Doyle’s accent

One of the most entertaining features of the Canadian television series Murdoch Mysteries, about a police detective working in Toronto in the years around 1900, is the appearance of some of the more colorful historical personalities of the period, including Thomas Edison, Emma Goldman, Winston Churchill, Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle, in particular, makes several visits to Toronto and becomes friends with Murdoch. He is played by an actor named Geraint Wyn Davies who is (what else?) Welsh-born but who has divided his acting career — much of it Shakespearean — between Canada and England. What struck me was that Davies portrayed the Edinburgh-born as speaking with the standard accent (called RP) of the educated English. I wondered about that.

I found out that Doyle went to school, from age 9 to 16, at a Jesuit institution in Lancashire, England, and so it stood to reason that, if only out of conformity, he might have adopted an English accent. (In my own case, when I first came to Los Angeles at the age of 15½, I spoke English with something very much like RP, but it didn’t take me very long to sound like a Californian.) While he went back to Edinburgh for university, he soon thereafter moved to southern England and stayed there for the rest of his life.This information allayed my concerns about Doyle’s accent.

I have just watched the ITV series Arthur and George, starring Martin Clunes (of Doc Martin fame) as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Here Clunes, a lifelong Londoner who spoke pure RP as Doc Martin, plays Doyle with a soft Scottish accent (for which he received coaching). There has been a lot of lively discussion in Britain about this aspect of his performance, including some criticism, but several Scots have commented on the seeming Edinburgh authenticity of his speech. But is it authentic Doyle?

There is, in fact a clear answer to this last question: a filmed interview with Doyle (who is the only one on camera) is available on YouTube. There is very little that is Scottish in Doyle’s speech; the “long o” (as in ‘Holmes’), “long a” (as in ‘name’) and “long i” (as in ‘time’) are decidedly southern English, though ‘chance’ and ‘look’ sound more northern (Lancashire?). His prevocalic r, however, has a distinctly tapped or flapped quality (one not usually heard in Edinburgh any longer). Whether this is a Scotticism or a vestige of older RP, it’s hard to know.

It’s surprising that neither Davies nor Clunes took the trouble to listen to the recording and adopt its speech features; it’s something British actors are supposedly good at.

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