Big Little Lies is a good show. It’s good in the sense that it’s enjoyable to watch – the plotting is tight, and the beachy, Californian aesthetic doubles as a sort of lens through which to imagine your own life if you were rich (for me: beachfront home; personal pizza oven) – and it’s also good in the sense that it is considered 'prestigious' television. As a HBO drama, it's slick and weighty, covering subjects like grief and domestic abuse with nuance. It has won Emmys and the cast includes Oscar winners. There is Reese Witherspoon, and Laura Dern, and Nicole Kidman, and – for season two – the veritable kitemark of quality: Meryl Streep.
The second season of the show ended last month. I mostly liked it, in the sense that the group of actresses it comprises is so charismatic and their chemistry so natural that I’d happily watch them change a tyre, though it did have its problems (why would you turn a character played by an actress as subtly gifted as Laura Dern into a meme once an episode? And where did the irresistibly sinister, dark energy that drove the first season go?). On top of those issues, there was one particular niggle that continued to hang over from Big Little Lies’ otherwise brilliant first instalment: Nicole Kidman’s fucking accent.
Bad accents on TV (and in films!) are the worst, man. A bad accent can take you out of even the most engaging scene, and they make otherwise great actors look like they’re in an amateur dramatics society’s end-of-year play. It feels almost ridiculous to say because at first, it seems so picky and superficial – if someone’s performance is great, then what does it matter if they haven’t quite captured the specificity of a Boston or Sheffield accent? But honestly, it makes all the difference because fundamentally, a poorly done accent removes the suspension of disbelief – it brings to the forefront of your mind the concept that Nicole Kidman is not Celeste Wright, American mother of two twin boys, fighting a custody battle with her mother-in-law, but that she’s, well, Nicole Kidman, Australian actress. It’s distracting.
In the UK, this problem gets worse with regional accents. When I say ‘regional,’ I basically mean anything that isn’t a southern English accent. Take, for example, the BBC’s Peaky Blinders, which comes back to TV on Sunday the 25th of August. The show, which follows a post-World War One gang who grow a business empire, is easily one of the most entertaining things that the BBC currently air. It’s also set in Birmingham and most of the cast – other than the Irish actor Cillian Murphy, who plays the show’s lead role – struggle with their pronunciation.
Birmingham is my hometown, and for a city that rarely sees itself on screen to essentially be chosen as the setting for the UK’s answer to Boardwalk Empire has been wonderful. Even if this has meant groups of dads in fancy dress as characters from the show on pub crawls around areas that have literally nothing to do with Peaky Blinders, it’s great to finally see a major drama set in the second largest city in England. In a 2014 interview with the Birmingham Mail, Peaky Blinders’ creator Steven Knight noted that the dearth of Birmingham or Midlands-based shows was literally down to the difficulty actors have with the Birmingham accent: “There’s been a big black hole in the middle of the country as far as TV production goes,” he noted.
Though I’m a big fan of Peaky Blinders and the way that it has admirably filled this gap, when I watch the show, I certainly listen with more critical ears than most. For me, and for others too, it’s hard not to be sidetracked by the cast’s accents, which sound more Liverpudlian than accurate to the Midlands. Knight defended the cast, saying that their acting was the priority – “Performance comes first, there’s nothing worse than restricting an actor because they’re thinking too much about getting an accent right,” he told the Birmingham Mail. To me, it feels like a shame to put a city on screen without getting one of the defining things about it right, and the sometimes-obvious inaccuracies in speech can be incongruous with the show’s big budget and Hollywood cast, which has included Adrien Brody and Tom Hardy.
The good news is that over the course of Peaky Blinders’ run, the accents have certainly improved – Season 4 was its most accurate yet, and Season 5 will presumably be just as well done – but it’s not the only UK programme to have had this problem. Something similar happened with the Manchester-based Years and Years, which also recently ran on the BBC. Most of the actors just kept their own accents, reflecting the way that people in the UK – especially in cities – basically live all over the place, regardless of which town or city they were born in. But there was one exception. Emma Thompson played Vivienne Rook, a right wing talking head á la Katie Hopkins or Nigel Farage, whose 'straight-talking' approach gets her voted in as an MP.
Thompson’s performance is brilliant. She’s grimly reminiscent of the ghouls who haunt TV panel shows today, spraying poison and intolerance. But to play Rook, she was required to have a strong northern accent, and her version – though well kept up – felt a little like a caricature; too rounded and exaggerated to feel properly natural.
TV in the UK – and the demographics who work in it – is very London-centric, which goes some way to explaining why the accuracy of more regional accents suffer: perhaps there just isn’t the local expertise to pick a bad accent up. But there should be – because for places that aren’t depicted on TV a lot, it’s a big deal for your home to be on screen, and getting the accent right, is all part of honouring that. And while it’s true that performances have to come first, an accent – whatever it is – should be a crucial part of that. A good accent should be so unnoticeable as to keep you embroiled in the story; bad ones take you right out of it.