Accent of evil

Two posts ago I discussed the rise of modern popular culture during the first part of the 20th century. I argued that it was phonetically influenced by three accent types: 1. Northeastern US, 2. Southern/African American, and to some extent 3. the British Empire’s ‘Received Pronunciation’. I described how the first of these became marginalized, as it was in the democratic nature of popular culture that the majority accent, General American, came to predominate in the USA.

In the following post, I went on to consider the special case of popular music, where Southern/African American pronunciation continues to exert influence throughout the English-speaking world. Today I want to consider the status of RP-type accents in popular culture.

There’s a widespread and often discussed idea that British or English speech is associated with evil. An article in the Independent from 2010 begins:

From middle earth to a galaxy far far away, there exists a truth universal since the dawn of Hollywood time: bad guys speak with British accents. But it is a truth that British actress Dame Helen Mirren has become fed up with.
Speaking at an event in Los Angeles to celebrate British success in Hollywood, Dame Helen said British actors were an “easy target”. “I think it’s rather unfortunate that the villain in every movie is always British,” she said.

When people make this claim, the sort of thing they mention is George Sanders as the villainous tiger Shere Khan in Disney’s Jungle Book:

Or Steven Berkoff’s smuggling art dealer in Beverly Hills Cop:

Or Jeremy Irons’ villainous lion Scar in Disney’s Lion King:

Or Benedict Cumberbatch’s super-villain Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness:

A Daily Mail article by Barry Norman, for decades the BBC’s main film critic, tried to explain the phenomenon in terms of American attitudes to Britain/England: “Americans have a brooding resentment of the lordly way we used to rule our colonies there”.

The same idea of inter-national resentment is present in an older online article on the BBC’s h2g2 site: “the concept of the British as the ‘old masters’ and British influence as an unjust yoke to be thrown off is deeply ingrained in American cultural history”.

These writers aren’t overly precise on the accents they describe. The BBC article claims that “Beginning with Errol Flynn’s classic portrayal… Hollywood Robin Hoods have had American accents”; while the Independent and Mail articles both claim that Anthony Hopkins played the villainous Hannibal Lecter with an English accent. Here is the Australian Flynn’s Robin Hood (I’ll get myself a staff… What else d’you call a man who takes advantage of the King’s misfortune to seize his power?):

The BATH-broadening, non-rhoticity and general vowel system are British rather than American. Hopkins’ accent as Lecter is more slippery; he’s clearly Southern USA in his famous first scene with Jodie Foster’s agent Starling, though this is said to be in mockery of her (Closer… from the student body… That is the Duomo seen from the Belvedere):

Elsewhere he’s occasionally rhotic, generally lacks BATH-broadening, has unrounded LOT and can’t simply be described as having an English accent.

More importantly, I think the writers are missing the main point by thinking in national terms – filmmakers from one nation, the USA, supposedly choosing actors on the basis of negative feelings about another nation, Britain. I think the primary factor is social rather than national: the most important thing about ‘British villains’ is not their country of origin but the fact that they sound high class.

This was vividly demonstrated earlier this year when Jaguar, the Indian-owned British luxury car manufacturer, launched a lavish TV campaign to around 90 million viewers during the Super Bowl, America’s annual football championship game. Starring Tom Hiddleston, Sir Ben Kingsley and Mark Strong, and directed by Tom Hooper of The King’s Speech, the ad begins “Have you ever noticed how in Hollywood movies all the villains are played by Brits? Maybe we just sound right…” A helicopter races a Jaguar around famous London tourist spots while the British stars tells us, tongue in cheek, that “we’re more focussed, more precise… we’re always one step ahead… we’re obsessed by power… and we all drive Jaguars. Oh yes, it’s good to be bad.”

The Jaguar campaign helps us to understand the perception of this type of accent in the English speaking world, though it’s worded in the same national terms (“Brits”) as before. But first we have to grasp two things. On the one hand, the accent at the heart of the matter is not any British accent but RP, the accent of the British empire’s ruling elite. RP, as I put it in another post, was from its very conception the accent of privilege. On the other hand, modern post-imperial culture places value on democracy and equality, which dovetail with traditional values like compassion for the poor and disadvantaged; the consequence is the stigmatization of privilege. In storytelling, audiences sympathize and identify with the ordinary, the humble and the vulnerable more than with the privileged and wealthy.

