Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ask The A.V. Club: February 12, 2007

Every week, Ask The A.V. Club tackles readers' questions about pop-culture. Sometimes two at a time:

Acute Accents

This is something I've been wondering about for some time now. Why is it that in movies about ancient Rome or Greece or even medieval Spain, the actors almost always speak in English accents? Obviously, their use of English at all is inaccurate, but necessary for English-speaking audiences (and actors who don't speak dead languages). But why the accent? Is it just because it sounds old-fashioned and sophisticated to us Americans?

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Joe Ketner

How do actors/actresses with British or Australian accents pull off American accents so well? I'm talking Naomi Watts, Christian Bale, and so on. Yet when an American tries to pull off a British or Australian accent, it usually sounds forced and fake.

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Eric Grubbs

Noel Murray replies, in a light Southern drawl:

The tradition of classical civilizations getting a British spin dates back to Shakespeare, who frequently wrote about the ancient world. Since British actors came to be associated with the Bard's version of Rome/Greece/Egypt/et al., audiences grew accustomed to hearing those accents coming out of the mouths of men wearing togas. Whenever we hear Tony Curtis saying "yonduh lies the land of my fadduh" in Spartacus, it sounds vulgar. Also, we tend to think of ancient cultures as kind of effete—again, it's the togas—and the clipped eloquence of classically trained British actors matches those preconceived notions. Sometimes, the priggish British sound becomes a kind of storytelling shorthand. In some sword-and-sandal epics, only the bad guys speak the Queen's English. The heroes sound more like regular joes.

The accent cliché has become so pervasive that even American actors feel obliged to adopt a phony British tone when they're pretending to be centurions or emperors. And as Eric points out, most Americans suck at accents—including Southern accents, which are ostensibly American. As to why UK types have such an affinity for sounding like us, part of the credit is due to a different kind of theatrical training, and part of it is due to the fact that it's easier to "lazy up" the voice into something flat and nasal than it is to make it deeper and airier. The British tend to be especially good at gentlemanly Southern accents—far better than Americans—because at its core, the proper Southern accent is practically unadulterated Old World, without the melting-pot flavor of the immigrant-heavy northeast. Listen to upper-crust Georgians, Virginians, or Mississippians sometime; it can be hard to discern their origins.

As an aside, I'm not sure why accent adoption is necessary most of the time. There are certainly Americans living in London, Brits living in L.A., and even New York natives living in Atlanta. Let people be who they are. Audiences will adjust.

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Easy And Hard

Back in 1994 or 1995, there was a song that I heard played often on alternative radio for a few months before it disappeared from the airwaves entirely. It was loud and grungy, with a singer who I remember sounding a lot like Dave Grohl. Also, I distinctly remember the chorus being "Hear me out" repeated over and over again, and a lyric along the lines of, "I'll be the asshole for a while / I know it's hard, but I can do it / You'll be the asshole later on."

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Justyn Lopaczynski

My question concerns a television show I can recall watching as a youngster. I want to say it was during the 21 Jump Street era, and it concerned a young detective by the name of "bean" or something like that. I very clearly recall the opening sequence, which was an animated bean doing… something. The main character was some sort of high-school-aged detective.

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E. Fallon

Noel again, with a little info and a little scolding:

Here we have a case study in the two kinds of "identify this" questions we get here at Ask The A.V. Club. The first one is pretty easy to answer. A quick search of online lyric databases reveals that Justyn is thinking of "Weird-Out" by Dandelion, a short-lived post-grunge band that Sony tried to break wide a couple of years too soon. No offense, Justyn, but we've never heard that song, and we got the answer just by typing the lyrics you provided into a search engine. We appreciate the question, but you could've found that out yourself.

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But the second question is tougher, since it requires either the patience to sort through every IMDB character listing featuring the word "bean" (Guess what? A lot of them star Rowan Atkinson.) or the kind of obsessive collection of mass-media reference books that makes an A.V. Clubber an A.V. Clubber. In this case, we got our help from Alex McNeil's invaluable Total Television, which includes the prime-time schedules of every major network from 1948 to 1995, when the most recent edition was published. Poring over the post-Jump Street listings reveals an imperfect match for E. Fallon: The New Adventures Of Beans Baxter, which ran for 17 episodes on Fox in 1987 and '88. It's about a teen spy, not a teen detective, but the show was created by "Savage" Steve Holland, who frequently livened up his movie and TV projects with animation. Here's hoping that puts E. Fallon's mind at rest.

Ask An A.V. Club Intern

We've still got our intern staff digging through the piles of "identify this vague memory of mine" email. This week, dedicated intern Steve Gillies has all the answers: 

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This is an obscure one. When I was a kid, during afternoon cartoons, the local station would often run a PSA about fire safety starring Daffy Duck and a few other Warner Bros. characters interacting with some live-action kids. It told you to buy a smoke detector, not leave wires around to trip on, and plan escape routes from your house in case of fire. I remember the flesh-and-blood children in this spot were unbelievably annoying—the boy managed to add two or three extra syllables to the phrase "escape routes." But it's the girl who has haunted me for years. When discussing, I think, the smoke detectors, she tells us that they must be… something that sounds like "Take to make." But that's not a thing people say, or a thing that means anything in English. What the hell was she really saying? Please and thanks,

Noah Smith

The PSAs came from a film called An Ounce of Prevention made for the Shriner's Burn Institute in Cincinnati; later, it was broken up into excerpts for ABC Saturday-morning cartoons. Considered a rarity, the film combines live-action, animation, Mel Blanc playing himself, and classroom shock-film footage of burn victims. As for finding out what the little girl said, that's a pretty tall order. An Ounce Of Prevention was originally on 16mm film, and video copies are rare, though they occasionally pop up on eBay. (Forget about DVD.) Your best chance of tracking it down would be contacting a library, as they tend to stock old-timey A.V. "educational materials."

