There is no person who has ever lived, who is as important to modern Britons as Dick Van Dyke. Not William Shakespeare, not Winston Churchill, not Charles Darwin… I swear that I am not in the least joking: the American actor Dick Van Dyke has done more to define and uplift the modern people Britain and their collective psyche, than any other icon.
Of course if you ask a British person who their greatest national hero is, they’ll likely tell you about Mr Churchill, Isaac Newton or even John Lennon. But these famous figures actually come up quite rarely in conversation – they’re generally taken for granted on a day-to-day basis.
But they won’t shut up about Dick Van Dyke.
Ostensibly, Mr Van Dyke should be considered a villain, a punch-line to a joke involving poor accents and a comical misunderstanding of British culture. His much-derided “cockney” accent in the 1964 film “Mary Poppins” is truly tone-deaf, and is justifiably the basis for a good deal of his fame, or infamy. But there’s a bit more going on than meets the eye, when a poor performance from a minor actor from a film released more than 50 years ago continues to be so central to the zeitgeist of an entire nation.
If you Google the phrase “Dick Van Dyke accent,” you’ll get an inkling- there are dozens of recent news stories, video tributes, even an entire website devoted to Mr Van Dyke’s badly-delivered accent. Clearly Van Dyke’s role in that film has touched a nerve- hit upon some sensitivity in the national character.
Surprisingly though, mentioning his performance in Mary Poppins never provokes outrage or offense, despite all that universal disapprobation. Rather, it invariably elicits what can only be described as unrestrained joy. Mr Van Dyke is a gift that keeps on giving to modern Britain, prompting wide smiles, patronising laughter and invective-filled crowing every day, in every city, town and village, year after year after year.
For the record, I have never, not once, attempted to put on a cockney, or even an English accent in public, and yet I’ve been castigated with the label of “Dick Van Dyke” at least two dozen times, for such innocent crimes as pronouncing a place name like “Leicestershire,” not quite up to the exacting specification of the company I was in. Additionally, I’ll randomly overhear off-hand references to Mr Van Dyke at least once a month from colleagues, friends, or on the television, each and every time accompanied by mirthful snickering.
Why on earth would a half-century-old film role keep coming up over and over and over again?
Why? Because the Brits love him and need him, like Luke Skywalker needs Darth Vader. Like Captain Ahab needs Moby Dick. Like Chief Inspector Dreyfus needs Inspector Closeau. If you are going to define yourself in opposition to something: “Look how different we are than those bloody Americans”- than Dick Van Dyke is an angel sent to you from heaven.
Nothing makes a British person (an English person in particular), happier than thinking about Americans being unable to imitate their local accents or pronunciations. It reinforces this nation’s sense of distinctness and individuality, while creating a kind of cultural maginot line which no Yank may ever cross. If they dare attempt it, the example of Dick Van Dyke is there to remind them of the peril, like a modern-day Grimm’s fairy tale.
So if you’re an American, and you ever want to spread more delight than an ice-cream van in front of park on a summer’s day, go ahead and have a wander around London, greeting people with a hearty “‘ello, Guv’nor!” The locals will love you for it and they will practically shriek with glee the name of the greatest gift ever bestowed upon the people of this sceptered isle: Dick Van Dyke, British national treasure.