Comedy foreign accents: Are they ever a good idea?

By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News, Magazine

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Media caption,
Prime Minister David Cameron: "I can't quite do the accent"

David Cameron has been accused of doing a poor Australian accent at a recent charity dinner. Is it ever a good idea to do a comedy foreign accent?

From "allo guv'nah" to "g'day sport", we've all done it - mimicked either a regional or foreign accent. And most of us do it to raise a laugh.

David Cameron did it this week when he attempted to impersonate the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Delivering his annual foreign policy speech to the Lord Mayor of London's banquet, he described an exchange he had had with Gillard on the subject of a new rule allowing first-born girls to accede to the throne.

Mimicking an Australian accent, Cameron said Gillard thought it was "good news for sheilas everywhere".

Although it went down well in the room - with much applause and laughter - it was a different matter down under, with one news website describing it as "perhaps one of the worst Aussie accents in history".

Barack Obama played it safe during his recent trip to Australia peppering his speech with a few choice colloquialisms - greeting high school students with a jaunty "g'day" or talking about having a "chinwag" with Gillard - without feeling the need to go a bit Paul Hogan.

But is it right to mimic accents? Can it be just plain rude, or simply not very funny?

Sean Ruttledge, comic and voice artist, applauds Cameron's attempt at humour.

"He got a big laugh - the room appreciated it, good on him," he said. "Obviously a [head of government] needs to be careful when they try this kind of thing - they don't want it remixed into some kid's video mash-up for YouTube."

But he says that where Cameron went wrong was to issue a jokey disclaimer about not doing a very good Australian accent.

"If you are doing edgy material then you shouldn't be shy about it - just go for it."

Ruttledge has done myriad voices in his World Tour of English Regional Accents and Dialects YouTube video series. While it garnered many fans, there were some people who loathed it.

Image caption,
Julia Gillard has not said what she thought of Cameron's imitation

"It was banned on YouTube countless times - and I received a lot of hate mail," says Ruttledge.

There are certain groups that don't like to be lampooned, he says. In the UK, it was the Liverpudlians who were most sensitive about how they were portrayed, he suggests.

"I was cartoon-like, very stereotypical - a bit like Harry Enfield's Scousers 'Calm Down' routine. There is a lot of hurt in Merseyside over that."

For those who feel the urge to launch into some mimicry, context and intent is key, says Ruttledge. "This dictates whether someone will find it offensive.

"People should be free to speak in any accent they want - no-one could believe that one white Anglo-Saxon [head of government] was going to offend another white Anglo-Saxon [head of government] by imitating her accent.

"If I'm talking to someone, and I'm recounting an encounter with a traffic warden - I will switch from narrator into a different character. If the traffic warden was Nigerian, for example, you may find it entertaining or you may find it racist depending on how you look at things. I'm a comic, I do it for laughter."

But, he says, the lay person has to be careful what accents they do. Imitating certain accents gives the perception that someone is simply being racist, he says.

"Chinese comes off badly - as does Indian, Nigerian, or West African."

Oliver Double, an expert in comedy at the University of Kent, says that it is all about context. There are certain accents that one should be wary of attempting to imitate.

"With comic routines, people are more touchy if the group you are impersonating has a history of serious prejudice. If a white person puts on a Pakistani accent, there will be a frisson in the audience.

Image caption,
Allo Allo was responsible for many people putting on comedy French accents

"Similarly, if a crowd of friends is out for the evening and one person launches into a Peter Sellers-style Indian accent, and there is an Indian present, it may not be funny to them. In terms of what is acceptably funny, you may never know where people's sensibilities lie."

This is not the first time that Cameron has drawn brickbats for mimicking an accent. In 2009, questions were raised about the wisdom of putting on a German accent while discussing a possible ID scheme.

"Where are your papers?" he asked in an accent, widely assumed to be of a German guard.

But Ruttledge sees nothing wrong with this either.

"These kinds of cliches come from the movies and sitcoms - it's acceptable mainstream comedy. Weirdly, certain accents are fair game - the whole "Allo Allo" thing had everyone going around doing exaggerated accents from the French resistance.

"It's all about context and intent, the funny voices aren't necessarily meant to offend."

So which accents are people most likely to attempt?

For Ruttledge, Geordie accents are one of the most popular.

"There is also a generic Northern 'trouble at mill' accent that southerners, in particular, like to do. The Irish often get it, too, although some Irish accents are hard to pull off. So there is a 'generic Irish' accent."

Growing up in South Yorkshire, one would expect Ruttledge to have the Rotherham accent off pat, but he had one local man pointing out that the Rotherham accent in the regional dialects series was not up to scratch.

"It's in the ear of the beholder," says Ruttledge.