The news that Richard E Grant’s late wife, the renowned dialect coach Joan Washington, used to assume an Aberdonian accent whenever she wanted to haggle over a potential purchase, is enough to make you drop your aitches. But what offensive masquerading, what terrible pigeonholing, is this? And then you discover that it was not an impersonation, but a reversion: Washington was returning to the inflections of her Granite City youth, before life as a drama student in London prompted her to adopt received pronunciation (ie, home counties posh). If she thought it was fine to go full Scottish to intimidate antiques dealers who believed that her countrymen and women know how to drive a hard bargain, then who am I (blandly SE England, madly jealous of regional accents) to object?
It all depends on where you’re standing. The very first line of a piece I read on an Irish website when the trailer for The Banshees of Inisherin first hit the screens queried whether Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell and Barry Keoghan, all three of them Dubliners, would be able to carry off west of Ireland voices. Meanwhile, BuzzFeed America counselled its would-be movie-goers that the film’s accents “can be a little difficult to understand if you’re not, well, Irish”; the difference between Achill Island and Dún Laoghaire was a distinction too far.
Stereotyping is, of course, to be profoundly discouraged. Yet some things really do benefit from a particular delivery. There’s a moment in Ken Burns’s celebrated documentary about the American civil war when the historian Shelby Foote describes a doomed Confederate attack on the last day of the battle of Gettysburg. As the infantrymen gathered in the woods, a furry animal scampered into the distance; in his rich, rolling Mississippi accent, Foote reports what one of them is believed to have said: “Run, old hare! If I was an old hare, I’d run, too.” A pause and then Foote’s own verdict on a charge that killed or injured over half of the aggressors: “It wasn’t all valour.” Look it up on YouTube; it’s much better listened to than read, which handily proves my point.
This little detail comes to mind because Daniel Craig revealed that Foote was one of the key inspirations for the extraordinarily diverting southern accent he adopts as Benoit Blanc, the mysteriously odd detective-protagonist of Rian Johnson’s films Knives Out and Glass Onion. Where he comes from, why he’s wearing those utterly bizarre outfits and how Hugh Grant finds himself opening Blanc’s door in an apron dusty with flour are questions that all have echoes of the shadowy origins, fastidious nature and companions of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, but really, it’s the voice that does it. If we adhered to the most pernicious of prejudices, we might say it was because we associate that drawl more readily with rednecks than genius sleuths, at least if we’ve grown up outside the US. Perhaps that’s why it needed a British actor to do it. Would the character have worked if Craig had channelled the Chester accent of his birth or that of the nearby Wirral, where he was brought up? Somehow I doubt it, though I’d never say so to a local, in any accent – I’m not completely stupid.
• Alex Clark writes for the Guardian and the Observer