Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, 10 January 2016

The colonisation of the voice: There’s no such thing as a neutral accent!


(Note - the use of the word regional in the context of this report is not intended

to mean ‘everywhere outside London’, but instead mean discrete areas that

share a geographical and cultural identity)

There was some sense that there has been a lot of progress on this in the past

ten years - now makers like Daniel Bye and Chris Thorpe can be reviewed

without reference to their accents.

Lots of experience of makers with regional accents getting frustrated at

requests for ‘standard/ neutral accents’ but also many people who have neutral

accents being denied ownership of the regional identity they grew up with.

Lots of frustration around generalisation of accents into ‘General Northern’


The voice in which performances are delivered has massive implications for the

context and implications of a story.

Discussion of accent in critical writing is problematic when it is used as a

signifier of ‘otherness’ that marginalises the performer.

How much do performers makers want to politicise where they are from?

Accents are perceived as vital in claiming a regional identity.

There’s some resentment between regions - ‘those chippy northerners take up

all the airspace’ when there are other regional voices that we never hear.

Specificity of accents is a frustration - It feels insulting when performers get it

wrong and use generalised accents (again - ‘general northern’, ‘southern’ etc


Accents can function as a shibboleth to gain access to ownership of a certain

identity - and therefore also to exclude others from that identity.

There isn’t sufficient dialogue within the cultural industries around the true

complexities of class, regional identity and how that intersects. There was a

general feeling that assumptions around regional identities and their relation to

accent are not sufficiently complex.

Reductive representations of regional identities and accents are as damaging as

reductive representations of race, gender or queer identity, but there is

disproportionately much less discussion of this in our ecology.

Accents are often used as signifiers by directors who know nothing about the

actual cultural complexities of that accent. Therefore they are often unwittingly

used to reenforce cultural stereotypes.

Overuse of RP and so called ’neutral’ accents paints regional identities out of

the cultural narrative which has implications for aspiration, social mobility and

accessibility just as underrepresentation of other forms of diversity.

Issues around Authenticity. Participants reported experiences of adjusting their

accent to context but feeling inauthentic.

Participants reported lots of experiences of being ‘othered’ at university for

speaking in their natural accent. One participant reported experience of being

surprised that people with regional accents went to university.

The under representation of regional identities in our cultural dialogue gives the

impression that those areas are not worth representing. People who grow up in

London are used to seeing their world reflected on TV and film and that gives an

instilled sense of importance on a national or international stage.

Instead of specifying ‘otherness’ for characters, we should begin to specify all

identifying features - even for so called ’neutral’ identities. So - specify if an

actor is white RP, not just black Mancunian etc…

Participants expressed a sense that in some ways representation of the

diversity of vocal identities and regional cultures reflected in cultural narratives

is regressing.

Drama schools train all actors to speak in RP - yet they are responding to the

demands of the industry - WHY IS THE INDUSTRY MAKING THIS DEMAND? Why

is SO MUCH work in RP?

There are people in power with regional accents - e.g., John Prescott - but these

people are often pillioried for their accents.

Hierarchy of accents - there is a hierarchy of accents that marks them as more

or less acceptable/ open to mockery. This is often linked to class, so in

continuing to buy into those assumptions and stereotypes we are perpetuating

systemic class discrimination.

There is a wide diversity of accents even in London that is not represented.

There is a dearth of representations of BAME people with regional British

accents (or indeed of race signifiers within regional accent subsections) - the

cultural narrative tends to attach them directly to the accent of country of origin

or to one of a couple of major urban centres.


As an industry we need to more actively pursue complexity in our choices

around identity and regional cultures.

We need to give greater weight to class and regional identity in dialogues

around diversity.

We need to begin acknowledging that assumptions around accent neutrality

represent a sort of discrimination that excludes and marginalises the majority of

the population. Then take action not to perpetuate that.

It isn’t enough that regional theatres produce work in their local regional accent

- there must be a wider representation of all regional identities across the board,

but in particular on national and international platforms.

Need for dramaturgical rigour in reflecting regional cultures - participants

related numerous examples of when creative choices (lighting, design,

direction) had undermined the explication of a regional identity found in the

script. For example a scene set in Newcastle at ‘Dinner time’ being lit as at

evening - in Newcastle Dinner happens in the middle of the day (lunch time!).

Orthography - the way we write regional accents on the page is inaccurate and

othering. We need to pay more attention to how we signify regional identities

and the unintentional discrimination that can be part of that.

Historically, RP is a political construct to maintain the dominance of the wealthy

Southern identity. If we are to combat this agenda for inequality then we must

reject it as a standardised form.


Diversity, discrimination, Regional, voice, Class, accent, pronunciation, RP, bame,

Voice, regional, accents, diversity, class, BAME

Comments: 1

Sarah-Jane Watkinson, 13 January 2016

I'm from Ilkeston in Derbyshire, deep in DH Lawrence territory and am constantly exasperated at my region being

represented with a “general northern” accent. This “general” accent has become so ubiquitous, people even put it on their

Spotlight profiles as a skill. Two examples from TV last year were The Village and Lady Chatterley's Lover, both on BBC,

both set in Derbyshire, but with accents that wandered from Lancashire to Hull.

I definitely had to moderate my own accent when I went to college. I studied Theatre Design at Birmingham Polytechnic and

when I arrived there in 1985, found myself surrounded by lecturers and students mainly speaking versions of RP. The

message was given loud and clear I wouldn't get anywhere talking like I did - I was actually described as common on more

than one occasion.

What I am surprised at from your notes, is that drama schools etc still have this attitude - I really thought things had

changed. My dad went to school with Robert Lindsay (yes, that one) who has spoken about how his Ilkeston accent was

drilled out of him at RADA and I assumed that this practice was a relic of the past. I am painfully aware that accents like

mine are still used to signify class but I hadn't realised the level of institutionalisation.

Perhaps because I've lived here for over 30 years, I've become a staunch defender of the Brummie accent, particularly

when it's used to signify the comedy character or someone who is stupid. This sort of stereotyping would not be acceptable

if it were a non white person whose accent was being ridiculed. ANd don't get me started on interchangable

Birmingham/Black Country accents.

As an aside, a similar thing applies to Eastern European accents - there is a “general” version that's often used to signify

baddies and scientists. My dad's parents were Latvian and I can assure you their accent was very different from Polish,

German and Hungarian. On a casting and characterisation note, despite the large numbers of EU migrants in the UK, the

only representation I've seen of a Latvian on stage in the last year was of a trafficked prostitute with an accent that was

from several hundred miles south.

Accents are an important part of an individual's and a character's identity and the answer isn't to ignore them - I saw a

production last year with a family comprising a Brummie dad, a cockney mum and a daughter from Nottingham. The

director had obviously decided that the actors should speak in their normal voices but to me and other people I was with, it

was distracting and confusing.