“LET me tell you a little bit about the role”.
Said the German director in the presence of myself and the Italian/American producers.
“He is an English aristocrat, goes by the name of Lord Frederick Langham. He lives in a stately home with 27 bedrooms, fourteen and a half bathrooms and an Italian garden that replicates a section of the Venetian waterways. His parents have a portfolio of real estate all around the Globe including London, Paris, Rome, New York and Monte Carlo. His wine collection alone could clear the debt of a Third World country and he is chauffeured around in a vintage Rolls Royce by his trusted Butler Uri”.
“Sounds great kidder. Where do I sign la?”
Sound unlikely? Well this happened to me once. It was in a film studio somewhere outside of the UK. I had been working on a feature and word had gotten around that there was an Englishman on the lot. Sure enough, I was approached by the aforementioned American Italian and German. They checked me out, liked my ‘look’ and more importantly the colour of my passport. They were searching for a Brit pure and simple; and as far as these foreigners were concerned I was British. Not Liverpudlian, not Northern… just British. Better still I was ENGLISH! In fact let’s be honest, to them, I could have been James ‘fu*king’ Bond! I was offered the job on the spot.
Shortly after that I started spending a lot of time in New York. Like John Lennon before me, it reminded me of home. The docks, humour, energy, edge… I couldn’t get enough. What was more, New York couldn’t get enough of me. There wasn’t a day went by when I wasn’t stopped on the street…
“Man… Your accent is just AWESOME!”
“Wow…You sound just like a Beatle!”
“I LOVE the Liverpool voice dude!”
The Americans didn’t hear subconscious sirens or picture me dressed in a mask with a swag bag over my shoulder. Their hands didn’t instinctively move to check that their wallets were safe. Instead they just heard a voice, a sound, a song and they associated it with positivity, possibility and friendliness. As for the women?…I might as well have been talking Italian!
During my time in America I hung out with millionaires and movie stars, designers, producers, rock stars, photographers, artists, magazine editors and people in very high places (quite literally at times). And do you know what? I was their equal. I was an ‘English man’ in New York.
Fast forward a couple of years and back home in England I hear of a drama being cast about British soldiers in Iraq. I managed to get hold of the script and really liked it. I was a fan of the director and thought the role a challenge. Furthermore the character was a soldier from the Cheshire regiment, the regiment nearest to Liverpool. I promptly called my agents and asked them to ask the producers if they would meet me for a casting. The reply they got back went something like this…
“Unfortunately we don’t believe Scot is right for this role because this character trained at Sandhurst.”
Which, for those of you unfamiliar with Sandhurst and what it stands for, can be roughly translated as…
“A Liverpudlian? Playing somebody educated with an RP accent?! Do me a fu*king favour!”
As it happens I was born in the early 70s to Liverpool parents of Celtic descent and grew up in the much milder accented ‘South’ of the city. My folks would often correct my pronunciation, “It’s car NOT caaaaaar,” being a regular prompt and consequently my accent never grew strong to begin with. Dilute that with 20 years of living in London and my accent (though still there) is more of a mystery than anything else.
Despite this, in 20 years of working as an actor and having what some casting directors might deem a ‘classic’ look (don’t ask me what that means either), in spite of having one of the finest agents in the country and a CV the length of my arm, I have still, not once, not ever received even an audition for what we might call a ‘period drama’. Not even a screen-test, let alone an offer (apart from LILIES of course, which was set in Garston!).
Despite a versatility and ability with accents, in spite of having played RP on more than one occasion, never have I gotten past the casting suite door for an Austen, Dickens or Bronte. Yet, to those Italian/Americans, those Germans and New Yorkers…I had the accent of an ‘English Man’.
Prejudice I think is the word I’m looking for.
Plain old fashioned, lazy, safe, ‘tar all with the same brush’ prejudice. Fu*k the fact that I’ve worked with some of the best in the business, my Spotlight CV page has a tiny little asterix next to the word ‘Liverpudlian’, followed by the word ‘Native’ and as far as some are concerned that simply means a big fat ‘no’.
Thankfully, although rife, not everyone in this business is quite so narrow minded and with a mixture of good management and wise choosing, it is possible to avoid stereotype and out manoeuvre the dreaded typecasting, which to a certain degree I have done.
Having said that, I can still list many occasions, here in my own country, when the mere ‘location’ of my birth has played a part in whether I ate that month or not.
It’s not just Liverpudlians that are unfairly labelled of course. I’d hate to be accused of being just another victim from the ‘Self Pity City’.
No, this prejudice goes on across the board. As far as some film makers are concerned all black kids deal drugs and shoot people, all females from Essex are slags, all Brummies are as thick as shit, Oxfordians eat swan sandwiches and sleep with their cousins, Cockneys are all cheeky chancers and Mancunians live on cobbled streets and a diet of Lancashire hot-pot.
