harbor set to propel him into the big leagues, the young actor best known for Halloween H20 and The Faculty must have jumped at the chance to work alongside Alan Rickman, Natasha Richardson and Rachel Griffiths on a movie based on a script by Simon Full Monty Beaufoy — a quirky comedy set in Keighley, though filmed, bizarrely enough, miles away in Batley and Dewsbury.

But you don’t have to come from anywhere in Yorkshire to recoil every time Hartnett opens his mouth in the movie, unleashing a bizarre mongrel brogue that trots happily from Newcastle to Oxbridge, Bristol to Belfast, only occasionally passing through anything resembling White Rose territory, and more often vanishing into total mumbledegook.

Hartnett’s presence turns out to be less a matter of thespian stretching than old-fashioned number-crunching showbiz. Beaufoy distanced himself from the movie when Manhattan-based production company Miramax demanded major script changes and the presence of American names to lure in the all-important youth demographic, enabling them to release a quirky ensemble piece over here, and a teen-idol star-vehicle over there.

Because while few audiences outside the UK would detect anything amiss about Hartnett’s tortuous strangulations, even fewer would care. Stateside audiences can tell the difference between Sean Bean and Jude Law, but that’s about it. Geordie, Scouse, Manc, Sheffield, Leeds even Birmingham all blur into one generic mass: as the Press Democrat of Sonoma, California, said of Billy Elliot, You gotta love that north English accent!

Do ya? Those of us from Easington, where Stephen Daldry filmed his debut feature, might not be quite so gushing. I was born in the early seventies, just a couple of hundred yards from the village, and I grew up, the son of an ex-pitman, in an ex-pit community just a couple of miles up the coast in Ryhope, so I’ve got more in common with Billy, and the movie, than most reviewers.

As a critic, of course, I tried to put this out of my mind when I first saw Billy Elliot, but just as I’d start to be carried along by Daldry’s bold direction, or by the infectious physicality of Jamie Bell, or by the tough poetry of Lee Hall’s script, my attention would snag on some careless error of history, accent or dialect. I’m told by people from Yorkshire that, while The Full Monty was mostly excellent in terms of accent accuracy, Brassed Off was pretty diabolical. Billy Elliot ranks somewhere in between.

Where exactly, for example, is Billy’s brother Tony supposed to be from? Did Daldry simply fail to hear actor Jamie Draven’s accent veering sharply across the Pennines to Manchester every time hot-head Tony lost his temper? This vocal volatility has been noted all over the country, but my friends in Sunderland and County Durham have been just as distracted by some of the things coming out of Jamie Bells mouth.

He is, of course, the local lad from Billingham, a dozen miles south, the result of Daldry trawling the region for a child from a very specific geographical area, with the right accent. But the north-east, with its proud, clannish, often isolated communities, is a linguistic minefield – the voice on the hoax ‘Wearside Jack’ tape sent to the Yorkshire Ripper investigation was traced by accentologists to a handful of Sunderland streets.

Leaving aside the crass absurdity of Billy bringing a Newcastle top to one of his ballet classes (Easington, and the rest the East Durham coalfield, is the heartland of Sunderland AFC support) the accents are, on the whole, a Durham variation of the Wearside accent. Bells accent is audibly Teesside, much closer to the likes of Vic Reeves than local comedian Mike Elliott, who plays the boxing-coach.

Accents are as much about class as they are geography, and, for me, this makes the scenes between Billy and his mate Michael especially tough going. No conversation between north-eastern lads, either now or back then, would ever include phrases like “come on”, “nothing”, or “this one”. And surely “haway”, “nowt” or “this’n” wouldn’t have proved too tricky, even for Sonoma audiences?

Minor flubs, maybe, but they add up to a distortion of the whole dramatic arc — the point of Billy Elliot is that this is a tough working-class Durham lad who turns out to have such unlikely ballet talent. So the tougher and more working-class Durham he is, the stronger his story, within reason. These reservations left me less enthusiastic than most critics, especially those from down south.

