May 16, 2010

Has Cultural Cringe reinfected NZ?

John Smythe      posted 15 May 2010, 12:09 PM / edited 15 May 2010, 12:21 PM

The review of TJ McDONALD: A Mâori Ate My Great Granddad  by Lillian Richards has disturbed me.

“I have to admit to finding all things more amusing and/or more interesting when in a foreign accent,” she wrote,“… and so I sometimes find a Kiwi act painful and have to dress it up in a foreign tongue.”

Does Lillian speak for a whole generation who have lost sight of John Clarke/Fred Dagg, Ginette MacDonald/Lynn of Tawa and Billy T James, and have never tuned into the countless successors who have graced the ever-growing Comedy Festival for years and years – most of whom have not sent up the Kiwi accent but have used it simply because it is their authentic voice?

When I was a lad, anyone wanting to amuse their mates tended to lapse into Cockney a-la- Dudley Moore – or something similar – in order to sound funny. And if they wanted to sound tough, or like a salesman, they’d do American. So sad. Is it really possible we have suffered a relapse to that sort of (lack of) consciousness?

Yes, Lillian did enjoy TJ’s performance, but only “because it had that touch of international wit about it. Although he doesn’t roll his r’s,” she wrote, “there is a hint of ‘not afraid to admit intelligence’ about the show that so smacked of other cultures, you know, ones where it’s not ‘gay’ to possess a working knowledge of politics or have a vague grasp of history and geography.”

Come on. Michelle A’Court, Benjamin Crellin, Jeremy Elwood, Raybon Kan, Te Radar and The Lonesome Buckwhips spring to mind instantly as intelligent comedians whose material has always been steeped in politics, history and geography. 

Can it be that the international success of Flight of the Conchords, Rhys Darby and Taika Waititi has had no effect on Gen Y’s sense of cultural self-esteem?

It must be 20-odd years ago that teenagers – tuned in daily to Neighbours and Home and Away – were surveyed to see if they’d like a homegrown soap, and a majority said they would “provided it wasn’t done in New Zealand accents.” I had fondly believed Shortland Street turned them around and moved them off their cultural cringe. Did they not grow up to whole-heartedly embrace Outrageous Fortune?

So what’s going on here? Is Lillian out on her own or speaking for the many who are lacking in cultural self-esteem through social neglect because, raised on Sesame Street, they have been fed all their lives on a majority diet of American, British and Australian television, film and theatre, plus pop songs that sound American no matter where they come from?

Has New Zealand as a valued cultural distinction really become invisible to a whole new generation?  

Corin Havers       posted 15 May 2010, 04:32 PM

Lillian doesn’t represent a generation.  The particular group of people that Lillian represents (and they come in  a wide range of  ages) will sadly always be with us, whatever decade it is.

Michael Smythe                posted 15 May 2010, 05:09 PM / edited 15 May 2010, 05:09 PM

Twenty years ago my partner and I put together a sesquicentennial slide lecture about New Zealand culture expressed through art, craft and design. In the process we coined the aphorism ‘culture is like an accent – it’s something everyone else has got.’ Is that still true? Culture with a small c is simply who we are being so we don’t see it as clearly as the exotic.

It seems that one effect of the growth of mass communications and globalisation over the past two decades has been an increased ability to see ourselves in context, accompanied by an increasing confidence in just being who we are. So yes, it comes as a shock when a New Zealand theatre reviewer confesses to seeing an accent as evidence of a (superior) culture. Maybe it’s a flashback resulting from an adolescent addiction to the exotic.

Dane Giraud       posted 16 May 2010, 08:40 PM

Sadly, guys, cultural content can never be a substitute for artistic excellance and this is what people, in their need for entertainment, search out… what is good. And, from where I am standing, plenty of people are enjoying NZ works right now, so what’s the issue? If a few people have a problem with the accent, that’s neither here nor there… It’s a personal choice indicative of nothing. It’s not sad Corin. It just is.

Culteral specifics, in our world (the arts) are window dressing. It’s the cherry on top of the sponge of the idea. Many, sadly, are caught in this top layer and just as many are mediocre. Others assert that it is their culture alone that makes their art relevant. How? The problems of existence are what’s really important.

Was it really so sad that school kids in your day imitated Dudley Moore? He and Peter Cook were innovative comedians in anyones language. If they were responding to what genuinely intrigued or entertained them, I can’t see the issue.

John Smythe      posted 16 May 2010, 09:41 PM

Of course it was natural and fine to imitate comedians of the day. What was sad, Dane, was that we did our own jokes in Dud’s voice because we couldn’t conceive of being funny in a Kiwi accent. If comedy and art are rooted in truth how can not being true to yourself rate as anything but phoney?

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