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There is a trend in film and television for fiction set in times past to be populated by people speaking with British accents, even though the film is not set in Britain and the characters are not British. Sometimes these are British actors and sometimes they are Fake Brits. Occasionally, all of the cast will have British accents (irrespective of the actors' nationality) with the exception of the sole American star.
Giving the characters non-British accents (American, Australian, Canadian, etc.) ought to be just as acceptable as giving them British ones -- at least in terms of geography -- but this is usually avoided, because it makes the characters sound "inauthentic". Remember: Romeo might have been Italian, but he's not realistic unless he talks like a proper British toff.
This is probably because non-British Anglophone nations are much younger than Britain, whereas Britain has a much longer history, leading to the misconception that British accents are somehow "older" than American/Australian/Canadian accents. Ironically, the most recognizable aspects of the modern British accent are fairly recent linguistic innovations (supposedly, the dialect closest to Shakespeare's English is the traditional speech of Martha's Vineyard, and the most phonologically conservative widely-spoken dialect is in fact General American--the "Newscaster English" native to Iowa and Nebraska). In any case, you can create a series or film that is commercially viable in the USA while maintaining the appearance of historical authenticity. Also no doubt inspired by productions of Shakespeare's plays set in Ancient Rome. No doubt if the dominant language of America was French, Gérard Depardieu would be the new Patrick Stewart.
Another explanation involves the fact that English accents tend to be the foreign accents most easily understood by American viewers, and since most major productions are made by and for Americans, and most people speak only one or two languages well, this trope alleviates the need for a subtitled production (which might also cause non-fluent English-speaking actors to poorly affect a foreign tongue) and adds a distinct flavor that's just foreign and exotic enough, while still being comprehensible and thus enjoyable to the standard viewer.
As a bonus, this allows for some subtle characterisation for UK audiences: sometimes, characters will speak with regional British accents that reflect the class or social status of their character by playing up to stereotypes and associations in the collective British psyche. The BBC/HBO drama Rome did this extensively. The most common convention, however, is to employ formal, or "standard proper", English parlance, although, depending on the antiquity of the era portrayed, the characters may lapse into a form of
Old Early Modern English, or its contrived cousin, Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe.
Of course, some might just say that the actors are Not Even Bothering with the Accent, or trying to avoid speaking with Just a Stupid Accent, and in many cases this is true. The rule of thumb is that if there are non-British actors affecting Brit accents, or if the British accents are being used to add layers to the characterisation, they are speaking The Queen's Latin.
In the case of ancient civilizations like Greece or Rome, this might also be because no one knows what an Ancient Greek or Roman accent would sound like anyway, so anything sufficiently foreign will work in a pinch. Given that the easiest foreign accent to get a hold of in America is from across the pond, British seems to be the way to go.
In some films, any Russian or German characters will speak with the native accent of the actors, usually English or American -- it's been said that this is for several reasons, most notably that actors will often sound absolutely ridiculous trying to emulate a foreign accent, or for budgetary reasons (dialect coaches cost money).
A corollary of this is that ancient Roman characters tend to not only sound but also physically look like Anglo-Saxons (because the actors ARE Anglo-Saxons, of course!) rather than Romans. (And yes, we know exactly what ancient Romans looked like, based on art from that period.) Amusingly, historians have speculated that the average Roman man had tan or olive skin, dark hair (but lighter hair was fairly common), and stood about 5-foot-6; in other words, he looked a lot like a modern Italian. Though Rome grew to be incredibly diverse, and some citizens may have been northern Europeans, they wouldn't have all been northern Europeans.
This is also a version of the The Coconut Effect, since audience are so used to hearing British accents in classical settings that they actually expect it as a matter of course despite it having no basis in reality.
As an interesting historical side-note: when the Roman Empire withdrew from Britain, the Romanized Britons left behind eventually founded the country now known as Wales, maintaining a cultural and political identity distinct from the Saxons who invaded/settled Britain shortly afterwards. So the convention of Romans speaking with a British - or even better, Welsh - accent might not be too far off.
- The Manga UK dub of The Heroic Legend of Arslan has the voice actors using British accents (Most of their other dubs used fake American accents while reading their lines with British inflections and sentence structure). The Central Park Media dub of episodes 5 and 6 averts this, with the New York voice actors using their own accents.
