Why is everyone English?

Is the question I asked myself as I binge-watched another episode of Reign this week.

Reign is an American show, originally airing on CW in 2013, finishing just last year. It is available to watch on Netflix (until the 11th of February, hence the binge watching). It follows the life of Mary Queen of Scots in the 1500s and while technically a ‘historical’ show, it definitely takes a leaf from shows like ‘Gossip Girl’ and ‘The Vampire Diaries’ with its dramatic twists. This is perfect no-thinking TV for a young woman such as myself, late on a Friday night.

Reign

The cast of Reign look flawless at all times…but not a Scot among them.

However, one issue I have struggled to overlook (and the show asks you to overlook everything from the entire cast looking A++ all the time to nobles being murdered left right and centre – an average day at French court) is the complete lack of regional accents. The entire cast employ the use of English accents, despite the fact that the show is made for CW (primarily aimed at US viewership) and that they are all at French court. Now, I am no stranger to the Hollywood standard of brushing everyone with the same accent in order to not alienate a potential audience – while historically accurate, it wouldn’t really draw me in if the entire show was in French, as it the affairs of court would have been.

Now, this isn’t the first show I’ve watched where everyone is English, nor is it likely the last. However, being that the show is centered around Mary, Queen of SCOTS, every so often, some ambassador or other figure from her Scottish court shows up. This is where my annoyance begins. In a show that features Scottish folks heavily, each and every visitor to court speaks in the same English accent as the rest of the cast. A small detail that many might not notice, but if your accent is a regional one, every little bit of potential representation matters. This becomes even more irritating when *minor spoilers* Mary moves back to Scotland towards the end of Season 3. Suddenly, everyone from the Druids to the local village girl in Fife has forgotten how to speak like a Celt.

As an Irish lass, this frustrates me to no end. Perhaps one could argue that it is harder to find actors who have Celtic roots, or are good enough at doing accents to employ them on an American show – except for the fact that the main cast, Adelaide Kane, Toby Regbo and Torrance Combs are Australian, English and Canadian, respectively.

John Barrowman Reign

John Barrowman makes a brief appearance, as a murderous Scottish clan chief.

The one reprieve in the wash of English is John Barrowman in Season 3, playing Munro, the head of one of Mary’s clans. Barrowman is an American actor, born in Scotland; however his lovely brogue is short-lived as he features in only one episode.

While this is just one show (and goodness knows, it would be a miracle if every show we watched represented everyone to the degree that they wish to be represented) and I can watch many another show that DOES have the odd regional accent, I still think that regional actors and accents are vastly underestimated in the industry as a whole. I tipped up to university in England with a (not even particularly strong) Belfast accent. During my time there, I have been told to ‘tone’ down my accent, to slow down my speech because I was “unintelligible” and even given vocal coaching to perfect an English accent for one production, according to the director, to “not stand out” and because I was playing an intelligent character.

Not that there isn’t pros to being able to perfect different accents (my Peppa Pig impression is now stellar) but this did mean I spent most of my time being very self-conscious of my accent and voice throughout university. The only time I have seen regional accents used by directors in production are normally to denote ‘working-class’ or ‘rough’ characters – prostitutes and the like. This lack of variety and imagination by directors only encourages us to link these traits in our heads – that people who speak with a regional accent have little or no education under their belts.

Check out this interview with Roald Dahl from 1982 – you can just about hear that the interviewer is Northern Irish, but he uses the old ‘BBC’ voice to erase his accent (around 2.40, for those of you who don’t wish to watch a seven minute interview with Roald Dahl).

While drama schools and the BBC no longer enforce this kind of ‘neutral’ accent as the norm, it doesn’t mean that the effects of such previous measures aren’t still ingrained into modern day attitudes. In this YouTube video, Olivia Walker, a young Northern woman, talks about her experience auditioning for Drama schools with an accent just last year (2017):

“I’ve been told so many times before that I need to change my accent, that I need to get another accent if I’m going to make it in the business.”

Is this really the attitude some people still have in 2018? We need more regional actors and regional television to reflect the multicultural society that we’re living in and the multicultural actors and creatives that are inhabiting it – and if this is the reaction of some of the London elite towards potential incomers to the industry, we aren’t heading there soon.

But maybe this just isn’t something that people who do have the ‘right’ accent (people from the South of England, I’m looking at you) think about. To be honest, I didn’t even realise that England had so many different accents before I moved here – because the majority of the media I consumed with English characters had very few variations. Shows like Doctor Who were the exception to the rule, letting the lovely Christopher Eccleston keep his normal accent:

Lots of Planets have a North…so where is it being represented on our television screens?

Most of BBC’s dramas in 2017, such as prime time hit Doctor Foster featured very few regional actors, perhaps with the exception of Peaky Blinders with it’s fourth season – but even that doesn’t quite hit the mark, being set in Birmingham, England. Where are the stories about Irish, Scottish, Welsh characters, set in Northern Ireland, set in Scotland, set in Wales? Where is the multi-cultural British public being truly represented?

Well, the tide may be changing. Derry Girls on Channel 4, showcases life for four school girls (‘and the wee english fella’) in Derry during the Troubles. This isn’t the typical hard-hitting drama that we might have come to associate with that word, but is instead drawn from the creator, Lisa McGee’s own experience, growing up in Derry.  The comedy has proved immensely popular and was renewed for a second season after just one episode had aired.

“Don’t worry yourselves too much about the whole ‘sectarian conflict’ carry-on…”

Shot with a regional cast and crew (two of the main cast are from the city of Derry itself) and written by a woman, the show proves that you don’t need to conform to the norm in order to do well. The dialogue, slang and context of the series are deliciously not dumbed down for an English audience and it works.

When I first started my foray into the dramatics, not a single family member of mine had ever done anything to do with the arts industry. Excepting one grandparent who worked as a classical musician in his youth – the rest of my family are made up of engineers, civil servants, and the like. Representation matters in the arts. If you can see yourself on screen, you feel part of the wider community as a whole and may even be inspired to join the industry itself.

Hopefully shows like these are just the beginning of an uprising in regional actors being recognised, regional works being commissioned, and regional locations used for shooting. I, for one, would love to see more of the multi-cultural Britain on display on my TV and in theatres. And by showing more of the regions, by giving arts funding to regions, we may end up with more talent than ever coming out of those areas.

If the industry is willing to peep outside of London, I think they might be surprised by the treasure trove waiting to be discovered.

 

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