It follows that RP-type speech is a good choice for evoking elitist associations in adverts, appealing to consumers who want to demonstrate their wealth and high class tastes. But it’s easier for a Jaguar to pass through the eye of a needle than for an audience to empathize with an unfairly advantaged character, especially one who flaunts their status. And, if an accent has sufficiently elite connotations, flaunting may consist of no more than speaking.

Of course not all villains speak RP. We’ve already seen that Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter was not RP-speaking; besides, the real villain of The Silence of the Lambs is the serial killer ‘Buffalo Bill’, an American played by an American. Many of the most iconic villains are American, especially when the villainy comes not from privilege but from mental disturbance or social marginalization: Psycho‘s Norman Bates and various other slashers, Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear and The Night of the Hunter, the Jokers of both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger (Australian but, unlike Flynn’s Robin Hood, American-accented), Nicholson in The Shining and Kathy Bates in Misery, assorted Dennis Hopper villains and any number of manipulative femmes fatales and ethnic minority (eg Italian-American) gangsters.

And not all RP-speakers are villains. The accent’s eliteness is sometimes exploited for non-evil connotations, such as seniority. Obi-Wan Kenobi as portrayed by Sir Alec Guinness in Star Wars is a benign seniority figure, as is Sir Patrick Stewart’s senior officer Picard on the generally American-speaking starship Enterprise. Another niche of potentially sympathetic RP speakers are higher-ranking servants from the old days, like Jeeves and Mary Poppins, who needed RP to interact with those they served.

Further, non-RP Brits are relatively unproblematic. Americans quickly fell for Sean Connery as James Bond, just as they fell for the Beatles; of course neither the Scot nor the Scousers spoke RP. A London accent is similarly free of villainous baggage, whether real, like Michael Caine’s, or preposterous, like Dick Van Dyke’s. Some years ago American car insurer GEICO switched the animated gecko in their TV ads from RP-ish to Cockney-ish, as discussed on Language Log. (Only the elite drive Jaguars, but everyone needs car insurance.) It’s not Britishness but classiness that causes the problems. This is why a taste for classical music, regardless of the aficionado’s nationality, is often a hallmark of villainy.

For me the clinching evidence that the main factor is class rather than nationality is this: the ‘Hollywood’ associations of RP-type accents also apply within Britain, even within England. Consider for example the popular British theatrical tradition of pantomime, or panto for short. Performed in great numbers every Christmas season at every level from big star-studded shows to local amateur efforts, pantos are musical comedy fantasies based on a small number of traditional children’s stories. The best-known include Snow White, Cinderella, Aladdin, (Robin Hood and the) Babes in the Wood, Dick Whittington, as well as Peter Pan. Usually, these stories feature a young, humble and/or disadvantaged hero or heroine struggling against a grand, older, powerful and often titled villain, such as a wicked queen or wizard, King Rat, etc.

In panto it’s normal for the performers to have regional accents of various kinds, except that very often the grand villain tends towards RP. In this brief and amusing ad for a production of Aladdin in Glasgow, three of the four performers (hero, genie, and cross-dressing ‘dame’) have Scottish accents, while the villain Abanazar speaks RP:

The same sort of thing applies within England. In this panto from Basildon, Essex, we have an Estuary-type dame interacting with an RP-type Captain Hook (starting 3:25):

And here an RP King Rat in Somerset also interacts with a lower class dame (at 1:30). The dame gets a big laugh with “Ooh look, it’s Mickey Mouse.” “How dare you compare me with that inferior rodent?” he replies. If this rat drove a car, it might well be a Jaguar.

So, just like other English-speakers, Brits associate grand villainy with upmarket accents. The very British cast of the Harry Potter films includes quite a few upmarket speakers, but outclassing the rest as megalomaniac-snob-racist ‘Lord’ Voldemort is Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, eighth cousin of the Prince of Wales:

Note for example Fiennes’ æ in Harry and the backish first element of proud, now posh and old-fashioned.

