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’Allo ’Allo! Just one Cornetto?
By Nicolas Soames
1 May 2010
Few things are so reliably comic as a cod accent. You only have to revisit ’Allo ’Allo!, the British TV comedy series from the 1980s, to see how cod accents can be a joke that works episode after episode. It is set in a village in German-occupied France in World War II where the French speak English with pretty appalling French accents, the Germans speak English with an even worse German accent, and English airmen in hiding speak English of a high-Etonian kind which is completely appalling. It is hilarious.
This raises the whole issue of accents on audiobooks which we encounter all the time, on which we have to make clear decisions again and again. It is an absorbing and sometimes challenging topic.
Where comedy is involved, then, on the whole, it is just about having fun. Here is John Sessions making the characters in Pinocchio more Italian than Cornetto – out of the English narrative emerges a Geppetto we would all love to have for a Tuscan woodcarving grandfather:
Of course, we must have an Italian Geppetto, and in many cases, the question of accent is very straightforward. In the Sherlock Holmes canon, there is a vast array of characters from every region of the British Isles which makes veteran reader David Timson call on all his expertise to place. It is clear. If the man is Scottish, the only decision to be made is where he comes from – Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen or wherever. Timson has the ability and experience to wander freely north of Hadrian’s Wall.
Hearing non-English names and words with the correct pronunciation is important to us because we feel it is part of the character of the book. We asked Sebastian Comberti to read Jan Morris’s unmatched history of Venice (out this month!) because his Italian is perfect… all those Italian words sound so mellifluous that you can see the canals. It doesn’t sound like an English actor reading from the menu of Pizza Express:
However, there was a specialist challenge of a different kind for whoever was to read Rudyard Kipling’s great novel, Kim. And to serve Kipling’s wonderful ear for regional Indian dialogue it was of enormous benefit to have an Indian narrator like Madhav Sharma, who can truly differentiate the many characters such as Hurree Chunder Mookherjee, the various horse traders from far-reaching parts of the sub-continent, and, of course, the Tibetan lama. Not to mention Kim himself when going native. In a masterpiece like this, cartoon voices will not do! True personality supported by a real understanding of background are key factors in making these great novels live.
The swashbuckling Dumas and Hugo novels that Bill Homewood reads with such energy can be put over with a strongly-flavoured Pernod, however! Bill (who has perfect French) really goes to town, nailing a 3D French personality to The Three Musketeers and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But then there is no danger of turning them into comedies because the sense of plot and adventure is so strong!
It helps that he lives on his farm in France.
Bill also took the same care to introduce the three different ‘clicks’ that are present in the language of the Xhosa who feature in Rider Haggard’s timeless adventure novel King Solomon’s Mines. Yes, Bill practised producing those clicks with the tongue in the back of the throat as if he was out there on the veldt. Wow!
Then there is the issue of the narrative voice. Should a classic like Wuthering Heights be in the regional narrative voice or RP (received pronunciation – standard English), as it is called? At Naxos AudioBooks, we tend to go with a regional narrative, while on other recordings of classics, the decision has been made to keep the regional accent just for the characters.
Then there is the vexing question of novels translated into English. When Neville Jason started out on Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, there was no real suggestion that he should colour the (English) narrative with a French hue. But should he touch the dialogue of M. Swann, Baron de Charlus and the rest with a French accent?
Reading tradition says no, though one may ask why not? The danger is that it would sound risible (‘ere ve are, ’Allo ’Allo!)… and it probably would. With Proust, we felt that the names should be given a relaxed French hue, correct but not overdone, and Paris would be Paris with an ‘s’ rather than an ‘ee’.
But sometimes, to my ear, translations beg more than just a flavour of the original country. Take the novels of Haruki Murakami. Most are set solidly in Japan, in Tokyo or further north in Hokkaido, and his characters are really Japanese. Odd, then, that they should sound English or American! Well, to be honest, it would have been a VERY tall order to find a Japanese reader who could take on these major novels in English and deliver them in a way which matches the expressive range of Rupert Degas, Sean Barrett or Adam Sims. So, we had to compromise. And fortunately, the individual genius of Murakami shines through.
But if you would like to hear what it COULD sound like with a Japanese reader, listen to Hōjōki, perhaps the greatest of medieval Japanese poems, read by Togo Igawa. There is an unmistakable authenticity:
So, it is relatively rare that we can throw caution to the winds and just go for bust. But this is exactly what the versatile Rupert Degas did when coming to grips with Brigadier Gerard, Conan Doyle’s delightful creation of a pompous but charming Hussar from Napoleon’s army. He set off immediately in what can only be described as an uninhibited French accent that propels both character and story forward. It is huge fun from beginning to end.
Here is an extract from How the Brigadier Slew the Fox, one of the finest of the Brigadier Gerard stories. It is on the collection The Essential Conan Doyle, which is full of Doyliana.
I am glad to say that Degas has now recorded all the stories for us, with The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard coming out in July and The Adventures next year. Why should ’Allo ’Allo! have all the fun?
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