Getting Distracted From Christopher and His Kind

Yep, I’m titling another blog post ‘Getting Distracted From…’. This is not so much an attempt at asinine self-branding, but simply testament to the fact that getting distracted is my intellectual modus operandi – anyone who has ever been taught by me will be able to confirm this. I caught up with last week’s Christopher and His Kind on the iplayer; a one-off BBC2 drama about the time novelist Christopher Isherwood (Matt Smith) spent in Weimar Berlin.

There is a further link to my recent Getting Distracted from The King’s Speech post here, in that Christopher and His KindChristopher and His Kind is another factually inspired drama set in the 1930s. Hot on the heels of BBC1’s South Riding, and as part of the BBC’s stated intention to ease off on its over-reliance on the 19th century for its costume dramas, the inter-war period looks set to become the BBC drama period de jour, in a veritable crop-rotation of adaptation. But I’m getting distracted from what it is that was distracting me whilst watching Christopher and His Kind: the casting of British actors for non-British parts.

This is often directly related to the size of the budget; usually, the more high-end the production, the more likely it is that native speakers will have been cast to play non-British characters. Christopher and His Kind, interestingly, has a mixture; both native German speakers and non-German native speakers play German characters. I should immediately point out that the accents of the non-German speakers playing German characters in Christopher and His Kind aren’t bad; no ‘ve haf vays of making you talk’ nonsense here. Their accents are just not… right, either. They sound not really like anything I recognize from non-fiction, and much more like a copy of a copy of a copy.

One scene stands out to me in particular; when Isherwood’s lover Heinz Neddermayer (Douglas Booth) is confronted by hisChristopher and His Kind brother Gerhardt (Tom Wlaschiha) over their very different ideological views. Watching the scene, I try to focus on the emotionally charged moment and immerse myself in the frame of fiction, but find myself unable to ignore the all-too evident fact that while German-born Wlaschiha speaks akzentfreies Deutsch, his on-screen brother most certainly does not.

This is not meant as a criticism of Douglas Booth at all. He is a talented actor (who I’m sure has had some voice coaching for the role), and an interesting casting choice given that he played Boy George in BBC2’s 2010 Worried About the Boy. But in a galaxy far, far away from the TARDIS’s translator function, watching two brothers divided by an uncommon language, I can’t help thinking that surely it could have been possible to find a suitable German actor for this role.

I am of course aware that this is a minor quibble at a time when the BBC has to deal with a license fee freeze et cetera; that unless you happen to have a certain command of the German language, you are unlikely to notice this issue in the first place. But I do, and it’s distracting me.

3 comments

  1. Nice point Simone, I got distracted (when I wasn’t, to be honest, a bit bored by the whole drama) myself by Matt Smith’s approximation of Isherwood’s accent coming out of The Doctor/Danny Foster from Party Animals body. I think the clipped middle-class and upwards 1930s accent is a bit of a barrier to contemporary audience assimilation at the best of times, which I think hampers the Beeb’s recent obsession with the ’30s (and we must remember a cost-effective one, the real reason, i’d wager, than the proclaimed ideological reason for the shift away from bonnets).

    I did wonder about the German-ness of the German language segments a bit as I recognised Booth (tho more as a ‘it’s that guy who looks like a 1980s arena poster) and knew he wasn’t German. I considered whether it might be a German co-production, after the model of The Sinking of the Laconia, but nope, a Beeb production shot in Northern Ireland (which I think approximated 1940s Britain in Small Island too, an interesting development). It’s low-budget non-co-prod, so prob not made for export (i’ll bet it was a generic BBC4 biopic that was bumped up to BBC2 thru Matt Smith’s stardom and ramping up to new Doctor Who)

    Though, I suppose, it’s a thing you don’t notice unless you’re a native speaker. Just like when I complain about US actors shitty Brit accents, when there are surely many appropriate Brit actors in the US and US friends don’t notice. Plus the current vogue for British and Australian actors as male US TV leads generates lots of critical complaints about rubbish generic American accents – current culprits including dear old Egg from This Life fighting zombies in The Walking Dead. Not everyone can be Hugh Laurie in House!

  2. indeed, not everyone can: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/film/3032052.stm

    they apparently had the money to have matt smith jet over to the states to visit isherwood’s partner as part of his preparation for the role, but couldn’t spend just a little more on vocal coaching to help booth get through the german ‘ch’ and ‘r’ without sounding like he’s doing his mouth a mischief…

  3. Thank you, Simone, for pointing out the German accent “problem” in TV productions. Although I haven’t seen any of the British dramas you refer to, I have noticed similarly questionable casting choices in American TV series. For example, the 30 Rock episode “210” (season 2, episode 10, as the title implies) features a group of German TV executives whose German is almost as horrible as Liz Lemon’s. Or, in an episode of The King of Queens (“Clothes Encounter”, 5:21), there is a shop assistant who first speaks English with an indefinable foreign accent and then talks to her colleague in a German that is rather difficult to understand for a native speaker (watch this scene at http://www.tbs.com/video/index/0,,103727%7C%7C,00.html).

    I doubt that the low-budget argument, which might in fact be an issue for UK productions, applies to US sitcoms produced by major networks such as CBS and NBC. Neither do I believe that there are not enough German actors available in either the UK or the US. Instead, the fact that non-German natives are frequently cast to play German characters may have more to do with a possible reluctance on the part of casting agencies to represent German actors, especially in Hollywood where film and TV roles for Germans are extremely rare. In other words, there might be a de facto exclusion of German actors from the (formal and informal) casting networks, so that even if TV producers were, in theory, willing to hire native German speakers, they might not have immediate access to a reasonably large pool of German talent to choose from. Investing additional time and resources to find German natives will not be justified in most cases, considering the predominantly non-German-speaking audience – which brings me back to the last point you made: “unless you happen to have a certain command of the German language, you are unlikely to notice this issue in the first place”. We, as those few native German speakers who watch the non-dubbed version of the shows in question, are a miniscule minority, and apparently nobody cares about how distracted we get by incomprehensible “German” or fake German accents.

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