Listening to the BBC this evening, and they report that 87 year old actor Dick Van Dyke survived a very dangerous situation in Los Angeles, when he was found slumped over in his burning car on an LA freeway. After delivering the basics of the news story, the British newsreader and his sidekick then bring up what every Brit feels a cultural need to talk about when the subject of Mr. Van Dyke comes up.
His horrible accent in the movie Mary Poppins.
That’s right. The man starred in what was probably the perfect sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show, created by the great Carl Reiner, and starring a 20 year old Mary Tyler Moore alongside Mr. Van Dyke, but 50 years later, all the Brits can remember about him, is that his accent in Mary Poppins sucked. The Dick Van Dyke Show was awesome and ahead of its time. The storytelling was great, and though to watch it today, you’d see it as a good, sharp, well-written sitcom, except that in my mind, The Dick Van Dyke Show was the Lord of the Rings of television situation comedies.
Let me explain.
A lot of people read the Tolkien trilogy and say “Oh, OK. Traditional sword and sorcery, heroic fantasy stuff,” except that mostly all of the books in those genres are derivative of LOTR. Gray bearded wizards, elves with long pale hair who are good with the bow and arrow, dwarves who like to mine, and somewhat human like creatures who serve evil, dark lords, all of those archetype characters made their debut in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. So, when a fan of the genre comes to LOTR late, they think “seen it.”
The Dick Van Dyke Show is a lot like that. It was the first show to use a technique that’s quite common in everything from comedies to dramas to horror (I even used the device in my first novel, Time Flying), the flash forward. Most currently, Vince Gilligan, creator and show runner of AMC’s Breaking Bad uses it extensively. If you’re not familiar, the flash-forward is a storytelling technique where an episode, movie or novel starts with a scene from sometime else in the narrative, usually the end, and the bulk of the story is told leading up to the plot-point depicted in flash-forward.
The first example of this technique in The Dick Van Dyke Show, was Rob’s (Van Dyke’s character) wife Laura, played by Moore, picking her husband up from jail. While they are talking, trampy exotic dancers (or at least what passed for TV versions of same) were getting bailed out, making a fuss over Rob as they exited the cell. Laura is amazed, because in addition to getting arrested at an illegal card game, Rob was charged with firing a cannon at a police officer. All of this is shown in the first five minutes of the episode, the remaining 17 minutes devoted to explaining how this completely crazy situation is, in the end, understandable.
But, do the British news readers talk about any of this? Do they mention that Carl Reiner and Van Dyke had a five-year plan for the series, and that they ceased making the show at the end of those five years, even though it was at the top of the ratings?
No, some 50 years later, all they want to talk about is how horrible Van Dyke’s accent is in Mary Poppins.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s bad. Not as bad as Kevin Costner’s faux-british in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but at least halfway through the movie, Costner, apparently realizing he sounds nothing like Robin of Loxley probably sounded, he just kind of gave up and did the rest of the movie as an American. I always imagined Morgan Freeman, who played one of Robin’s men, a Saracen, saying “Dude, I started this movie as a Muslim, and stayed a Muslim, the least you can do, is keep trying the friggin’ accent.”
Yea, I admit it. British actors do much better American accents than Americans do British. The cream of our crop, Gwyneth Paltrow, is passable, but to my ear (I have a thing for accents), it moves around the southern part of the island a little. There are a lot of British actors that American audiences love, but have no idea they’re not from somewhere in the midwest, until they see them on Conan or Letterman. A great example of this is Hugh Laurie, who despite having a totally British name, plays Dr. House so American, I’m sure there are Yanks out there pretending to have gone to high school with him. Heck, even the creator of House upon seeing Laurie’s videotaped audition (he was filming a movie in Africa at the time) said “This guy’s great, and I’m so glad he’s American, because there will be a lot of medical lingo in the scripts.”
Another great example is the star of (among other things) Homeland, Damian Lewis. Lewis even played the lead in Band of Brothers, the excellent HBO series based on the book about Easy Company, of the American 101st Airborne, in World War 2. In fact, because most of the filming for Band of Brothers was done in England, a large number of the American soldiers were played by Brits. Heavy irony, that too, because studies have shown that 86% of British citizens agree that two of the top three facts they all agree on is that the United States did not save their asses in World War 2, they were “Giving Jerry a proper gubbing,” and secondly, Dick Van Dyke’s accent in Mary Poppins was “bollocks.” It’s true that it’s accepted British slang to call an American’s failed attempt to sound Brit a “Dick Van Dyke accent.”
Okay, I made up the 86% thing, but the slang fact is true.
But not all Brit actors do accents well. Consider one of my favorites, Ray Winstone. In American movies, he’s almost always a heavy, a tough. His East Ender, “Cockney” accent is distinctive, and present in any role he plays. While in Britain once, I watched a two-part movie in which Winstone played King Henry VIII. As a working class Cockney. Yea, right.
Sean Connery is another one. A Scot who adopted the Irish “Sean” (his real name is Tom), Connery doesn’t really care about the cultural background of any character he plays. The Russian submarine captain Connery plays in The Hunt for Red October has a distinctly Edinburgh accent. The Irish Chicago cop in The Untouchables? Scottish accent. How about King Richard the Lionheart in the aforementioned Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves? Hell, Richard Coeur de Lion probably didn’t even speak English. He was French, for God’s sake, but sounds quite Scottish in the film. Let’s not even talk about Sean’s portrayal of an aging Robin Hood, opposite Audrey Hepburn in Robin and Marian.
But, the most delightfully ironic twist in lingual Hollywood is Mr. Connery’s role in Highlander, in which he plays, with his signature, unaltered Scots accent, a Spaniard!
Yes, Scotsman Sean Connery portrays “Ramierez” a Spanish swordsman opposite American-born French actor Christopher Lambert, who plays the immortal Scottish Highlander, Connor MacLeod. In the film, Lambert occasionally uses a Scottish word or two, but doesn’t even try the accent. It boggles the mind.
I’d like to go on the record, saying it again: British actors do better American accents than Americans do…Well, any accents. Can we move on now?
And because I know you’re all concerned, Mr. Van Dyke is fine.