In the US, we’ll often talk about someone speaking in a “British” accent, but we rarely feel the need to be any more specific than this. Of course, there’s no such thing as a British accent — there are dozens and dozens of them. The United Kingdom may be only 94,000 square miles in size (which is to say, a little bit smaller than Michigan), and yet there is a far wider range of accents to be heard here than in the US. (I checked to make sure I wasn’t just making this up, and the socio-linguists back me up resoundingly.)
I also think it’s reasonable to suggest that accents in the UK convey much more information than they do in America, since they tend to tell you not just where a speaker comes from, but usually something about their social class and their level of education as well. Of course there’s this dimension to American accents as well, but in Britain it seems to me that these distinctions are more emphatic, and as a result, that listeners are more attentive to these nuances.
By the way, if you ever get a chance to hear Stephen Fry’s amazing readings of the Harry Potter series as audiobooks, you’ll hear a fantastic assemblage of British accents. Fry manages to differentiate between nearly one hundred different characters in the series, mostly by giving them distinctive, carefully chosen accents that add a brilliant texture to the books. (For the record, though, I should confess that I’m a little baffled by what he does with Tonks… Why is she from Burnley?)
Also, if you want to explore the range of British accents a little, you should check out the Sounds Familiar page at the British Library website. It’s awesome.
Anyways, all of this rambling preamble is meant to introduce a famous clip of The Beatles performing before the Queen at the Royal Variety Performance in 1963.
When Beatlemania came to the US in 1964, one of the things Americans loved most were the Fabs’ charming “British” accents. But of course in Britain their accents came across in an entirely different way. In those days, most British singers chose to adopt a very proper accent, the sort of accent most people would describe as “the Queen’s English” or “BBC English” (although technically it is called “Received Pronunciation.”) It’s a somewhat artificial accent, but it registers to most listeners as a London-area accent, an educated accent, and an upper class (or at least upper-middle class) accent. The Beatles, however, refused to adjust their Liverpudlian accents when they became successful, and in fact they often exaggerated them to make themselves sound even more provincial and working class. Apparently John’s Aunt Mimi was aghast by the way they played up the Scouse accents on BBC Radio — she told him that she had brought him up better than this.
The clip below begins with an interview with John before the Royal Variety Performance where he is told that Ted Heath (who was then Trade Secretary, but later Prime Minister) had complained that he couldn’t understand what the Beatles were saying. John’s response is priceless — first mocking “Teddy’s” upper crust accent and then adding: “We’re not going to vote for Ted.”
The footage here shows three of the four songs they performed that day, but the one I had in mind when I chose this was “Till There Was You,” since Paul’s accent comes through so clearly — especially on the line “There were birds in the sky / But I never sarr them winging…” But John’s performance on “Twist and Shout” is one for the books as well.