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19 February 1999

Learning English? Get a tracksuit

For Brenda Maddox, trying to lose her American accent was a total body experience

By Brenda Maddox

One big difference between me and Gwyneth Paltrow, the actress who has won a Golden Globe for her role in Shakespeare in Love, is that she has succeeded in acquiring an English accent. I tried and failed – and believe me, I tried.

“You tried to lose your American accent?” As a room-silencer, this admission is on a par with an announcement of an impending change of sex. On either side of the Atlantic, people step back for a new look. In Britain the clinical stare tends to be followed by a mollifying, “Oh, but you mustn’t. I like an American accent. Besides, yours is, if I may say, very mild.”

Americans are less mealy-mouthed. It would be safer to admit that you spent the morning burning American flags or that you are an anti-Semitic Jew. Being true to your origins is part of the national religion: e pluribus unum and all that.

Besides, of all accents, English is the most despised – villainous, imperial, haughty. Faking it is the ultimate snob-bery. In my Massachusetts hometown, my (Italian-American) mother did a very good take-off of Douglas Fairbanks Jr returning to the United States saying that he was “veddy gled to be beck in Ameddica”.

So why bother? The answer is simple. London is home. I have lived here for well over half my not-short existence. And I am fed up, as I dash about the city I hold most dear, constantly to be treated as a tourist. “Enjoying your holiday?”, taxi drivers ask me as they try to take me from Knightsbridge to Kensington High Street by way of Edgware Road.

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A permanent transplant was not what I had in mind. It just seemed a good idea to have an English option to slip on, like a headscarf, when I wanted to pass in the crowd.

But which English accent? Thanks to My Fair Lady, the remotest part of the globe knows that the range is wide. Had I married an Englishman, I might have slid into Estuary or Home Counties without noticing. But my husband’s Oxford-via-Wales can only be acquired from a childhood spent at rugby matches amid melodious cries of “Stop pro-CRASS-tin-atin’, Llanelli!”

I was prodded at last into doing something about my voice by a Canadian friend. An actress in search of an Equity card, she needed an English accent in her repertoire; Lady Macbeth did not come from Toronto.

A voice coach, Penny Dyer, who teaches actors everything from Cambridge Fens to Brooklyn Italian, swiftly solved the problem of choice. What we wanted was basic RP, received pronunciation. It is not, strictly speaking, the Queen’s English. Today’s RP is more open and relaxed than the 1930s accent of the royals, which says “yaz” for “years” and “femiliz” for “families”.

The lessons were not at all what an American would expect – not nannyish commands to “Enunciate properly!” and “Stop swallowing your consonants”. Rather, the task ahead was physiological, learning to produce English sounds.

It is the American, I soon learnt, who has a stiff upper lip. The English work their lips furiously, drawing the vowels forward and sending them out to a waiting world with a little plosive push. When English actors are taught American (not very successfully, to my ear: I refuse to see Tennessee Williams at the National Theatre), they are told to hold a pencil across their upper lip to keep it still.

Physiology soon gave way to psychology. American is comforting to speak. The sound is produced low down in the throat, where, by and large, it stays. The English voice, in contrast, takes the column of air from the throat, pitches it forward where it rises against the soft palate, strikes the ridge behind the upper teeth and passes out through an small round opening of the lips. Our teacher held her thumb between her teeth to indicate the size of the desired gap.

The first thing we had to get rid of was the “r”. In North American, it is delivered sharp. English excises it like a dirty sound. “Fatherrr” becomes “Fatha”; “verrry”, “vey”. Quite soon I learnt that I had been deaf all these years. I thought I was adapting to native speech simply by saying “GARage” instead of “garAGE” and “tewlips” instead of “toolips”. But I had never noticed, even though I hear it from my well-spoken neighbours every time we meet, that RP renders the “ed” at the end of verbs as “id”. “I waitid and waitid and then decidid to go home”.

I was determined. “Listen,” I said to my husband one morning, “and look.” Pitching the vowels forward, sculpting each final consonant, I intoned: “I walked [wokked, not waahked] my dog to the shop.” His look of astonishment was my reward. Friends, too, had sneered until I trotted out some more of my homework: “David Yates has gained in weight, from eight stone three to eight stone eight.” “Hmm-mm,” they murmured. “You’re getting there.”

But there I stuck. The first hint of defeat came the day when, hailing a taxi, I bared my teeth in a Home Counties smile and asked to be taken to “Slane Sqwar”. “Wot part of the States you from?” was the reply.

Our coach counselled against despair. Actors don’t master accents in an hour a week; they work at it all day long. And they do exercises that involve the whole body. The only way forward was to come to voice lessons in a tracksuit, to lie down on the floor and work at loosening those constricted American muscles of the lower diaphragm. That settled it. Learning “English” moved into the tedious category of instructions on the right way to hold a golf club or hurl a bowling ball. Life is too short.

My Canadian friend gave up, too.

So when I read in the Daily Mail that the New Yorker Gwyneth Paltrow speaks with “not some marbles-in-the-mouth American idea of an English accent, but just like one of us”, I am only slightly envious. She must have worked hard, harder than you think. Besides, my Massachusetts family already thinks I sound like the Queen.