Gobs on Sticks

Thoughts mostly (but not always) about the voice-over business, from London Voiceover Artist, Mike Cooper

  • About the author

    My name is Mike Cooper. I'm a full time Voiceover Artist living and working in London, and this is my blog. Find out more about me on my main website (there's a link further down this column), or if you'd like to hear some of my work, check out the files below.
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Excuse me… do you speak British?

Posted by MikeCooper on November 10, 2010

Voice casting websites are a something of a double-edged sword in the modern voiceover business. (Some might even say a “necessary evil”, or worse…) But among their better features, one of the really good things these sites enable a producer to do is to select the accent they want for their project.

The problem, of course, is that not all accents are the genuine article. Many of my American and Australian counterparts in the voiceover industry will list a “British accent” among their repertoire on such websites – just as a good number of my fellow Brits will list an American or Australian accent among theirs. But, as a producer, one of the things which will always show your production values as being lower than you would like in the media business is a bad accent –  i.e., one which is poorly performed – and the problem is that while a non-native speaker might not be able to tell the difference, anyone who grew up with that accent will immediately spot it as a ringer. Once that happens, your message is dead in the water. No one’s listening to the words in your spot anymore: they’re just marvelling at how it ever got on air in the first place.

Bad accents are nothing new, of course, and they vary in their degrees of cringeworthiness. Dick Van Dyke struck a blow for the cause with his famously bad Mockney in the film version of “Mary Poppins”, and it could be argued that we got our own back, to some degree, with Michael Crawford’s effort in “Helly Dolly” a few years later. (This would have probably been much more noticeable if the audience weren’t agasp at a young Barbra Streisand playing a role clearly thirty years her senior, but I digress). The accents performed by non-native speakers aren’t all that bad, admittedly, but I’m always intrigued when I see a British accent listed on a non-native’s demo list. And, truth be told, I’m almost always disappointed by the results, chucklesome though they often are.

In the interests of transparency, I do list an Australian accent as one of the things I can perform, but then I lived with an Aussie at very close quarters for six years and I feel I can capture the nuance without going over the top and turning into Crocodile Dundee or Rolf Harris. The Australian Tourism Board apparently agreed when they booked me for a series of Canadian TV spots last year, so “fair dos”…

All this notwithstanding, I always try to be honest about my abilities (or lack thereof) and as such I have turned down the invitation to “wow” the audience with my (frankly laughable) “English – North American” on more than one occasion. That said, in the interests of doing my bit for the “Special Relationship”, I’ve just married one, so it’s not out of the question as we go forward.

Anyway, back to the point…

Steven Lowell is the Community Development Manager at Voice123.com, one of the largest voice casting websites in the industry today, and he’s just written about exactly this in his blog. He cites American voice talent who claim “British English” as a native language, when in fact they can only perform a British accent, as one of the reasons that producers often feel insulted at the quality of the auditions they get back.

In his piece, entitled “‘Faking It’ Just Isn’t ‘Making It'”, Lowell says: “As a voice seeker posting a job, remember that details are key to the success of what you receive. Specifically choosing a native speaking language of a country will get you mostly what you want, but it helps to specify, ‘Native speakers only’ in the project description.”

…and he makes a very valid point. So, next time you’re looking for looking for an authentic accent, make sure you check out the credentials of the talent. Always get a sample read by way of a demo (this should always be free of charge), and make sure someone who knows that accent backwards thinks it’s on the money. Otherwise, truth be told, you’re probably wasting yours.


4 Responses to “Excuse me… do you speak British?”

  1. Great post Mike! Just wanted to add that, as us native speakers of British English are aware, there is no such thing as a British accent. This is a term often used to describe an RP British accent (also referred to as BBC English, Queens English etc etc), which is a very different accent to say a Scottish, West Country or Cockney accent. Not sure if this distinction is ever noted by voice actors and producers alike??
    Just my two pennies worth…

    BTW my first VO job was imitating a US accent, and I can honestly say it was quite dreadful 🙂


  2. I agree Mike, there are certain VO gigs best left to a native speaker of the language.

    However some gigs do go to a certain someone who’s lived here in England for 15 years as well as having had private tuition, so I wouldn’t be just “winging it”.

    One of my recent gigs was being hired by a firm in Yorkshire who thought my British was “cute”. That’ll do me! haha! Just send the money to my Paypal. And, I enjoyed being of service to them as well. It was a pleasure.

    Cheers my good friend!
    Stefania 🙂

  3. I’ve lived in the USA for 13 years now and I *still* get that weird shudder when some Amercan friend says “People say my British is good” and then phlubs the phonetics. I refuse to commit the same ear-crime on my family and friends. I tell my VO clients that there are millions of real American accents in this country – and then there’s me, stunningly, nay, uniquely British so, enuff said. Right?

    But suddenly I’m being asked to ‘do American’ for playreadings and theatre here in Philadelphia. Are these people mad? Don’t get me wrong, both directors are good friends and have been in the biz longer than me but – cheese&crackers, talk about cloth ears.

    BTW Mr Cooper – excellent VO web site. Neat and not gaudy, easy to navigate, great demos. *sigh* I’m inspired a bit but also wondering if I might ever be as professional. Could you mess up a bit? Just so I know you’re human? 😉

  4. Darragh said

    I really enjoyed this post and I must say that I completely agree with Allison’s comment above. It’s hilarious when people refer to the ‘British’ accent as if it is one unique and standardised accent and tone of voice. There are so many variations that may sound indistinguishable to the foreign and thus untrained ear, but to those of us who have spent our lives on this side of the pond, the differences are drastic. That it also is to say that many voice over actors from the UK, as you quite rightly state above, also claim to do ‘American’ accents when this generalisation is a vast and ambiguous as the other. It really depends on who the job is for and more importantly, who the marketed listeners will be! Keep up the good work Mike!

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