British Accents and a Bit of Film History

The movie studios currently promote their coming attractions through press junkets. The star sits in some hotel room with a poster or prop from the movie in the background, and then a zillion reporters are run through the room for a quick “exclusive interview”. Paul Newman likened the experience to being double parked in front of a whorehouse.

But before air travel was cheap enough to allow reporters to participate in the current junket system, the studios relied on trickery. Movie stars would be shot talking on the telephone on the right side of a split screen, and would answer questions written by the studio. The scripted questions would then be shared with members of the press, who would be filmed doing the left hand side of the screen, as if they were getting an exclusive telephone interview with the star.

That is the source of this clip of Peter Sellers during the making of my all-time favorite movie, Dr. Strangelove. The scripted question he is answering was to do some British accents for American audiences and he puts on an absolutely stunning display of verbal skill in response.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans and drugs. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and scholarly articles, and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is usually in London, where he is an ad hoc policy adviser to the national and city government, an honorary professor of psychiatry at Kings College, a senior editorial adviser to the journal Addiction, and a member of The Athenaeum. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London, he is usually in Washington D.C., where he serves as a frequent science and policy advisor to federal agencies, and where he has served previously as an appointee to a White House commission and several Secretarial task forces. From July 2009-2010, he served as Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London or Washington D.C., he is usually in the Middle East, where since 2004 he has volunteered in the international humanitarian effort to rebuild Iraq’s mental health care system. This work has taken him to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to teach and consult with Iraqi health professionals and policy makers.

7 thoughts on “British Accents and a Bit of Film History”

  1. It’s also my favorite movie of all time and (IMO, of course) Stanley Kubrick’s Best.Movie.Ever. Better than 2001: A Space Odyssey, better than Barry Lyndon, better than A Clockwork Orange. Don’t let’s talk about Eyes Wide Shut.

    I’m often curious about how it would have turned out if Sellers had played Major Kong (as he was scheduled to, until he injured his leg). Slim Pickens is so perfect in that role that I have trouble imagining Sellers doing it as well. That he would have done it as well I don’t doubt, but he would also have done it differently.

  2. Pity no Scouse or Yorkshire. I don’t think he brought out the full incomprehensibility of Glasgow Scots, the verbal analogy of being assaulted by a drunk in a dark alley with a broken bottle. Which can also happen to you.
    Handy guide here to the differences and commonalties between Cockney and Estuary. Both say Ga’wi’ airport; only Cockneys say Heafro.

  3. At one point, my friend discovered a tape of an “interview” where only answers had been recorded. Digging a little deeper he discovered a whole cache of such interviews. The background was “flexible”–it could have been edited to reflect any interior setting the broadcasting station desired. The film would be taken, like the phone interview clip, as a part of the “interview” and the local broadcaster would fill the scripted questions, making it appear as if the local film critic was interviewing a top star. To have an even more dishonest effect, the locals could even insert a clip of the critic sitting in an arm chair similar to the “star”. The whole setup was extremely dishonest, but it wasn’t much different from any other scripted press opportunity.

  4. I always thought it would be fun to have a James Bond plot that would turn on all the different UK accents, with people faking them and then reverting under pressure.

    It would go over my head though. I can’t tell an Aussie from a Cockney from a …

    1. A remake of the original Casino Royale (the one not done by Cubby Broccoli, with both Peter Sellers and Woody Allen) could be based on that sort of gimmick.

      1. I’m not sure I saw that one. I’ll have to look it up.

        I love accents. I hope they aren’t disappearing.

  5. @ShadowFox:

    Those “interviews” (without the questions) are on the 2001 Special Edition of the DVD for Dr. Strangelove, which I own. It’s called the “Original Split-screen Interview with Peter Sellers and George C. Scott. It’s also included on later Special Editions. I see that the 2004 40th Anniversary Special Edition (which I don’t have) has an interview with Robert McNamara.

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