How important are accents?

We often comment on actors’ accents when they play a character of a different nationality.  Some, such as Hugh Laurie as an American in ‘House’ do it very well, whilst others aren’t quite as successful.  Nicolas Cage in ‘Captain Correlli’s Mandolin’ and Kevin Costner in ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ are two actors that have been mocked for their fake accents.

In the television programme ‘Fawlty Towers’ the waiter Manuel famously comes from Barcelona (having learned English from a book…), and was played by actor Andrew Sachs, who was born in Germany and moved to England as a child.  According to a large number of Spaniards, the accent portrayed in the programme is actually a Mexican accent, and some were less than impressed with the portrayal of the waiter as a Spaniard.  In fact, when the programme was dubbed for broadcast in Spain, Manuel became Italian and went by the name Paolo.  In Cataluña and France, the character came from Mexico rather than Spain.

This topic does not just apply to accents internationally.  British soaps are generally set in one specific place: ‘Eastenders’ in London; ‘Coronation Street’ in the north-west, and ‘Emmerdale’ in a village in Yorkshire, and as a result of this, generally speaking, locals appear to be locals, and have accents that are in accordance with the part of the country in which the soap is set.  There have been a number of recent discussions regarding Michelle Collins’ accent in ‘Coronation Street’, and as commented by Kathy Sweeney in her blog on The Guardian, she has “one of the least convincing Mancunian accents since Daphne Moon in Frasier”.

Are accents important in films, television and radio programmes and soaps?  Does it matter, as Kathy Sweeney believes that “David Platt for instance, despite never having left Weatherfield, has something closer to a Leeds accent”?  Does it matter if the accent of a character is not quite right, when we know that the actor does not come from the area in which the soap is set?  If we are suspending reality enough to enjoy a soap, which, to be frank, are generally less than realistic, should we expect accents to be authentic?  Can we enjoy a film if an accent is so unbelievable that we focus on that rather than the content? These questions apply to both national and international accents, and in my opinion, a non-credible accent can affect our enjoyment of films and television programmes.