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Hamlet wasn't British

I worked with Ashley Howard in 2016 to learn to comfortably use my voice. Here Ashley and I talk about what's "proper" English, accent discrimination, and the paradox of Shakespearean characters that define British culture despite not being British.

ashley howard project neighbours

I was born in Suffolk, East Anglia, in a little place called Ipswich. I grew up just outside of Ipswitch, in Kesgrave, which was a very beautiful and equally uneventful place.

I’m not sure how we ended up there. I know my mother and grandmother were based in Norfolk, but my grandmother and her sister at some point lived in Liverpool; my grandmother’s sister spoke with a strong liverpudlian accent.

My father’s family were from around Ipswitch and Kesgrave, but the family name has a Germanic etymology.

I hope my ancestors had migrated; the idea of being exclusively from East Anglia doesn’t fill me with much excitement.

My first accent

My first accent was an East Anglian accent. It’s the local accent and it’s very strong. I was very shy and nervous as a child; I was always self-conscious and I think part of it was my voice.

I ended up in GCSE Drama where people were doing Shakespeare in this very sophisticated sort of voice.

I was terribly seduced by the idea that therein laid the secret to confidence. It became a personal objective to let go of my regional accent and find this voice that I thought was more legitimate.

I’d never wanted to do Drama. I was set on graphic design. I had this beautiful vision of me sitting behind this drawing board, on my own, doing my little drawings.

Then it got to year nine, all the way to the summer, when the headmaster said, I’m very sorry, we haven’t got enough people to do graphic design; I’m afraid the only GCSE available to you is Drama.

It was baptism by fire. It was the opposite of my personality and the opposite of what I thought I was going to be.

The subject was very demanding, and so were the other people on the course. Luckily, I had a great relationship with my tutors who somehow managed to galvanise me into a more confident version of myself, which, eventually, led me to voice studies.

Standard British English

Throughout, I was very attracted to Standard British English, or RP.

It’s an imperial language; it’s got associations with wealth and power and it still dominates the cultural and public life in the UK.

There is a lot of speculation about the reasons for this attachment.

When you look at history, we were once a mixture of different people and different languages. It’s still a little true; there is Welsh and Irish and Scottish, and within mainland England there is still a huge amount of dialect.

Detailed map of the British Isles depicting the territorial distribution of British English dialects (Image source: Wikipedia)

For a long time, we had no idea of what we, as a group of people living on an island, sounded like.

The sound of Britishness

In the late nineteenth century, after the introduction of the English phonetic alphabet, someone sat down and said, this is a list of sounds and we’re going to use them in this way in these sorts of words. Then we started to sort out the spelling and things started to solidify.

On the radio

Around the same time, we saw the introduction of the radio. What came out of it was spoken in the accent of the upper-middle classes – the people in positions of power and authority.

Suddenly, a family in Yorkshire turns on the radio on a Sunday afternoon and brings the voice of authority into the room; a voice that sounds nothing like them.

This was one of the elements that allowed the accent to concretise along with this association between power, authority and a certain way of speaking.

Accent nonsense

The UK has had a diversity of accents for centuries, but now it seems that certain accents are more sought-after. It’s a very messy thing, and a lot of it is nonsense, but it affects how people perceive themselves.

Northern accents are associated with practical skills and physical labour, which are seen as something where there is body over the brain.

Southern accents are associated with intellectual work, like law medicine and finance, though even in the South people who do physical work tend to have regional accents.

In the past, I’ve had clients who didn’t consider themselves eligible for certain jobs or careers as long as they had regional accents. They thought, if only I could speak RP, I’d be this other thing domineering in the boardroom.

Clear speech

The truth is, it’s often not about the accent as much as it is about permission to see yourself as something more than a “working class Northerner”.

I now I turn down almost every single English-native client whose objective is to learn RP. I quiz them a lot on their motivation and then I try to get them interested in other things that I think, having listened to their answers, would get them closer to what they want.

We look at whether there are things in the person’s speech that may make it difficult for a listener to locate the meaning of words.

Are there consonants that they’re dropping? Are there sounds that they’re substituting? If so, we can work on certain elements of speech that could make the person sound clearer.

Interestingly, to clients, this can feel like I’m robbing them of their identity. It’s a seismic change.

Proper English

With a lot of non-native speakers, there is an archetypal sense that to speak English, I have to speak “proper” British English.

They often feel anxiety about the way they pronounce certain words. They often follow the spelling because that’s our instinct with a second language; that’s the only clue on pronunciation. Sometimes this takes us down the wrong path.

If I can help change the pronunciation of some of these words, they have a much more satisfying experience, for example, they aren’t asked to repeat themselves quite as often. That increases their confidence. But none of this is about a particular accent.

Multicultural English

For me, this year is the first year I teach Multicultural London English, which, in itself, is a slightly problematic term, because what is that?

Is that Polish English, Portuguese London, Indian, Pakistani, Afro-Caribbean? It’s a very complex thing, but I do hope we get to see more of this variation in our cultural life.

Stage accents

With diversity of accents in theatre, there is an anxiety on the behalf of the people who have deep enough pockets to keep certain plays on.

For most commercial theatres what they put on comes down to money, which comes down to ticket sales, which comes down to the kind of demographic who see themselves as theatregoers. This is often a slightly ageing population who can afford season tickets.

When the National Theatre put on a play with fifteen actors on stage speaking a variety of European accents, the Theatre got endless complaint letters from people who said that they pay all this money to go to these plays and they can’t even understand a single word the actors are saying.

There is this horrible cycle where the theatre is trying to make money to continue serving the public. At the same time, there is this demographic that keeps this theatre alive and that may have a deep-seated preference for what is and isn’t appropriate for the stage.

I think it is incredibly complicated and I think it’s a cycle that many theatre practitioners are trying to break. It’s a very slow wheel that turns and a lot of it rests also with drama schools.

Hamlet wasn't British

At the Royal Central School of Voice and Drama and other big organisations, people meet and talk about these subjects asking whether it’s still appropriate to teach RP as the first accent that actors learn as part of their British drama training.

The great Shakespearian characters weren’t British, and it’s not enough to cast Othello as black. On its own, this is slightly arbitrary. More needs to happen.

Those conversations are being had, but the fact they need to be brought up as an agenda point at a large conference just goes to show that this is a thing that’s been overlooked.

I feel a sense of responsibility, which I never thought would be part of this job. I hope that I can be objective and dig deep at important moments in my career to not perpetuate some of these problems.

Voice that reveals

I’m very aware that I only have access to what my conscious mind allows me to see. When I think about my job, the clients I work with, the things I teach, it seems that these things are only shaped by what I can see in a tangible way.

I think identity manifests itself in a person’s voice. The body is visible, of course, and we see things through gestures, but it’s the voice that reveals.

Ashley Howard is a British voice coach and has been coaching for 11+ years. He has an MA in Voice Studies from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. He's a published author and mentor. His coaching enables people to speak with more confidence and more clarity.