In the litany of mangled vowels on TV, the ‘Billy Boy’ portrayed on crime drama Peaky Blinders was hardly the worst Scottish accent and such aberrations can actually be seen in a positive way, writes Aidan Smith.
Kicked and beaten and lying in the mud, a man looked on helplessly as his son was strung up on a cross then casually shot through the head. Just when you might have thought we’d reached peak Peaky Blinders, it finds another way.
The crime drama seemed determined to show who was boss as it returned for a fifth series. Similar to mobster kingpin Tommy Shelby, it doesn’t want any cocky newcomers trying to move in onto its patch as TV’s most-violent. But it wasn’t the slaying which shocked, rather the killer’s accent. Scots devotees of Peaky Blinders were outraged by the depiction of a Glasgow hardman, the leader of the notorious razor gang the Billy Boys who were a real bunch of psychos back in the 1930s – Protestant thugs who terrorised Catholics and were also hired by unscrupulous businesses to put the frighteners on rival firms.
“The worst Glasgow accent I’ve ever heard,” summed up a reaction you’d have to call Pique-y Blinders. “Woeful,” commented another viewer while the fan who labelled the accent “diabolically bad” expressed the hope that the character would soon have his tongue cut out to spare the audience any more mangling of the Bridgeton brogue.
It’s funny, isn’t it? The murders are hellish, the history just as mangled, with academics pointing out that the city’s gangs fought with bottles, iron bars and of course razors but there’s no record of them having used firearms. But the thing that really annoys people is that the man doesn’t sound right when he’s committing his ghastly acts. Talk about fiddling while Glasgow burns.
Another big British hit show, Fleabag, has also just been greeted with Scottish grumbling. Most of us know Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s dysfunctional-family comedy from the small screen, although a very smart and way-ahead-of-the-curve Edinburgh Festival Fringe audience saw it first being performed on the stage. In the TV version, Fleabag’s sleazeball brother-in-law Martin is graceless, loudmouthed, arrogant – and American. But, with the show back in the theatre for its last-ever outing in London, Martin has transmuted into a Scot.
Was he always? Maybe those who witnessed the premiere back in 2013 can help us here. Either way, the change, or change-back, has left some severely discombobulated, including this online reviewer: “It was a shock to discover that Waller-Bridge had originally envisaged Martin, with all his disgusting perversions and damp hands, to be Scottish.”
I have to say I agree, and have more sympathy for the irate Fleabag fans than I do the irate Peaky Blinders fans. America, it seems, is a far better source of the graceless, the loudmouthed, the arrogant and the perverted, all the more so in the age of Trump. Scots can bring different qualities to the party.
If Waller-Bridge had installed a smelly, roaring and very definitely Scottish tramp at the door of Fleabag’s guinea pig-themed cafe in the telly version then she would have been reviving an age-old goggle-box tradition.
Time was when inclusivity on TV meant that in every Play for Today, drama series or sitcom – and usually found in pubs or outside rail stations or just shambling around with a can of Special Brew in one hand, his worldly goods in the other and a chip of both shoulders – there would be one of these gentlemen of leisure who’d just come down from Sauchiehall Street. And if you didn’t know he was Scottish because his ranting was so incoherent, then he was helpfully kitted out in a tartan scarf and a Celtic or Rangers rosette.
This was a cliche which used to enrage my father and I’m pretty sure that Rab C. Nesbitt was partly inspired by such lazy, cruel stereotyping. The Govan guttersnipe was a lyrical layabout and a scumbag sage and the fact we don’t see so many token Scottish down-and-outs on TV now is probably thanks to the string-vested street-philosopher. Lousy Scottish accents, it seems, are harder to eradicate although handing the roles to Scots – the Peaky Blinders actor is Irish – would surely help. Maybe the first risible Scottish voices I heard were in Alfred Hitchcock’s film of The Thirty-Nine Steps when the pursuit of Richard Hannay moved to the Highlands and a police sergeant hollered the order: “Quick, men! Up there and alang!”
Possibly the actor involved in that scene was Scottish but he’d had his natural accent smoothed away at drama college in favour of bool-in-the-mooth RP, regional tones not being popular at that time. Many, of course, have had no Scottish accents to lose, but ploughed on manfully, or in the case of Jessica Lange in Rob Roy, womanfully. When she thrusts her hands up Liam Neeson’s kilt and inquires “Did ye want tae mak’ a silk purse oot o’ ma sow’s ear?” it’s generally considered a nadir for Caledonia-on-celluloid and always features on the cringe-lists. Mel Gibson in Braveheart tries too hard to speak Skoatish in Braveheart while David Niven in Bonnie Prince Charlie doesn’t try at all, which seems like the best policy if the alternative might be Chrisopher Lambert in Highlander (“I don’t like watur ... I’m not a fesh!”) or Robert Duvall in A Shot at Glory. Sadly, that fitba farrago contained no line to rival Duvall’s career-best, nothing like “I love the smell of Lees’ macaroon bars in the morning” that’s for sure.
I think we have to accept that Mike Myers as Fat Bastard in the Austin Powers movies was one of the finest Scottish accents committed to the silver screen. And regarding Peaky Blinders, I’ve heard worse. We’re too quick to be offended now and should see the positive in a bad accent. It shows we’re different, special, unique and incredibly elusive, just like a fesh in the watur.