The Daily Mail’s Christopher Tookey even went as far as to say that Billy Elliot surpassed any of the 5,000 films he’d seen in his critical career, according to the movies ad-blurbs. Except he didn’t — that “better than the 5,000” comment was the invention of an over-enthusiastic sub-editor. Top 50 would, he now says, be closer to the mark, and he rebuts any suggestion of sloppiness on Daldry’s part. “One shouldn’t get too pernickety about accents and dialects”, he says, “it completely depends on circumstance, and how realistic the film is.”

Billy Elliot has been mistakenly reviewed by many critics as a work of realism, when I’d say its closer to magical realism. It’s certainly a more poetic manner than, say, Ken Loach. I’m not a purist when it comes to accents, and I think it can be more of a problem if actors and directors go in pursuit of the perfect accent. Rickman, for instance, in Blow Dry ends up hidebound by his flattened vowels — it turns into a depressing exercise in linguistics. The precision of the accents must be weighed against the other factors involved, and how real they should be differs from film to film — for me Billy Elliot was sufficiently real for people outside Yorkshire… I mean, Durham.

Perhaps. But the movie make such enormous capital out of its particular setting in Everington: political, chronological, geographical, historical, sociological, psychological capital, and Daldry and screenwriter, Tyneside’s Lee Hall, are happy to reap the dividends. And shouldn’t they be equally happy to pay the price of accuracy, of getting the details as spot-on as possible so that residents of Southwick, Seaham and Seaton Delaval get just as much out of the film as people in Sonoma, Seattle and Sao Paulo?

And while no-one outside County Durham would ever notice it, Daldry’s habitual mispronunciation of Easington in interviews (the first syllable rhymes with please, not fleece) – not to mention local tales of his outraging ex-miners by asking them to dress up as riot police – hardly sends out the right signals.

On the positive side, however, Julie Walters’s Alan Milburn-ish tones of soft, geographically generic posh Geordie, would never jar in any Durham lad’s ear. It’s unlikely this was a factor in her being the only member of the Billy cast recognised in the Oscar nominations, of course, though the Academy does tend to reward tricky accents.

Michael Caine suggested his Cider House Rules award was mainly due to his having mastered Wilbur Larch’s distinctive New England nasality — long gone are the days when he could get away with standing on the Tyne Bridge in Get Carter and booming, in his broadest Bermondsey, “Didnt you knaw this was my hawm tawn?”

Then again, the fickle Academy voters can turn a deaf ear when they choose. Look at Benicio Del Toro, whose too-kool-for-skool work on Traffic beat off stiff accent competition from Willem Dafoe, Joaquin Phoenix and Albert Finney. This in a category that scandalously overlooked Steven Culp from 13 Days, RFK reborn with Bawston vowels intact — a classic example of the more power a social group has, the more accurate its accents tend to be when they appear in the movies.

But Mexican viewers remain bemused by Del Toro’s performance. A line mentions Catherine Zeta Jones’ character having a European background, enabling the actress to use her own Swansea-via-Santa-Monica twang. But there’s no indication that Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez is anything other than pure Tijuano – apart from his accent, which the Puerto Rico-born, Pennsylvania-raised actor supposedly worked hard to perfect.

Confusion over Del Toro’s accent has tempered the otherwise positive on-line fan reaction to the actor’s Academy success: one discussion board on Amazon.com was even headed “Why does Del Toro’s character have a Colombian accent?”, with ‘I thought he was one of the drug dealers’ being a typically mystified contribution.

As Mexican-born Juarez resident Floyd Johnson notes, “that atrocious accent was so blatantly Puerto Rican – it was uncomfortable, distracting, and it was so insulting when there are so many great Mexican actors who could have portrayed that role.” The young actors of West Yorkshire may feel similarly aggrieved on watching Blow Dry – though Josh Hartnett can always console himself with thoughts of Del Toro’s Oscar glory…

Neil Young
28th March, 2001