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Robert Downey Jr: Is his Dr Dolittle character Welsh?

image captionThe 1920s Dr Dolittle children's stories focus on a doctor based in a fictional village in western England

In the new film Dolittle, perhaps the greatest surprise is not that Robert Downey Jr is able to talk to animals - but that he appears to do it in a Welsh accent.

Many Hollywood greats have attempted it before - with varying degrees of success, according to film critic Gary Slaymaker.

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After the trailer for the Dolittle movie appeared recently, there was a lot of talk about the fact Downey Jr uses a Welsh accent for the main character.

I've now watched the promotional piece about 10 times, and I'm still none the wiser if he's Welsh, or not.

But then again, Hollywood has struggled with the Welsh accent for decades.

'They're all Celts, aren't they?'

If you go back to 1941 and the film of the novel How Green was My Valley, the accents are slapdash to say the least.

There are plenty of "look yous" and "isn't it boyos" to keep the stereotype going, but most of the cast were Irish, or of Irish origin.

The director, John Ford, described himself as Irish-American and, when asked some years later why he didn't employ real Welsh people rather than Irish, his blunt answer was: "They're all Celts, aren't they?"

Ever since, there have been plenty of shabby representations on the big screen. But why?

image copyrightMondadori Portfolio
image captionThe 1941 film How Green Was My Valley depicts life in a Welsh coal mining family

Well, because of its musical nature, the accent is difficult for an actor to master.

Although the root of the language is related to Irish, Welsh is more mysterious and hidden away (in the magical sense, of course).

And according to the language trainer Penny Dyer: "The Welsh language has the loosest intonation in the whole of the British Isles."

Poor efforts

Apparently, the only accent that's almost as difficult for an actor to learn is Afrikaans - which perhaps explains why Julian Lewis-Jones did such a good job in Invictus... unlike Matt Damon.

But there have been plenty of films over the years that have featured very poor efforts by big stars to capture the mood of our language.

image copyrightMichael Ochs Archives
image captionThe 1994 film Second Best is about a reclusive Welsh postal worker who lives with his terminally ill father

These include Colm Meaney in The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain, who was shockingly poor, and William Hurt in Second Best, whose accent was a mixture of Merthyr, Mullingar and Mumbai.

And even Tom Hardy in Locke, although fair play to him - he was a lot closer to pulling off the accent than anyone else so far.

The trouble is, with the language under constant threat since the early 16th Century, us Welsh people are usually more sensitive when it comes to hearing someone making a complete mess of national accents (and rightly so).

But then again, we don't hear our accent that often on the big screen, so nobody listens to the complaints.

If you go back a couple of years, you may remember Mickey Rourke wanted to make a film about the life of Gareth "Alfie" Thomas.

image copyrightAlberto E. Rodriguez
image captionMickey Rourke reportedly found it difficult to master Gareth Thomas' Bridgend accent

Hallelujah, everyone said, a true story, a good story and one that will put Wales on the map.

But, again, Rourke found it impossible to learn the accent and the story was changed to a fictional one about an Irish rugby player.

Are you starting to see a pattern here?

Although Rourke's Irish accent in A Prayer for the Dying was shaky enough, so I wouldn't hold my breath for this film, either.

Leave the Welsh accent to the Welsh?

The reality then is that us Welsh are the best at portraying our own accents.

Rhys Ifans has done this more than once in his career, and Peter Jackson insisted that Luke Evans keep his Welsh accent while filming The Hobbit series of films.

Even screen giants like Richard Burton and Sir Anthony Hopkins have managed to keep a splash of Welshness in some of their characters.

image copyrightMark Davis
image captionNobody does a Welsh accent better than a Welsh person, such as Aberbargoed's Luke Evans

But the reality may be that our actors are so blissfully good at their work, they can step into any persona and accent as they wish.

I can't say I'm chomping at the bit to see this new Dolittle, but will sit through it just to hear Downey Jr's accent.

Surely it won't be as bad as Dick Van Dyke's "cockney" accent in Mary Poppins?

But if it is, I'm not sure if I would laugh or cry.

Related Topics

  • Anthony Hopkins
  • Film
  • Gareth Thomas
  • Aberbargoed
  • Ruthin

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