First, you need to understand that in England – in the sixties, and I imagine still to a greater degree than here – actors became actors because they loved acting, not because they were hungry for the spotlight. It wasn’t an ego thing. At least not entirely. They enjoyed doing the job.
As a result of this unqualified enthusiasm, at any time, you would find the finest English actors performing onstage – both in the West End (comparable to Broadway) and in more remote theatrical venues – in feature films, on TV – in pedestrian series, as well as in vaunted miniseries – and most surprisingly, at least to an observer from this side of the ocean, on the radio.
The BBC had a longstanding tradition – though I imagine all traditions are longstanding – of broadcasting full-length radio plays, both the classics and some new stuff. As of the sixties, radio remained dear to the English people’s hearts, owing to an umbilical attachment they’d developed for it during the war. (World War II.) Radio mattered there, and the plays produced on it bore the esteem and affection the medium continued to retain.
I enjoyed listening to those radio plays. They were well chosen, skillfully written and produced, and the performances by, as I mentioned, Britain’s finest actors, was consistent and enlivening. Sometimes, however, they chose American plays, or English plays that included American characters.
The “Yanks” in those plays were inevitably played by English actors. These actors, or at least these actors when portraying American characters, were all – and I mean every one of them – awful.
It hurt my teeth to listen to them.
English actors playing Americans generated “Yikes!” moments that pulled you right out of the reality they were endeavoring to create. The writing didn’t help either. (Here, I’m referring to the new plays.) Efforts at natural, American dialogue exposed a transparent English accent. “American” characters, whom you expected to say in a situation, “Go lie down” instead said, “Go have a lie-down.”
That’s not the way Americans say that.
English actors do much better now – that House guy could “pass” anywhere – but in those radio plays in the sixties, English actors playing Americans were tin eared, off-key, tone-deaf stinkeroo.
I’d been attending the Actors’ Workshop three times a week for almost a year. I was getting better. I’m an actor, or at least I was called an actor in class. And I’m listening to these fine British actors mangling the American dialect. So one day, in a moment of hubris, or what's as close as my personality will allow me to get to confidence, I decided to write the BBC a letter.
Dear (whoever was high up at BBC Radio Drama Department, I don’t know how I got their name):
I am an actor, currently studying at the Actors’ Workshop in London. I am a regular listener to your radio plays, and I enjoy them very much. However, I have noticed that when English actors play American characters, their performances are not as satisfying as when English actors play English characters.
I was born in Canada. I know how to talk like an American. It’s my natural way of speaking. I’m not saying I’m the world’s greatest actor, but I believe that I can be more convincing playing American characters than the actors that I’m hearing on the radio. All I ask is that you give me a chance to come in and show you what I can do.
Thank you for your time and attention.
(and my address).
A couple of weeks later, I receive this letter from the BBC.
Dear Mr. Pomerantz,
We have received your letter concerning your desire to audition for our productions. We appreciate your interest.
As to your request, we are unable to accommodate you at this time. However, here is what we suggest you do:
First, enroll in a reputable four-year dramatic academy. After that, find employment in repertory theatre outside London, and work there continually for at least two years. Then, find employment in the West End for another two years. After which, you may resubmit your request.
Thank you again, and good luck.
(A Guy From the BBC.)
That’s what they wrote back. Try back in eight years. Maybe I could do the job now, maybe I couldn’t. It didn’t matter. As far as the BBC was concerned, I wasn’t qualified to do the job. Which disqualified me from being considered for it.
What kind of a country is that?!
The hostel I was living in was closing down; there was the prospect of finding a new place to live. I was languishing in a dead-end teaching job. I was shivering through a second English winter. During my stay, my closest thing to a meaningful relationship had been a thirty-second mime experience in a London Underground station. (“A Surreal Moment I Liked” – February 13, 2009.)
And now, having been informed that my natural ability was irrelevant, and I was instead required to follow the an arduous and uncertain protocol
I decided it was time to go home.
Coming Soon: Transatlanticking on the Queen Elizabeth.