Poshness and old-fashionedness go hand in hand because of sociophonetic change in Britain/England over the last half century. Traditionally, as I explained in my earlier post, there was a fairly straightforward, linear relation between social class and prestige, but changes in social attitudes – which can’t simply be attributed to Hollywood – had the effect of stigmatizing privilege. Crudely:posh_curvePosher accents became stigmatized and increasingly marginal in the British mass media which they formerly dominated. In 1982 John Wells invoked the concept of ‘U-RP’, ie RP posh enough to carry negative associations. The typical speakers he suggested were amusing stereotypes, such as the dowager duchess and the elderly Oxbridge don; at least one, the Terry-Thomas cad, counts as a villain. Increasingly it became the role of posher speakers to be laughed at and/or vanquished.

(The clip of King Rat and dame above nicely shows how villains are there not merely to be defeated but also to be deflated. This mockery can even be self-directed, as it often was by Noël Coward; in their different ways Stephen Fry, Hugh Grant and London’s mayor Boris Johnson – whose new bus features prominently in the Jaguar ad – also gained popularity playing their poshness comedically.)

Crucially, there was no firewall insulating John’s positive ‘mainstream RP’ from the negative U-RP. They were just stages on a continuum that was partly phonetic, partly social and partly historical, with the ‘mainstream’ of yesterday ageing into the potentially silly or villainous of today. Inevitably, what constitutes a posh and/or old-fashioned and/or elite accent has shifted over time. George Sanders and Benedict Cumberbatch don’t sound the same, but there’s a similarity in what their accents signify to their respective generations. (Especially when they purr and creak and sneer: the more cartoonish the role, the more cartoonish the inflections.)

Cumberbatch’s big TV role, Sherlock Holmes, is interesting. Holmes may be a crimefighter but he has many of the characteristics of a villain: a drug habit, a violin, and withering haughtiness. Famous Holmeses include Basil Rathbone and Peter Cushing, both of whom often played villainous types. Essential for audience empathy, especially for modern audiences, is Holmes’s more human sidekick Dr Watson. Recent versions have built up Watson from a ‘character’ part to a leading role – Jude Law on the big screen, Martin Freeman on TV – complete with a less posh, more ‘contemporary’ accent. Compared with Freeman, Cumberbatch (he’s also done Jaguar ads) has eg a closer FACE vowel and opener THOUGHT, and he occasionally likes to use a real in FLEECE (send your least irritating officers and an ambulance… to lead others to peace in a world at war):

It’s therefore unsurprising that in the epic UK/New Zealand/US Hobbit films, which have so far earned nearly two billion dollars around the world, Martin Freeman plays the hero and Benedict Cumberbatch the villain. Which brings us back to the (inter)national question. RP was often described as non-regional, unspecific as to a speaker’s geographical background. A product of the empire’s heyday, it was simply the ‘received’ way to pronounce English throughout a vast geographical domain. Even in long-independent America, a sign of the lingering aura of RP was the old stage accent sometimes known as ‘American Theater Standard’ — an Americanized RP which implicitly deferred to the elite status of the old country’s ruling accent.

Evidently the semiotics of the RP-type accent continued to function throughout the entire ‘inner circle’ of the English-speaking world, mother country and ex-colonies alike. Those ex-colonies had flatter social structures and lacked distinct upper classes of their own, so the empire’s elite accent continued to symbolize a social pinnacle everywhere. Hollywood’s role in this was not to grind an axe against the British, but to favour stories which pit underdogs against overdogs, and to acknowledge and exploit the anglophone world’s most elite accent: RP. It has become an international stylistic trope, not unlike the adoption of American accents for pop/rock singing.

In the real, non-fictional world, I have for some years been referring to RP, along with Cockney, in the past tense. This is not a matter of name-changing for political correctness. Both accents were very real, but they both had sociophonetic definitions that don’t work any more; further, RP has become inextricably associated with a set of IPA symbols that were chosen to reflect the upper-class speech of a different era. One can still hear real speakers with a classic RP sound; on the BBC, the excellent news correspondent Frank Gardner would be an example. But it makes little sense to describe this sound today as ‘received’ or ‘mainstream’ (Gardner was once told he was too posh for national television), or to use it as a teaching standard for BrE learners.

On the other hand, there’s no doubt that the sound of RP survives on a global scale, imprinted in the popular imagination of native English speakers everywhere as the quintessential sound of an old social elite. In popular culture, performers who approximate it are tapping into a range of associations that include old-fashionedness, seniority, cultivation, traditional manners, expensive education and tastes, haughtiness, smugness, pomposity and, in many narrative contexts, evil.