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7 February 2011
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Page 1 of 6
Accents: An actor's approach
Writing accents
Directing for accents
Ep1 scene 7 pt1
Ep1 scene 7 pt2
Ep1 scene 7 pt3

Street and Lane: Accents and radio drama

Accents: An actor's approach
By Gerard McDermott
(actor, Street and Lane, episode one. Character: Great North Man - GNM)

For the actor there are many different approaches to portraying an accent. I am sure that with a full knowledge of the anatomy of the voice, how the voice works and which part of the body the voice resonates in, it may be possible to reproduce accents using a completely technical approach. Other actors will often suggest to me that a particular accent should be placed at the front of the mouth or very far back, or perhaps that the jaw should hardly be moved at all (the latter was recommended for Glaswegian).

At drama college we were given a chart which was designed to demonstrate phonetically how accents are produced. This method was dependent on using Received Pronunciation ('talking posh' to my Northern ears) as its starting point. However, I am always intrigued when working with actors who have native Scottish, Irish or Scouse accents and find that they 'talk posh' with the best of them.

The other day a colleague said that they thought dialects in some way mirror the surrounding landscape. Therefore, Geordie is up and down, Norfolk's flat. It's a lovely image that some people may find useful.

My approach, however, tends to be instinctive rather than technical, although I'm aware that all the technical stuff comes into play. I think I'd find myself tripping up and literally tongue-tied if I had to think too much about what my jaw was doing and whether or not my upper lip was stiff enough, if ever I'm called upon to play a Glaswegian RAF officer! I often think it's much more to do with how the actor uses their ears rather than their mouth.

We are all good mimics; otherwise accents wouldn't exist at all. We all grow up adopting the accent of our parents and peers. Also, it would be hard to imagine someone returning from a long stay in the USA, for example, without having picked something of the way they speak. We all pick up Americanisms and Australianisms without even leaving our front rooms. When living in Wallsend I noticed that a lot of the men would lay the Geordie on thicker when out with the lads and I've also noticed my wife becoming distinctly more West Yorkshire when her mum visits us from Wakefield. So I think we all enjoy playing with our voices; it's just that some of us are quicker at the mimicry and more dextrous with the voice than others.

The practiced practitioner
So how do we make it sound convincing? Well, to be honest, I'm not quite sure. I just take a run at it and hope for the best. And it has to be said that the only way you know if you're doing anything right in the acting profession is if the 'phone keeps ringing! I must also say that, of course, practice does help enormously, although you can get some strange looks in Sainsbury's. Having a musical ear is very important. If you can pick up a tune quickly, the chances are that you'll be good at reproducing voices too. Confidence is also vital. Actors know only too well the importance it plays in our careers both in work and, perhaps more importantly, out of it. I was very amused when an actress told me that she couldn't sing a note personally, but as the character she was portraying, she had a fabulous singing voice! Perhaps hiding behind the character gave her the confidence. I am sure the same applies to the spoken voice.

Making Links
I sometimes use what I call 'links'. That is to say, thinking about the way someone speaks, a person you've met or perhaps a celebrity and then trying to copy them. This can work as a route into a particular character but it's not without its pitfalls: you don't want all your Irishmen sounding like Terry Wogan! Also, these days you've got to work very hard to avoid sounding like a character from Little Britain.

This is where 'inhabiting' comes into play. This is very difficult to explain and I find myself groping for another analogy. It's a bit like when you see someone wearing the most flamboyant and outrageous clothes and they just look terrific in them. I just know that if I was to try out the same gear I'd end up looking like a mid-life crisis on a bad hair day. Inhabiting is about making the voice your own, making it sound as if you grew up in the particular region. I've heard people reproducing accents very accurately but, for some reason, it just doesn't sound as if the voice belongs to them. Inhabiting the voice is, I think, somehow more important than being completely accurate.

The other parts were played by the cast
In the world of so-called naturalistic film-making and tele-acting, being good at accents is these days less called for. The casting people will say that they only want the genuine article. This is bad news for a actor like me who doesn't feel he's found the character unless he's moved up or down the M1 for a hundred miles or so, an actor who delighted in impersonating all the teachers at the old Secondary Modern. Ironically, I think that radio is particularly unforgiving if the actor hasn't quite got the voice right. Much more so than in television where the look of the actor must channel everything through the voice and it's very hard to deceive the listener.


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