Interview with Helen Ashton

Billie Collins sat down with Helen Ashton to elaborate on voice and dialect coaching and the importance of accent in film and TV production

14 April 2022
By Billie Collins
Billie Collins is a writer for stage, screen and audio. She’s also a journalist, programmer and an administrator for The Writing Squad.

 

“Why did the BBC make Martin Freeman speak with a Liverpool accent in The Responder? […] My wife gave up watching, she said she could not understand a word.”

Lord Alan Sugar’s tweet about the BBC One crime drama – now set for a second series – ruffled some feathers. Many had high praise for Freeman’s efforts, and the Scouse accent isn’t the easiest to master (no, you can’t just say ‘chicken’ through your teeth). Luckily, the cast of The Responder had a secret weapon: Helen Ashton.

Helen has worked as a voice and dialect coach on everything from big-budget blockbusters such as Black Widow to bingeable box sets like The Crown. After training on the Voice Studies MA at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama – a course which covers everything from anatomy to teaching skills – she cut her teeth working in drama schools before freelancing on various theatre, film and TV projects.

Helen knows better than most that accent is about more than just sound: it’s a cornerstone of identity. We sat down over Zoom to talk more about an essential – and perhaps overlooked – role in the industry. 

 

Let’s start with the basics. What happens when you get brought on to a production?

It varies. In an ideal situation, you work with the cast for four to six weeks before the shoot, developing their accents in discussion with the director and producers. By the time you shoot, they’ve done a lot of the work and you become on-set support. Say, if under pressure a sound slips or dialogue changes and the actor isn’t sure how to say their new line – you’re there to help.

 

What are the biggest challenges of dialect coaching?

Accent work can be thwarted if productions don’t think about it until there’s an issue. There’s often an assumption that actors can just ‘do accents’, so they’ll cast somebody, then get to the readthrough and realise an accent isn’t where it needs to be. It’s a physical skill; the tongue and lips are muscles we don’t have good conscious control over, so you need time to build new habits.
Another challenge is that it’s a teaching process – it’s about the relationship you have with an actor. Sometimes they have a clear idea of what they want to do which doesn’t match the vision of the producers and director. But that’s rarer. Usually, the actor just doesn’t want to embarrass themselves!

 

You recently worked on The Responder. What was that like?

It was an amazing show. It’s exciting to have a story where most of the cast are from the same place and you can hear the different accents of one area. It was also the loveliest team to work with. TV budgets aren’t the same as big movie budgets, so often you do the prep work and don’t come on to set. So I did sessions with the cast on Zoom, then they shot on their own. The credit goes to them, because they sustained their accents on a challenging shoot with lots of nights and no-one checking on them.

 

The Responder was written by Scouser Tony Schumacher. How much of the dialect – the ‘likes’ and ‘las’ – was communicated in the script? Do you ever collaborate with writers?

I didn’t work with the writer on The Responder at all. The dialect was already in the script, and the production was smart to film in Liverpool with many actors who are native Scousers, so they had an instinct for the right language. Though sometimes if the writer’s also on set, they tend to be a natural person for me to gravitate towards. I worked on a period piece recently supporting technical advisors to make sure the dialect was right for the period. And sometimes if the writer’s American but the character is British the odd phrase or reference might slip through the net – I’ll help with things like that.

 

The response to Martin Freeman’s accent in The Responder was fascinating. Many Scousers were very positive about it, but there were those – like Alan Sugar – who had complaints. Accent isn’t just how you speak; it communicates a lot about who you are. Do you feel a responsibility to communicate the social aspects of an accent?

Hugely. Your accent is your identity, but also how you want to portray yourself. It’s not just geography – it’s upbringing and class... It’s important to be respectful. There used to be lots of value judgements thrown around, like the idea that an accent is ‘lazy’. It makes my blood boil, because every accent is lazy – we speak in the way that’s easiest for us!
Language ideology is completely pervasive. For example, French accents always get voted the sexiest. They’re not inherently sexy; we’re just projecting ideology on to that group of people and saying it manifests through the accent. When I started in the industry it used to be ‘acceptable’ to make fun of accents or ‘do silly voices’. Hopefully it’s on its way out. Alan Sugar’s comment about The Responder felt old-fashioned. It speaks to a time when the only accent thought to be clear was RP (Received Pronunciation), because it’s the accent of privilege – it fits in to what’s called an ‘acrolect’. Communication is a two-way process; it relies on listening as well as speech. Millions of people found Martin’s accent clear; the comment shows a failure in the willingness to listen, I think.

 

I suppose research feeds into all of this – where do you go for resources?

My job would have been so different 20 years ago, because now there’s so much material on the internet. If I’m working with an unfamiliar accent, I do as much listening as I can. Say we’re looking at Liverpool – I’ll find out that within Liverpool there’s a range of accents. I’ll look to the characters in the script and work out which of the 40 references I’ve found are the most useful and pull together resources for the actor. YouTube is good, but a mistake that actors often make is searching ‘Scouse accent’. That probably won’t take you to native speakers. Instead, you should find out the specific geographical area you’re interested in and look for a documentary set there, or famous people from there. Sportspeople are good for this, and podcasts too, but what’s ideal is finding real people. I was working on a show set in Dorset – a friend recommended a pub in a village there and told me which nights were ‘locals’ nights. I went along and got chatting. People love talking about their accents, especially if it’s a traditional one with heritage behind it.
Another thing to be aware of is that we all code-switch. We speak in different ways to different people, so when you have enough time with an actor you can do some deep nuanced work on how their character talks in different situations.

 

Do you have a favourite accent to work with?

Probably northeast? They’re accents actors often find difficult, so I love teaching them because it’s empowering for the actor to suddenly crack it. It’s also so different to everything around it – it probably has more in common with Scandinavia than it does Yorkshire or Scotland! What I really love is when there’s a strong character and story linked to the accent. It’s exciting to do something unusual that I don’t get asked for every day.

 

There’s a clear difference between stage and screen in terms of timescales for your work. But is there a technical difference between, say, a Cardiff accent for stage and for TV?

To an extent. If you’re working in a challenging acoustic space, there are certain concessions you’ll make to that space. It’s usually about doing a more ‘muscular’ version of the accent; actors will use consonants differently than they would if they were right by a microphone. It’s not about ‘toning down’ an accent so much as using sounds with clarity.
Also, if you’re making a film that will be seen globally, you should think about how strongly you want to lean into regional dialect. Sometimes productions using a strong dialect work well because they insist the audience buy into the world, adjust their ears and work harder to listen. But sometimes productions use a lighter accent when targeting an audience less familiar with an area. It’s a stylistic choice.

 

So, productions should discuss audience early on, think about their familiarity with the setting and be deliberate with dialect?

I think so; having that conversation is great. While it wouldn’t be strange to see someone work on their physicality for a role, because accent is about identity people sometimes treat it as fixed. Which means that conversation – who are we making this for, and how do we want it to sound – doesn’t happen, because people go ‘we’ve cast X and that’s just how they sound.’

 

Filmmakers – considering accent and dialect when planning a project can be crucial for your production’s success. The extent to which you involve location-specific accents, and whether you plan to cast locally with actors who may already have the specific accent or not, is best to be taken into account in the beginning to avoid later mishaps with lines when shooting. Coaches like Helen, who provide support both off and on set use not only their practical skills in phonetics and language, but importantly, their collaborative and teaching skills to help actors. Also involving writers, directors and producers, mastering accents is essentially a collaborative effort requiring strong relationship-building to make the process as smooth as possible.

 

Find out more about Helen Ashton via her website

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