If the Welsh aren’t singing they’re shagging their sheep and all Geordies work down mines. Mackem girls go out barely dressed in sub-zero temperatures, Glaswegians are violent smackheads, Irishmen desperate drunks, all travellers are bare knuckle fighters, all Muslims too busy making bombs and as for us Liverpudlians… why we’re all curly haired dole scrounging jolly, witty thieves of course! “Keep your hands on your wallets fellas!”
Box, shelf, kind, group, class, sort, type!…When are people going to STOP generalising?!
Recently, I tuned into a certain long running British TV drama. The opening sequence was a single mother from Liverpool on the run from the local authorities with her kids down to London.
They ‘bunked’ onto the train at Lime Street without paying (how could they possibly pay? They were from Liverpool remember), the bruises on her face suggested she had a violent partner who probably drank too much, her wayward children were stealing things at every given turn.
Why is this?
And, more importantly, why do film and television makers from Liverpool itself feel the need to exacerbate this narrow mindedness and throw fuel made up of generalizations onto flames made up of Myths.
Is DEPERATE SCOUSEWIVES really representative of Liverpool people? Is that really going to help us in our quest to beat the bias?
Just look up “The Liverpool Accent” on Wikipedia and you will see a list of local fictional characters portrayed on TV and film. Don’t get me wrong, some are great characters, heroes even. But there does seem to be a common theme.
It is perhaps the sheer chauvinism attached to the Liverpool accent that has seen me and others like me spend many a day (and many a dollar) in the presence of dialect coaches.
These talented teachers can charge upwards of £100 an hour to teach you how to drop an accent and adopt another seamlessly. They fascinate me, help me to realise the importance of an accent’s volume, expression, evolution and how beautiful and individual each dialect really is.
They teach us of its history and the actual mechanics behind it. How the tongue moves, how the lips behave, how the breath can manipulate sound. (For example, Americans almost hold their breath when speaking and have no explosions of air on their P and B sounds. Hold a candle up in front of an American’s lips and have him say ‘Puppy’ or ‘Bubble’ and the flame will never flicker!)
Thank God for these coaches, because if it was left to actual ROBOTS some sessions might end up like this…
It is perhaps because of this stereotyping that the ‘better known’ Liverpool actors (outside of the city itself) are barely known as such.
Some great Liverpudlian actors (or actors that grew up in and near the city) such as Rex Harrison, Jason Isaacs, Tom Baker, Alison Steadman, Derek Nimmo, Malcolm McDowell, Daniel Craig, Patricia Routledge etc. might not have had an accent to begin with of course, but I’m willing to bet that most just chose to drop them in a bid to beat the bigotry. If not ‘chose’ then encouraged, perhaps by drama schools or repertory theatre?
The fact remains, that in 2012 I can list very few Liverpool actors with strong regional accents that have broken through into an ‘International Audience’. Scouse actors that have said “D’you know what…f*ck it, this is me and this is how I sound, take it or leave it”!
Some have succeeded of course, my friends and ex-colleagues Stephen Graham and Ian Hart have smashed through the prejudice with sheer talent and tenacity, but this is very rare and with respect to them they’re predominantly character actors – I’ve yet to hear a leading Scouse man.
In my own personal experience, most directors, casting directors and producers would prefer I performed in a non-native accent (i.e. not Liverpudlian), unless the role was written as such.
I had an audition for a certain well known ‘Cockney Crime Movie’ once, directed by a certain well known ‘Cockney Crime Movie’ director (no, not that one).
The casting director called me in for a preliminary meeting and said to me…
“Scot, I think you’re great, but there’s NO WAY this ‘well known Cockney Crime Movie director’ will cast you if he gets even the tiniest ‘hint’ that you’re from Liverpool. Is there any chance you could go into the meeting tomorrow and conduct the conversation in a South London accent?”
But that’s ridiculous I thought… you don’t have to be a Cockney to play a Cockney. I played a heroin addict for two years, I didn’t have to shoot up before each take for fu*k’s sake!
“Yes, ok,” I said reluctantly.
The next day I walk into the casting.
“Awight Guv,” I said in my Bermondsey twang.
“Hello Geez,” said the ‘well-known Cockney crime movie director’. “Av a seat fella…So, where’s your manor then?”
Where’s my manor? Shit!! I hadn’t thought of that one! Think on your feet Williams…
“Erm?! Well I bin all over inn-eye! Caaaaaamberwell, Caaaaamden, Kensal Riiiiiiise, Tooooootin…”
“Triffick!” said the director, still none the wiser. “What school d’you go to then?”
School? Bollocks! I didn’t Google schools!
“School? Me? Erm…I went to a comprehensive school called Dee Olt.”
“Dee Olt?” he replied. “I ain’t ever heard of Dee Olt?! How you spelling that?”
“Dee Olt…you know, T.H.E. H.O.L.T.”
“Ohhhhhhh Dee Olt!! Right okay. And where IS Dee Olt?”
