My monologue of dialects

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'SO what accents can you do?" asks Connie, the Players' new casting director (now that Kate has gracefully retired after a long stint). As a new and untried member, I remain something of a mystery.

Most of my fellow players are Scottish, which means that (being English myself) there is one "accent" I can do to perfection. But the accent (from my point of view) that I wouldn't even attempt is Scottish.

Much too close to home!

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The only place I would have the gall to pretend on stage that I was a Scot would be in England. Indeed, a couple of decades and more ago, well below the border, I did don a kilt in a comedy and tried hard to roll my "r's" and soften my "ch's" enough to convince the Yorkshire audiences of my Scottish ancestry.

But I remember a Scottish lady ungenerously casting aspersions on my endeavors. I was a bit hurt at the time. But I know now how right she must have been.

One reason I hadn't joined a drama group since moving to Scotland 20 years ago was my assumption that a convincing Scottish accent would be a necessity. I didn't have to worry.

Since I've joined the Players, the first two plays (though I didn't land a part in either) have been respectively English and American. In the second, the only male roles were Spanish. So when I attended that audition, I came prepared. I bought a video of the 1970s BBC sitcom "Fawlty Towers" and studied the accent of the waiter, Manuel.

Accents are what other people have. So accents are, or should be, grist for the actor's mill - since actors are, by definition, people who pretend to be other people. Simon Callow, in his book "Being an Actor," remarks: "Where would the English actor be without his repertory of accents? They can convey an enormous amount of information in the minimum of time, and they immediately give you a shape and an energy. Three-line parts become someone, from somewhere, with a history and expectations."

And yet even the most professional actors sometimes shipwreck themselves on the hard rocks of other people's local speech patterns. (For us amateurs, the boat tends to have a leak before it even sets sail.) We recently watched the 1971 version of "Kidnapped" in which a cockney named Michael Caine played a Scottish patriot of very dubious verbal origins.

Now and then he addressed the heroine thus: "Lassie, lassie, oh lassie." Maybe this struck the director as a particularly Scottish mode of speech. (He apparently forgot that a certain American canine has been sometimes similarly saluted.)

To my Scottish-born wife, Mr. Caine's attempts to sound like a convincing Highlander whose mother didn't come from London's East End were less than satisfactory. But even less satisfactory was Dick Van Dyke's cockney chimney sweep in 1964's "Mary Poppins."

Mind you, my wife is particularly critical. When Connie, of the Players, asked me about my own pretensions to competence in this department, I didn't like to quote my better half's considered opinion that whatever accent I attempt, I sound as if I am from Pakistan. Welsh, Spanish, South African, Tasmanian - I'm always from Pakistan.

Except when I do a Pakistani accent. Then I sound as though I'm from Naples.

"Can you do cockney?" Connie inquires.

Fool that I am, I'm nothing if not willing. So I do my Alfred Doolittle impersonation: "Oim willin' ter tell yer! Oim wantin' ter tell yer! Ahm witin' to tell yer!"

"American?"

"Well - kinda. Sure. But, gee, hey, y'know, like it's only generic American - know wud I mean?"

"Yorkshire?"

"Ee by goom, lad, doost tha want a slice o' poodin'? Nay! I'm reet good at that, I am. Can doo it back'ards. Oopside down and standin' on me 'ead. Aye."

I cannot guess what impression this shameless display had on our new casting director. Time alone will tell.

If I'm fortunate, she'll stage a play set in Islamabad.

*A weekly series.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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