Why mockneys need to sling their ‘ook

Lana Crowe has a butcher’s at the problem with mockneys in the media

“They make cages of all sizes and shapes, you know.” Dick Van Dyke’s philosophical chimney sweep Bert in Disney’s 1964 musical Mary Poppins, is a charming foil to Julie Andrews’ magically refined English nanny. What’s so notorious about Van Dyke’s performance is his questionable (to put it politely) cockney accent, widely regarded as one of the worst attempts at an English accent in movie history. It’s well-worn, but is good at illustrating the question a question that has always troubled me: why hire an American actor to do an abysmal cockney accent, rather than hire the real deal?

‘Mockney’ is a portmanteau of ‘mock’ and ‘cockney’, referring to instances of middle-class actors adopting a traditionally London working-class accent for a character. It’s prevalent everywhere from Saturday night telly to the National Theatre, spawning a plethora of distracting and distorted voices that are far from reality. Audrey Hepburn (god love her) in My Fair Lady. Don Cheadle in Ocean’s Eleven (a personal favourite). Taron Egerton in the Kingsman movies. Mate. Just no. As a native East Ender, I find myself unable to watch some films and TV from the outset, purely because of the abysmal attempts at this notorious accent. I find it gobsmacking that in a TV and film culture that pays so much attention to authentically duplicating reality – think disgruntled pedants pointing out historical inaccuracies in the background of Downton Abbey – such aural bad practice persists. Mockney doesn’t just bring the quality of a performance into question: it highlights a lower number of working-class actors, results in the cultivation of unhelpful stereotypes, and feeds into a history of derogatory portrayals by outsiders of London’s working class.

Al Murray, with his pub landlord character, exemplifies how this can become a problem. Murray comes from posh stock, a descendant of aristocracy from all angles: his comedy career began at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, where he performed in the Oxford Revue under the direction of Stewart Lee. The Pub Landlord parodies a stereotype of a casually xenophobic pint-wielding publican, with conservative values and glottal stops to boot. Murray’s decision to run as a parliamentary candidate for the fictional FKUP (Free United Kingdom Party) against UKIP leader Nigel Farage is obviously a big two-fingers up at Farage’s isolationist politics, those parodied in the anti-German anti-French rhetoric of the Pub Landlord. Yet it’s also two-fingers up at the highly working-class votership of UKIP, who turned to Farage as a protest vote against the inadequacy of the current party political climate for working-class communities. By attempting to make a fool of Nigel Farage, he made light of a serious political vacuum that would have been better filled by a serious candidate pushing serious issues than a misplaced joke. What I see in Al Murray’s mockneyism is an example of an age-old dramatic trope: posh people laughing at poor people. 

Sacha Baron Cohen’s character Ali G, inspired by mock-London personalities like DJ Tim Westwood, adopts a stereotypical (and very much 2000s) Multicultural London English sociolect, look and attitude. Although he’s making fun of posers rather than MLE-speaking teenagers directly, the exaggerated tropes of this sociolect are still a source of comedy. I’m not saying there’s wasn’t a space for Ali G, it’s just a shame it was one of the only examples of MLE on popular television and that, more generally, the instances of MLE outside of comedy are few and far between. It’s nice to see a glimmer of London slang and culture are becoming more mainstream in comedy – aside from Micky Flanagan‘s endearing brand of cockney-made-good – with the success of the ‘chicken connoisseur’, Channel 4’s The Big Narstie Show and comedians like Doc Brown riffing on perceptions of rap culture.

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One prominent cockney stereotype in TV and film is the ‘hardman’: think Ray Winstone, being typecast as gangsters and criminals. Gruff, violent, sometimes graced with a gritty charm a la Tony Soprano. And then there’s Danny Dyer, a caricature conglomeration of all these tropes, all rolled into one Feather Plucker. In Bruges, the gangster comedy starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, includes a memorable turn by Ralph Fiennes as cockney mob boss Harry Waters, a bizarre casting choice that adds to the suspension of belief necessary to enjoy the crime caper. For much of the beginning of the film, Fiennes is only heard, not seen, adding to the comedy of his eventual revelation. It’s a film I like a lot, and yet I couldn’t help but see something perverse in this choice: a missed opportunity to be more creative with an archetype, as In Bruges does so brilliantly elsewhere. And if, as some critics believe, you think that the staunch principles and heart-warming sentimentality of Harry Waters is atypical for such a character, then why allow Fiennes the opportunity to play with the tropes rather than a stalwart of the genre who’s not usually afforded that level of variety?

Hayley Squires, star of I, Daniel Blake, has unwittingly become a spokesperson for social mobility in the film industry. Squires boasts a South London accent, and has often spoken out about typecasting: you’re either playing the girlfriend of a drug dealer, a heroin addict or a mother who can’t look after her kids,” she told the Evening Standard. Talking to the Guardian about the frustrations faced by herself and fellow Londoner Daniel Kaluuya, she admitted that “it gets to the point where you just go: ‘Why can’t it be down to how good we are at our jobs?’ It shouldn’t just be about the way I sound when I open my mouth.”

Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank (2009)

There are, of course, steps being made in the right direction. I, Daniel Blake, if a little twee and not entirely devoid of the stereotypes mentioned by Squires, was a serious dramatic depiction of working class people, something consistently spearheaded by director Ken Loach. Earlier this year, the British Film Institute ran a weekend celebrating Working Class Heroes behind and in front of the camera, including talks from industry experts and screenings of working class film talent – the film season follows this coming September. There are exceptions: Idris Elba, who spent his childhood in Hackney and Canning Town, made his name in American drama The Wire. Michael Caine and Gary Oldman, both bearing that distinctive London twang, have won Academy Awards. Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009), despite still depicting a somewhat archetypal family, is deep and touching: Katie Jarvis, whose lead performance as teenager Mia is innocent and honest, was cast in the film after being spotted by a casting agent at Tilbury Station. Jarvis’ performance feels authentic in more ways than one.

Accent’s a sore point for me. Even the description of an RP accent as well-spoken rubs me up the wrong way. The ‘trend’ of middle-class teenagers adopting working-class dialects, clothing, and culture, whether ironically or earnestly, is not only embarrassing but hurtful: it kills me to see others being lauded as fashionable and edgy for using words and wearing clothes that I felt I had to reject in order to be taken seriously. The characters from my locality are always criminals a la Guy Richie or jesters, like Bert the chimney sweep: figures of pity or disdain. I’d like there to be a cockney character who’s not to be laughed at, or feared, but respected. Is that too much to ask, guvna?