- Enemy Ace: War in Heaven provides an unusual print example. Every major character in the series is German, but Northern Irish writer Garth Ennis gives them analogous "British equivalent" accents and dialects for their social class. It's striking, and a bit jarring to comics readers used to the stilted "Achtung! Gott in Himmel!" Just a Stupid Accent approach to German characters, but oddly effective.
- In Marvel Comics, mythic figures like Thor and Hercules almost alway speak in a faux-Shakespearean dialect - using stiltedly formal diction and throwing around words like "forsooth" and "verily," often in a stylized font - rather than even try to guess at how an ancient Norse god or ancient Greek demigod would speak.
- Caligula has the cast using British accents to denote social and class hierarchy.
- Gladiator had a cast who used British accents, despite its three main stars being from Australia (Russell Crowe), Puerto Rico/America (Joaquin Phoenix) and Denmark (Connie Nielsen).
- The Spartans in 300 speak with British accents. Leonidas has a noticeably Scottish accent. This somewhat coincidentally, falls in line with a very long-standing convention used in translating Greek Comedy (which uses accent gags extensively): Attic Greek (used by the Athenians) is represented as the Queen's English, whereas Doric Greek (used by the Spartans) is represented by Scots. This equation is so widespread that there is even a variety of Scots that is actually referred as Doric.
- Ben-Hur had all of its Romans played by Brits, its Hebrews played by Americans, and its one Arab guy played by... a Welshman with a generic Arabian accent.
- Specifically, by Hugh Griffith, the John Rhys-Davies of the mid-20th century.
- In the American-produced movie Spartacus, all the decadent Romans were play by Britons, while the slaves--a mixed bunch historically, but some of them would have been Roman/Italian by birth--were all played by Americans. Per some film critics, this represented a common trope in Hollywood film-making of the period, in which British accents represented decadent modern Europe, while American accents represented normalcy. Spartacus's love interest was played by English actress Jean Simmons, so to maintain continuity, it is mentioned in the film that the character was born in Britain.
- Simmons also turns up as the gentle tavern maid in The Egyptian. If you were a strong warrior type or a rough customer in that picture you were played by an American; if you were a noble, elegant or sensitive creature, you were played by a Brit. And that includes Qaptah the thief -- after all, he'd tell you that he was a noble, elegant and sensitive creature.
- The film version of Les Misérables, despite the fact that the characters are French. Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, and Claire Danes all fake English accents, although Liam Neeson retains his Hibernian intonation.
- 2007's Beowulf does something like this: although the Zealanders speak in fake, but at least subtle, Danish accents -- Grendel even speaks Old English -- the Geats speak in the actors' natural accents, which means that the title character, since he's played by Ray Winstone, is a Cockney ("I'm 'ere to kiw your monstah."), and Wiglaf speaks in an attempt at a Welsh accent.
- In Alexander, the Macedonian characters are given Irish accents, while the Greeks are given English and Scottish accents, to represent the ethnic divide within Alexander's army. Furthermore, the Greeks are given a number of regional accents, to subtly remind the viewer that Greece was traditionally a number of independent city-states, and not a natural nation-state. "Barbarians" are all given broad regional accents.
- In The Prince of Egypt, all the Egyptians have English accents, and the Hebrews and Midianites sound American. One would think Moses might have realized something was up with his parentage long before Miriam clued him in, given that he had the only American accent in Pharaoh's palace.
- Rise of Evil gives Adolf Hitler a mild British accent.
- This is the case in the 2004 movie of Phantom of The Opera--although subverted in the case of Madame Giry, played by British actress Miranda Richardson, who is seemingly the only nineteenth-century Parisian who actually speaks with a French accent. Considering that everyone else--whether Scottish, English, or American--just speaks in their regular voices, though, you kind of wonder why she bothered.
- In The Last Temptation of Christ, all the Romans have British accents and the Jews have American accents (including Harvey Keitel's much-mocked Brooklyn accent as Judas).
- Averted in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. The actors speak in their normal accents: Kirsten Dunst (Marie Antoinette) speaks in a General American accent, Rip Torn (Louis XV) speaks in a mild Texas accent, Steve Coogan (Ambassador Mercy) speaks with a British accent, Jason Schwartzman speaks with a General American accent.
