Some time ago I wrote a poem, published on my poetry page at Writeoutloud, called Sounds like Richard Burton.
I wrote it a while ago and I was perhaps feeling somewhat dissatisfied with my accent, one that reflects my own Manchester council estate background. Someone once told me that I sounded like Terry Christian, the Manchester DJ and radio personality. I don’t dislike Terry or his voice but I sometimes feel that I’d like to sound a little more cultured. A little more refined.
So who would I like to sound like? Richard Burton? Well, I have always loved the richness of Burton’s voice, his perfect pronunciation and his rounded baritone vowels.
He was the son of a Welsh miner and his voice represented not only a natural talent for public speaking but many years of hard work and vocal training. Despite the title of my poem and my admiration of Burton’s voice, Richard Burton is not quite what I am looking for. So who has that particular Englishness that I want?
David Niven as Phileas Fogg.
I’ve always admired the character of Phileas Fogg as portrayed by David Niven in that wonderful movie Around the World in 80 days. I like the way he speaks, his easy and relaxed effortless eloquence, his perfect pronunciation and his knowledge of words. His very Britishness, his upper class Englishness is perhaps what I envy.
Fogg is something of an eccentric which surely must be part of the essential Englishman’s make up. His morning toast must be exactly 83 degrees Fahrenheit and his afternoon tea has to be served punctually. At the beginning of the film Fogg arrives at the Reform Club to find someone has read his copy of the Daily Telegraph!
“Kindly remove it and send for a fresh one.” says Fogg.
“At once, sir.” replies the waiter.
“I’m a patient man, Hinshaw, but don’t trespass on my good feelings.”
Robert Donat as Sir Robert Morton.
Another upper class Englishman is Robert Donat’s character in The Winslow Boy, the barrister and Member of Parliament Sir Robert Morton. There is a lovely sequence in the play and the movie where Morton first arrives at the Winslow home. He is received by master Winslow’s elder sister who questions Moreton about his recent cases and lets us know she does not entirely approve of him. Moreton is in a hurry. He is dining and the Winslow family wish to know if he will accept the case.
Morton answers her questions coolly and quietly and them some minutes later, displays all his powers as a barrister by apparently assassinating young Winslow’s claims to innocence.
He exits quickly asking for the relevant papers.
“Will you need those now?” asks someone.
“Of course. The boy is plainly innocent. I accept the brief !” And with that he is gone.
Rex Harrison as Charles Condomine.
Another favourite Englishman is Rex Harrison and I’ve always loved him most in Blithe Spirit, the witty and amusing comedy by Noel Coward. David Lean directed a colour version in 1945 and Rex was just as I’ve described David Niven above, effortlessly urbane and eloquent, as of course was Noel Coward himself.
Leslie Howard as Professor Higgins.
Rex Harrison also portrayed an archetypal Englishman in My Fair Lady, playing the part of professor Higgins in the musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. There was an earlier version, a non musical version made in 1938 starring Leslie Howard. Howard is probably most famous for his portrayal of Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind but his version of Higgins was to me, much superior to Harrison’s although I love both.
In Pygmalion, Wendy Hiller plays Eliza Doolittle. Hiller is much more believable as Eliza, no disrespect to Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, and Howard is a bright, eccentric Higgins. What is interesting from researching the film on the internet is that a controversial (at the time) line was included in the film: Eliza saying ‘Not Bloody Likely!’ This made Wendy Hiller the first person ever to swear in a British film. Dear me, how times change!
George Sanders as Jack Favell.
Sanders was born in Russia to an English father and Russian mother and he and his family left for England in 1917 at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution when George was 11.
He made his British film debut in 1929 and first appeared in a Hollywood film in 1936. After that he was in constant demand with his suave persona and upper class English accent. He is seen at his best as Jack Favell, the ‘favourite cousin’ of the unseen title character Rebecca, in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie.
Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton.
Finally, I must come back to what is really me, the essential northern working class man.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is set in working class Nottingham. Albert Finney stars as Arthur Seaton, a rebellious factory worker who works hard in the factory by day, but at the weekend he spends his money in the pubs and clubs of the town.
He is involved with a married woman but starts to lose interest when he meets a single girl called Doreen and begins a relationship with her.
My favourite line from the book and the movie is this: “I’m not barmy, I’m a fighting pit prop that wants a pint of beer, that’s me. But if any knowing bastard says that’s me I’ll tell them I’m a dynamite dealer waiting to blow the factory to kingdom come. I’m me and nobody else. Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not because they don’t know a bloody thing about me!”
I sometimes wonder if the essential Englishman portrayed by Niven, Donat, Harrison and Howard still exists in the 21st century. I’m sure it does somewhere, in the posh parts of London and the home counties. People who travel first class everywhere and dress for dinner. Members of Prince Charles’ set perhaps?
As for me, I’m not sure I can really aspire to be like David Niven and Phileas Fogg. Still, next time I go down to the Ego restaurant in Lytham I might dress up in my best suit and tie, pop a pocket watch and chain in my waistcoat and just . . pretend.
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