Why are fantasy world accents British?

By Brian Wheeler
BBC News, Washington


Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings are set in fantasy worlds, so why does everybody speak with a British accent?

A lot of British people will not have heard of Game of Thrones.

This tale of family strife and royal intrigue in a fantasy world called Westeros has been a big hit on HBO in the US. Millions watched the first series, justifying the movie-like budget poured into the production.

The second series of the show, which starts on HBO on Sunday, and Sky Atlantic on Monday, is the subject of much more hype in the US than in the UK.

But while aimed at a US audience and adapted from the books of American author George RR Martin, Game of Thrones is entirely dominated by British accents.

UK accents also dominate in The Lord of the Rings and the forthcoming Hobbit films.

It contradicts the traditional stereotype of British accents cropping up mostly as bad guys and upper crust types in period drama.

"It's such an ingrained part of fantasy and science fiction that I'm a little surprised when those kind of characters don't speak in British accents," says Matt Zoller Seitz, TV critic for New York magazine and Vulture.com.

"In the fantasy realm they could have any kind of accent but British does seem to be the default."

image captionAn American-accented Gandalf might not have pleased fans

A British accent is sufficiently exotic to transport the viewer to a different reality, argues Seitz, while still being comprehensible to a global audience.

The neutral Mid-Western accent is still what counts as "normal" in the US dominated entertainment industry. A British accent provides a "splash of otherness", when set alongside it.

American viewers of Game of Thrones also get a coherent range of accents from all of the British Isles.

Those from the north of the fantasy world tend to speak mostly with either northern English or Scottish accents. In the first series, Yorkshiremen Sean Bean and Mark Addy played their parts with their own accents. There are also characters with an Irish tinge.

British audiences are used to seeing imported US shows - like House or The Wire - with British actors doing American accents.

But Game of Thrones, much of which was filmed in Northern Ireland, has only one American actor as a central character, Peter Dinklage. He does his part with a rather posh English accent.

"A New York accent wouldn't work," Dinklage, who was born in New Jersey and plays scheming Tyrion Lannister, recently explained to the Calgary Herald. "It doesn't sound right."

And if you go on the forums you see American fans' expectations have been met.

"I'm not an expert by any means, but what I find interesting is that they sound to my American ears to be not only British accents, but regional British accents," writes Independent George onthe Ice and Fire Forum.

image captionThis character is from the south so speaks with a southern English accent

"The North sounds vaguely Scottish to me, Robert sounded like he was from Northern England, I know the DVD commentary track to episode six said that the Vale was cast as predominantly Welsh (though I couldn't identify a Welsh accent if my life depended on it)."

He adds: "Hopefully one of our British readers can set me straight. For natives, it could be as jarring as watching a western where everybody's speaking Italian. Oh, wait... "

Martin, the creator of the Song of Ice And Fire series of books, was inspired a great deal by European Medieval history," says Stephen Tierney, administrator of the Game of Thrones UK fansite.

"As such his characters reflect that and if you read the books and listen to the cadence of the characters' voices you will find that they do sound more regionally British than they do American.

"Since it is a mediaeval fantasy saga with more emphasis on the characters than on witches and wizards I do think the regional British accents work very well. The show does place a lot of emphasis on a north/south divide and seeing the northern House Stark going up against the distinctly southern House Lannister provides a great contrast and helps the viewers know which side everyone is on."

It's not just fantasy that has developed a British accent default setting, even for American audiences. For ancient Greece and Rome - as seen in everything from Spartacus to HBO/BBC's Rome series - audiences again expect UK accents. One has only to cast one's mind back to Joaquin Phoenix's accent in Gladiator for a classic example.

image captionWhile this character is from the north and speaks with a more northern English accent

Some have a simple explanation for the British invasion of fantasy land - Kevin Costner.

Although not strictly part of the genre, his US/British accent in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves was so jarring, and out of historical context, that it stood as a warning to all future directors. Or so the theory goes.

Martin has said English accents work best for fantasy, as the genre is rooted in the Middle Ages.

"It's full of castles and lords and swords and knights and all the other trappings that we associate with England in this country. It seems natural. It would be hard to do with a group of actors who had thick Southern accents," he has commented.

"You would think why not just film it in the states with famous American actors, especially since George RR Martin, who wrote the books originally, has been called the American Tolkien? You would think this is an American thing," says Dan Wright, producer of UK-based Game of Thrones fan show Thronecast.

"But originally the books were sourced and based around at least a working knowledge of British history, the War of the Roses and things like that, and that certainly comes out in the way the royal family is structured and that sort of thing."

But Game of Thrones is on a premium cable channel. There is still a long way to go before British actors are allowed to use their own accents on network television in mainstream roles.

Lisa De Moraes, TV critic of the Washington Post, believes the big US networks are reluctant to have characters speak with a foreign accent.

"They will make an exception with fantasy drama, or costume drama, but the need to pull in big audiences - and to have lead characters with broad appeal - means they will not allow British actors to use their natural accents."

Additional reporting by Lauren Everitt

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.