- In Dangerous Liaisons the upper-class characters played by John Malkovich, Uma Thurman and Glenn Close speak plain American English, while the servants have broad Cockney accents.
- In The Duellists all the characters are French but most of the cast except the two American leads are British.
- In The Lord of the Rings, the elves speak with English accents. Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, who is supposed to be raised by elves, speaks the (human language) with an affected, slightly questionable English accent, but retains his natural Danish-American accent for speaking Elvish.
- And then Eowyn can't decide whether she has an English or Yankee accent.
- In the film Valkyrie, all the actors speak with their natural accents: Tom Cruise (Stauffenberg) speaks General American, Kenneth Branagh speaks RP, Matthias Freihof (Himmler), speaks with a German accent, etc. The only exception is David Bamber (Hitler), who affects a German accent.
- In the Prince of Persia film, all of the characters have British accents, whether played by actual Brits or not. This is consistent with the Sands of Time game, on which the movie is based.
- Ever After has British English spoken by people supposedly living in 16th-century France, as well as Leonardo Da Vinci.
- In the Marquis de Sade biopic Quills, everyone speaks in British accents, despite being 19th century Frenchmen — even the guy played by Joaquin Phoenix.
- The Affair of the Necklace is another film set in France. All the characters speak with British accents (even King Louis and Marie Antoinette!) save for two: Simon Baker, who couldn't seem to decide whether he wanted to be quasi-Aussie or quasi-English before giving up and just doing some odd blend of the two; and Hillary Swank, who doesn't use an accent at all and talks in full-on American that is just jarring. To add to the confusion, she intones some of her sentences like a British speaker would, turning them up at the ends.
- Parodied in History of the World Part One with Marcus Vindictus (Shecky Greene) who speaks in a erudite British accent and pronounces "Rome" by rolling his 'R's.
- If you listen very closely, you can easily tell that the heroine of Disney's Atlantis the Lost Empire actually has a British-sounding accent. Apparently this is also one of few animations starring Cree Summer (the actress who voiced her in this film) attempting to do a British accent.
- Avoided in Interview with the Vampire. Cruise, Dunst, and Pitt all speak with cultivated American diction.
- In Troy, most of the cast seem to be using their native accents. Brad Pitt might be attempting a British accent, but it sounds rather Americanized. Sean Bean even uses his native Northern British accent instead of a more cultivated one. Curiously, the only performers conspicuously not using their native accents are the two Australians, Eric Bana and Rose Byrne. One has to assume that the director/producer felt that the Aussie accent was the only one that couldn't be believably set in Ancient Times.
- Aladdin averts this with the titular Aladdin and his love interest Princess Jasmine, who both have American accents, but play this straight with Jasmine's father the Sultan and Big Bad Jafar.
- The Show Within a Show in Singin' in the Rain takes place among the French aristocracy during The Cavalier Years. This naturally requires dialect training for leading lady Lina Lamont and her very nasal Bronx accent (although the other characters already consider her voice grating anyway).
- Life Is Beautiful, dubbed into English, keeps the Italian and German accents of the characters. Thanks to The Coconut Effect, it sounds like some sort of racist joke.
- The Roman soldiers in Night at the Museum. Because they're not "real" Romans but miniatures, and since the spell bringing them to life also gives a T-Rex the traits of a dog, it's possible that the spell sort of "imitates" people's expectations or something, and therefore the soldiers' accents are actually caused by this trope's prevalence.
- In Hugo, set in a Parisian train station, the French characters are almost all played by British actors using their natural accents, apart from American Chloe Moretz, who is faking a British accent.
- Native Australian Chris Hemsworth plays Thor in the Marvel Comics films with a rather stylized "classical" English accent (as opposed to, say, a Scandanavian one). In The Avengers this is Played for Laughs when Tony Stark refers to one of Thor's speeches as "Shakespeare in the Park" and proceeds to imitate him.
- The most recent example is probably Rome, in which all of the characters speak in various English accents according to their backgrounds and roles. For example, Julius Caesar speaks with an upper-class accent, befitting his position as one of Rome's upper classes, while soldier Titus Pullo speaks with a faint Geordie accent, implying working-class origins. Several actors cover over their Irish accents to play Romans as British.
