Midlands accents on screen: building a regional identity in film

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The Birmingham accent is rarely heard on screen – but, as Hope Brotherton discovers, something is being done about that.

On the 7th September 2019, the film adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s critically acclaimed novel, How To Build A Girl, premiered to a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film festival in Canada. This Wolverhampton-based coming of age tale depicts the life of aspiring writer Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein) – a 14-year-old who reinvents herself into ‘fast-talking, lady sex-adventurer’ Dolly Wilde. Writing under a pseudonym, Johanna attempts to provide for her poverty-stricken family back in Wolverhampton.

To bring the essence of Johanna to the big screen, though, her regional identity had to remain at the forefront of Feldstein’s characterisation. “So, the first battle obviously was the Wolverhampton accent,” confides the Californian native during a question and answer session at Toronto’s International Film Festival. To prepare for her role, the Lady Bird and Booksmart actress worked in a shop in Wolverhampton for several weeks where she practised the accent in a realistic environment. At the same panel discussion, Feldstein voiced her love of the West Midlands.

Despite the award winner’s gushing praise, accents from the region are often tarred with a negative brush. In fact, in a 2014 YouGov poll, the Birmingham accent was found to be the ‘least attractive’ accent in the UK. Despite their distinct differences, accents from the West Midlands are often confused and conflated. Professor Dudrah, from the Birmingham School of Media at Birmingham City University, explains that “the West Midlands is actually made up of a lot of different accents, two of which are the Black Country and Brummie accent.”

In the last six years, however, the latter accent has enjoyed some much-needed love from audiences across the globe thanks to the popular television show Peaky Blinders. The Steven Knight-created co-production between Caryn Mandabach Productions and Tiger Aspect, Screen Yorkshire and the BBC has commercialised England’s second city, and its accent to boot.

However, Dr Charlotte Stevens, a Research Fellow from the Birmingham School of Media at Birmingham City University thinks “it is disheartening that the chance for West Midlands accents to have a high profile comes from Peaky Blinders.” This is because of the “mostly white anti-heroes” that the show has by way of protagonists. Heroes and villains aside, the positive exposure that both Peaky Blinders and How to Build A Girl has given the region’s accents is refreshing.

Still, Dr Stevens succinctly summarises the beliefs of many born and bred Brummies, arguing “there’s still a way to go before [accents from the West Midlands] stop being used as punchlines.” That being said, Professor Dudrah, believes Peaky Blinders has “carved the way forward for Birmingham”.

Depolarising dialects

Professor Dudrah is optimistic that the success of Peaky Blinders will lead to a “broader array of regional accents and mainstream representation of the region’s true diversity”. When discussing diversity, the Birmingham professor believes that “audio is often forgotten” but “calls for diversity are both welcoming and challenging”. Beatfreeks Collective, a Birmingham-based collective of people and companies, empowers diverse voices in England’s second city. The company’s general manager, Amy Clamp, explains that Beatfreeks is a platform that supports young people in the creative industries. Since 2013, they have held weekly poetry jams where “young people share stories that are important to them” says Amy. Events organised by Beatfreeks are attended by numerous young creatives, with their annual event at Birmingham Town Hall giving some 400 young poets a place to share their stories.

As such, young creatives in Birmingham are choosing to tell their stories and share their voices in more realistic ways through poetry events, spoken word evenings and other creative endeavours as opposed to traditional forms of audio sharing such as films and television. Rose Dymock, a 23-year-old former film student from Birmingham, supports these musings: “it’s unusual to hear people who sound like me and my friend on TV – it’s the same with a lot of regional accents”.

Investing in the land

The film industry in the West Midlands is much more than the voices that are showcased on big screens. Through the evolution of film in Birmingham, more jobs are being created for those wanting to work in media who, previously, would have flocked to London or Manchester to pursue a career in the movies.

Increased funding and diverse filming locations have also helped the region gain recognition. Film Birmingham, Birmingham City Council’s Film and Television Office, sells itself as the one-stop shop for filmmakers who need a permit, crew and facilities. Thanks to Film Birmingham, in the last couple of years alone, the city has been the filming location for several blockbuster films, including Steven Spielberg’s 2018 sci-fi adventure Ready Player One, which was filmed in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, as well as an open car chase scene in Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle.

Further to the support that Film Birmingham provides, in November 2018 Creative England relaunched its regional investment fund. The West Midlands Production Fund, which is worth £2.5 million, is designed to aid development in the region. In particular, it focuses on creating a sustainable TV and film drama hub.

Solomon Nwabueze, Creative England’s Chief content officer, said there is a “focus on high-end television in particular”. Investing and showcasing in grassroots and sustainable talent in the West Midlands is an important endeavour for many across several media-orientated fields. To streamline such support, positive exposure of accents is a must because, as Professor Dudrah says, “having an accent and dialect should not be something to be ashamed of or shied away from, particularly if it’s the region where the film is based.”

Being proud, comfortable and confident with who you are is at the forefront of How To Build A Girl. In essence, it’s a story about a young ambitious woman who creates her own path, as a tenacious teenager who is adored by all who know and meet her, all while having that Wolverhampton twang.

Lead image: BigStock

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