I looked at him straight in the eye and in my flawless London accent replied…
“It’s in LIVERPOOL mate”
“Liverpool?!!” he said, with a scowl. “Why Liverpool?!”
By now the game was up and I could pretend no longer, furthermore I didn’t want to.
“Because dat’s where I’m from geezer innit!” I replied with a wink.
Needless to say, I didn’t get the job!!
Would you conceal YOUR accent to land a dream job? Take a look at this…
So who are the worse culprits of this stereotyping? The media of course, but today’s modern stand-up comedians certainly have a lot to answer for.
Come December when this massively over-saturated, over-exposed profession brings out its crowd of clowns desperate to flog their Christmas DVD’s – well frankly they’d offend anyone….
Take this bunch of ‘Hilarious Arseholes’. Yes, Jimmy Carr I’m talking to you!
According to Jimmy Carr, offence cannot be GIVEN, only TAKEN. Well Jimmy, if you’re reading this… a very hard slap across that very weird face of yours cannot be given either!
And what about the ‘side splitting’ Michael McIntyre!
And the ‘I think my head might fall off he’s so funny’ Lee Mack!
What about the ‘pissed myself laughing’ Jason Manford!
Or the ‘roll around on the floor laughing’ Russell Howard…
However THE worst Scouse accent of all the stand-up comics surely belongs to THIS man:
(a shocking example of stereotyping if ever there was one)…
Now, knowing you lot as I do, you’ll still be laughing from those clips, because let’s be honest if there’s one thing we’re good at it’s laughing at ourselves.
But in all seriousness, this generalisation has to stop. Give these blinkered folk an inch and they’ll take a folking mile!
However, to get any idea of when it might end, we need to learn when it began. Judging by this next clip, it was something even The Beatles had to put up with way back in 1962…(skip to 28secs and the BRILLIANT reply from John Lennon).
So, what’s the answer, what is the solution?
Well, as in all cases of ignorance and prejudice, this surely lies in education.
Do the narrow-minded know for example, that the word ‘Scouse’ derives from the Norwegian lapskaus and the Low German Labskaus?!
Both words for a meat stew. The next time you meet Jimmy Carr, tell him that it was people who ate “Scouse”, such as local dockers and sailors, who became commonly known as Scousers, especially in the north end of Liverpool and the Wallasey Pool.
Educate these funny bastards! Tell Michael McIntyre that despite originally being a fishing village, Liverpool developed as a port, trading particularly with Ireland and in the 19th century internationally.
Tell him that it therefore became a melting pot of languages and dialects, but primarily Lancastrian, Irish, Welsh, English, Dutch, Scandinavian, German and Scots and that as a result the Liverpool accent often had more in common with accents from other port cities such as Glasgow and Dublin than it did with neighbouring towns.
Educate the funny bastards! Tell Lee Mack that it was the influence of these different speech patterns that became apparent in Liverpool and coastal Wirral, distinguishing the accent of its people from those of the surrounding Lancashire and Cheshire areas. Tell him that it is only recently that Scouse has been treated as a cohesive accent/dialect and that for many years, Liverpool was simply seen as a melting pot of ‘different’ accents without having one of its own.
Educate the funny bastards! Pull Russell Howard aside. Remind him that the accent of the 50s and before was more a Lancashire-Irish hybrid, old fashioned Liverpudlian if you like, a little like the Beatles used to speak. Tell him that since then, as with most accents, Scouse has been subject to phonemic evolution and change and that over the last few decades the accent is no longer a melange but has in fact started to develop. Tell him big changes have taken place in Scouse vowels, which show astonishing length and exaggeration at times. Tell these funny, funny bastards to compare the way George Harrison and John Lennon spoke with modern day Scouse speakers such as their fellow funny man… John Bishop!
To be fair, I’ve been quite methodical in my career choices. In 20 years I estimate that only 50% of my roles have been played in my native tongue.
Furthermore I’ve played very few Liverpudlian roles that one might deem ‘stereotypical’, only four in fact. It’s true I have had to decline one or two that painted a vulgar picture, but you can’t turn down every rogue.
It is my personal belief that the greatest actors bring ‘themselves’ to the part and not the part to they. You don’t need a French accent to play an old romantic; you just need passion in your heart. You need only look to the De Niros, Pacinos, Hopkins and Caines of this world to see that.
The fact is, acting in my own tongue allows me to be more instinctive and if there wasn’t such negative stereotype attached to the Liverpool accent, I’d rarely choose to alter it at all.
But, alas, there is and so I do!
I’m going to leave you with an exclusive peak at my new film. Set in Southend Essex, I play a career criminal, fresh out of jail and looking to steal a whole lot of money. Did I play the part in a Liverpudlian accent or not?
You’ll have to wait and see!
HARD BOILED SWEETS in selected cinemas from March 9th and on DVD from April 30th.