- I, Claudius uses regionalised British accents to fit the characters' personalities and class. Of course, I Claudius was a British production.
- In the Lonelygirl15 episode "Zodiac of Denderah", a British upper-class accent is used to imitate the French aristocracy.
- Subverted in the Roman section of Blackadder Back and Forth. The Roman characters start off speaking in The Queen's Latin until an officer arrives who congratulates them on practicing the local (British) language and then continues in actual Latin. Rule of Funny applies, as the actual local language at this time would be akin to an archaic form of Welsh.
- Doctor Who
- When Rose Tyler asks the Ninth Doctor why, as an alien, he speaks with a northern (English) accent, he replies: "Lots of planets have a north."
- Also played with in the second episode of the fourth series, when Donna asks the Doctor as they walk through the streets of Pompeii, what would happen if she said to one of the locals 'Veni, vidi, vici', given that the TARDIS translates everything you say and everything anyone else says of its own accord. The Doctor's response was to suggest she try it out, resulting in the reply from the (British-accented) stall keeper she said it to, 'Wot? Me No Speak-o Celtic.'
- One official Doctor Who short story - "The Man Who Wouldn't Give Up" in Short Trips: Past Tense - suggests the TARDIS Translation Circuits have an odd sense of humour, and give people BBC accents because they think it's funny.
- Referenced in Slings and Arrows. The character who plays Hamlet tries to find English accent tapes until another character points out that Hamlet is actually Danish, so he gives up.
- Spartacus: Blood and Sand has the Roman characters all speaking in approximations of an upper-class English accent. The gladiators have an array of accents, given their varied origins.
- Game of Thrones, despite being an American HBO adaptation of novels by an American author, stars mainly British actors using their native accents. The relatively few non-Brits required to speak English (rather than Dothraki) do pretty good English accents. The types of accent tend to vary quite widely even among families, but the Starks and other northern families do generally have variations on various northern english accents and fit the 'blunt, tough, uncomplicated' stereotypes (they also tend to be physically buffer than their southern counterparts), while the richest, most powerful southern families like the Lannisters have much posher, highly affected accents more associated with villainy.
- The Borgias is full of British accents, though the French characters actually do have French accents. It's just all the Italians that are British.
- Many productions of Shakespeare's plays will feature actors attempting an English accent to say their lines, even though the settings of his plays varied widely. This is obviously because Shakespeare wrote the dialogue in Elizabethan English and his plays are always heavily associated with English culture. Elizabethan accents hardly sound anything like modern English accents.
- This trope should (theoretically) be averted in Macbeth because the Scottish accents for the Scottish characters are written into the script. Still, many productions still give Macbeth a Upper-Class English accent.
- An interesting variation on this trope comes from translations of Ancient Greek plays, most noticeably in ancient Greek comedies. Nearly every extant play contains at least one joke based on ancient Greek accents. This means that a translator or director needs to delineate some of the dialog with a different accent. British accents are often used, partially because many of the translators are British themselves and those are they accents their most familiar with. Other times the trope is averted, such as when an American gives Spartans a Texas accent to play up the "militant hick" perception.
- In many productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, the actors will put on British accents, even when the operetta in question doesn't take place in England (i.e. The Mikado, in Japan).
- The recent (2009) revival of A Little Night Music, a musical set in Sweden, was/is performed with British accents by the cast, most of them fake Brits, with the notable exception of Angela Lansbury. This is exacerbated by the fact that they all speak with different flavors of British accent, with no logic given or implied as to the variance.
- The 2008 concert version of Chess has an odd inversion, with the British Kerry Ellis affecting an American accent to play a Russian character (the other major Russian characters were played by Americans, one affecting a Russian accent and one not bothering).
- In the original production of The Phantom of the Opera, American Steve Barton (who played Raoul) faked a British accent, despite his character being French. The cast as a whole speaks with a British accent even in American productions of the musical. It is debatable whether this is because of this trope, or because they attempt to sound like the original British cast.
- Wyatt Cenac discusses this in his comedy special when talking about what the Medieval Times shows will be like in the future. In the future, they will be about American gang violence, and they will all have British accents.