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I remember a book I read when I was a kid (mid-'70s) about this boy who had to live with some evil relatives after his parents died. He found a jar of magical ointment that caused wings to grow out of his back temporarily. It struck me because there was an end of the magic he had to consider, since there was a finite supply of the ointment, plus I remember it causing him serious pain when the wings grew in. And of course, how cool would it be to be able to grow wings? Very, that's how cool.I have a feeling it was illustrated, but it was not a picturebook. I might be combining parts of James And The Giant Peach in my recollection about the evil relatives, but I'm pretty sure the rest of it is right. I have searched for all the keywords about this I can think of, as well as searching book sites, but I just can't come up with it. Does this ring a bell?

Mike Rainey

You're thinking of Black And Blue Magic, written by Zilpha Keatley Snyder and illustrated by Gene Holtan. It tells the story of Harry Houdini Marco, a shy, clumsy boy whose friends are all moving to the suburbs. He dreads a long, dreary summer until a mysterious Mr. Mazeek shows up with the aforementioned magical flying ointment. The book is still in print, so you shouldn't have too much trouble finding it.

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When I was young, I saw a brief clip from this movie, and it has remained in my mind as one of my most frightening memories. There was a middle-aged woman in her house, and she was on the phone with her husband, who I believe was played by John Candy. She was saying that she was afraid to open the front door, I think it may have been Halloween. The husband tells her it is fine to open the door, so she does, and there is a small figure who looks like Beetlejuice. After looking at her for a few seconds, the figure snaps out a gun. (Well, I thought it was a gun.) The woman screams or faints, and the movie then cuts to the husband (John Candy) at a hockey game or something. He is high up in the stands, and he sees spirits or ghosts rising from the rink or court. Here's the thing: I'm not sure if this was supposed to be a scary movie. To me, it was serious and real, but again, I was young and may have missed the intended humor or absurdity of the situation. I had no idea what was going on, and have been perplexed by this fractured memory for years. I'd like to know the name of the movie. (I looked through John Candy's filmography on imdb.com, and couldn't find a movie that sounded like this, so that part may be wrong.) Thanks,

Brad

If you look a little closer at that filmography, you'll see that John Candy actually has a horror movie to his credit. A young, pre-SCTV Candy starred in 1976's The Clown Murders. The plot revolves around people dressing up as clowns, so that may be where your little Beetlejuice-looking guy comes from. Also, it does take place on Halloween. None of the plot summaries explicitly mention hockey, but we are talking about a movie made in Canada. It shouldn't be impossible to track down on VHS, and chances are it's the movie that you're talking about, though your memories are non-specific enough that you may be conflating more than one film. Is it worth it to sit through what by all accounts is a fairly terrible movie to know for sure? That depends on just how scared that scene made you as a kid, and how scared the prospect of watching a movie with a John Candy sex scene makes you as an adult.

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This was on TV around 1980, and here's what I remember. Three kids, maybe four, work/hang around at some place which may or may not be a bookstore. They are terrorized by the dreaded Councilman Don Eden, who might also have been a landlord or tax collector. All of a sudden, the kids are in space, trapped in a maze-like space station, which is constructed using the spheres-connected-by-tubes motif. At each sphere, they have to correctly answer a question in order to tube off to the next sphere. If they miss the question, then something bad happens to them, because they are at the mercy of the dreaded Duneden, who I seem to remember was just a floating head played by the same actor as Don Eden.

Here's the kicker: This was on PBS! We actually watched this in school. This was before elementary schools could afford VCRs, so the teacher would wheel in the big color TV and tune it to the local PBS station at the appropriate time of day. The local paper's TV schedule listed "Educational Programming" as one big six-hour block, so I could never watch it on my own when I played sick (unless I wanted to watch the entire block, which really defeats the purpose of playing sick). I was in third, fourth, or fifth grade, which means it was broadcast between 1978 and 1981. The show was cool in a cheesy Land Of The Lost way, and just as addictive. I don't think I ever saw more than three or four episodes, so I might be leaving out big parts of the story. Any help is welcome!

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One more question: Do you guys have a permanent link to Ask The A.V. Club on your home page? The temporary banner link cycles off in about a day, so if I wait until Wednesday, I have to search for that Monday's edition in your archives. Thanks!

Kyle

The show you're thinking of is Read All About It! Produced by TV Ontario, it ran for two seasons, starting in 1981. The basic aim was to get kids excited about reading and writing, although the Dr. Who-style plots also managed to scare the bejesus out of a few along the way. Just to fill in a few gaps from your description, the kids hang out in a coach house where they run a newspaper. Don Eden is the mayor of the town, and also secretly a galactic tyrant named Duneedon. (Nice job on remembering that name!) You can fill in the rest of the gaps yourself over on YouTube, where some kind soul has uploaded the entire series.

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Editor's note: As to your second question, Kyle, because our launch pages (the main individual pages for DVD, Music, Words, etc.) come with archives and backlogged installments of each given feature, we've been waiting until Ask The A.V. Club had been around for a bit to give it its own permanent link off the main page, and its own launch page. But look for one soon.

Next week: Games, games, and more games. And should people believe in The Aristocrats? Send your questions to asktheavclub@theonion.com.

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