Earlier this week I was invited to BBC Scotland’s The Nine to discuss the Scottish accents in Netflix latest Christmas hallmark movie A Castle for Christmas which had gotten quite some backlash from Scottish viewers critical of the Scottish accents in it. I had only seen the trailer at the time of the interview but this weekend I made myself a hot chocolate, got cozy and watched the full movie. Here are my thoughts on the Scottish accents in it:
Let me start by saying one very important thing people sometimes forget: Speaking in a different accent is HARD. It requires a lot of knowledge and practice and unless you’re constantly around your new target accent, it’s nearly impossible to deliver it authentically without any help. In my interview with BBC Scotland I said that the best Scottish accents are delivered by Scottish people. As an actor though, of course, speaking in a different accent for a specific character can be a nice challenge and being able to do different accents can open doors to a wider range of characters. That being said, if a production decides to hire non-Scottish speakers for Scottish characters, they should offer their cast the support (i.e. hire a dialect coach) necessary to deliver this performance authentically.
In addition to having the target accent expertise at hand, time and practice are crucial to deliver accents authentically. I can teach the basics of an accent to any actor in a few sessions but unless the actor is willing to practice and – very importantly – is given enough time to do so, the impact of the accent work will be limited. An authentic accent delivery needs to sound and feel second nature. Speaking in a new accent means that you’ll have to learn how to pronounce completely new sounds, in completely new patterns, and deliver them as if you’re completely used to them. And that means your facial muscles need to be 100% comfortable with the actions that make these sounds happen. That takes time and practice.
Think of it like yoga: the first time you try a new position it’s really hard and you’re not sure you’re doing it right and it feels uncomfortable because your muscles are not used to being in that position … YET. The second time it’s already a little bit easier and with each practice, it becomes more comfortable. Eventually you can get into that position very quickly and with ease. But if you don’t practice regularly, you will never be able to do it very comfortably and quickly. Speaking in a different accent is just like that but for your facial muscles.
One important feature of Scottish accents is the R sound. If your native accent is, let’s say, English or American (like Cary Elwes’ own accent) and you hear a Scottish accent for the first time, one of the first sounds that sticks out to you is probably the R sound. That’s because English or American accented speakers use a different sound for their Rs than most Scottish speakers. There are many differences between those R sounds but the biggest is that for an English or American R, we pull our tongue backwards and bunch it up towards our upper back molars, while in many Scottish accents, the R is pronounced similarly to a D sound and the tongue needs to stretch forward and touch the gums right behind your upper teeth. People attempting to do a Scottish accent often know the Rs need to be different and they might even know how to achieve such a sound with their articulators. But unless they have gotten enough time and practice to get their muscles completely used to that new forward-stretching quick tapping movement for Rs, they won’t be able to make their tongue flick up as quickly as a native Scottish speaker and it will sound off.
I suspect that Cary Elwes wasn’t given the necessary help or time to really get comfortable with all the Scottish sounds for this movie. Some of his vowels were great for a Standard Scottish accent, such as the vowel in “you” at around 1:40 mins in the trailer above, or the vowel in the second syllable in “mistake” at around 1:10 mins. But not being completely used to all the Scottish sounds can have a big impact on the overall delivery of an accent and this was especially apparent in Elwes’ R sounds in this movie. His tongue was often in the right place but it didn’t move quickly enough and therefore most of his Rs were over-enunciated, as can be heard when he says “here” at 0:45 mins in the trailer. Elwes’ Scottish accent in A Castle for Christmas is a solid start, and with a bit more time and guidance I’m sure he could have delivered a Scottish accent that a Scottish audience would gladly accept as one of their own.