- All of the characters in the fantasy RPG Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura seem to have British accents, with the exception of Virgil, who is voiced by an American who sounds like he's trying to sound vaguely English. Certainly, his dialogue (replete with words like "bloody" and "bugger") is written to sound like it's come from a Brit.
- The English translation of Final Fantasy XII used this to replace the different Japanese ways of talking: dashing sky-pirate Balthier was given an English accent, whereas Princess Ashe was given a soft high-class American accent. (Fran speaks with a Welshy...Indo...Iri...Scot...Russi...Armenian - okay, no one knows, but it's an accent.) Al-Cid speaks in an accent that has been called an odd hybrid of Spanish and Russian. The grunts of the Archadian Empire tend to have particularly thuggish London accents. The people of Bhujerba speak with Indian accents.
- In fact, Balthier's accent actually gives away his heritage, since each region seems to speak its own dialect, with the Archadians speaking with the British accents, citizen of Rabanastra to speaking with American accents, the one Rozzarian we hear speak has a Spanish accent, and so on.
- Ondore's accent is vaguely...Scottish or something. Or Gaelic/Irish/Celtic. He's the narrator, by the way.
- Likewise Dragon Quest VIII gives most important character British accents for regional accent conversion.
- Exceptions: Morrie, the eccentric owner of the Monster Arena, is voiced with an Italian accent and Italian words peppered through his dialogue, the entire city of Baccarat (which is centered around an enormous casino and hotel) is apparently American, and the snowy northern region of Orkutsk is very obviously Russian.
- Most of the characters were given various kinds of British accents. Pickham residents, for example, all speak cockney, Princess Minnie speaks with the Royal We, and the owner of the Sabrecat Trust speaks with an upper class RP so ludicrously pompous that it's played for laughs. His assistant Tom speaks...something.
- Chrono Cross translates different Japanese dialects into differently accented versions of English. One major character, Kid, speaks with an Australian accent. And it's all done through text - the game has no voice acting.
- Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time gives His Highness the Title Character a British accent. Farah, an Indian princess, speaks with the hybrid accent of an Indian person educated by British English speakers, which is actually a common enough accent in the modern world. When the third game rolls around, Farah's been
developedgenericised into an Action Girl, and has a gruff American accent.
- In the Myst games, Philadelphia-born Rand Miller for some reason gives Atrus a fluctuating mid-Atlantic accent (it should be noted that in "real life" Atrus would have spoken the English of Samuel Pepys).
- Confusingly, in current Myst canon we are meant to understand that the original Myst game really was just a game "based on" the "real" events of Myst, with only the events of the game Uru and onward to be taken as "accurate" depictions of what "really happened". All anachronisms can be retconned this way.
- Not to mention how much his D'ni accent sucks. Of course, everyone's D'ni sucks... and Yeesha, the only character to use it in Uru, gets it even worse.
- Knights of the Old Republic has several British-accented characters in both games; Bastila, being portrayed by a Canadian, is the only non-native accent. An honorable mention goes to Louis Mellis, playing Darth Sion - using his native accent, he is aScottish Zombie Sith. Although it seems to be Jennifer Hale's (she who voiced Bastila) hat to speak with a faux British accent.
- In Rome: Total War, a slight variation of the tropes is presented: the Romans all speak with throaty American accents, while everyone else, the Gauls, Carthaginians, Egyptians, Spaniards, Greeks, etc. speak in a sort of generic "foreign" accent, with much rolling of R's and slurring of syllables. And to make it all more confusing: the game's British.
- In Dragon Age, nearly every human is British (Claudia Black, although Australian, has always done a great British accent), except for the occasional character from the Empire of Orlais, who are depicted as essentially being French. Elves and Dwarves are almost universally American (except for Zevran, who has an outrageous Spanish 'Antivan' accent).
- The Fable series are bad for it, too; everyone comes from somewhere in the British Isles.
- It should be noted that it is set in Albion, the oldest known name for Great Britain. Not to mention the Union Jack underwear...
- Well, seeing as the game is created by a British company, it'd be more of a surprise if the voice actors didn't use their native accents.
- The Roman-themed city building game Caesar III has generally British sounding voices, as does the Praetorians RTS.
- In Metal Gear Solid 3 Snake Eater, Sokolov, a Russian, appears to speak with a British accent.