Daivd Usborne: Our Man In New York

I say 'tomahto', you say, 'Cute, where can I learn?'
Click to follow

It happens most often on aeroplanes and in bars, most recently in Manchester, New Hampshire. I ask for a glass of water; the response is polite puzzlement. But I know the drill well by now. "Warder. A glass of warder, please." Coming right up.

I often make allowances when conversing with Americans, in pronunciation and idiom. I have even been known to pronounce tomato the potato way.

I worry that this is a slippery slope: how long before this leaves me with speech that no longer identifies me as British? English friends tell me the condition is already well advanced. And even Americans let me know I have somehow come phonetically adrift. "Where are you from?" they often ask. "Australia?" Something has to be done before it is too late, because a British accent in America is something far too precious to lose.

The way Brits talk can elicit quite mysterious envy and admiration. It can even make us more sexy, or so I have been told. This, you may remember, is what Colin, a character in the 2003 film Love Actually who is hapless in romance, had figured out. "American girls would seriously dig me with my cute British accent," he insists to pal, Tony. "I am Colin, God of Sex. I am just on the wrong continent, that's all."

Possibly. What is true is that TV shows and commercials here have long been unduly populated by Brits. All trade to some extent on their accents. Simon Cowell on American Idol and Len Goodman of Dancing With The Stars come to mind. Even British rock stars have figured out singing in American accents like the Beatles once did is not going to help them. The Arctic Monkeys feel no need to hide their Sheffield roots, nor KT Tunstall her Scottishness.

It is all a bit of a con, of course, as Stephen Fry so unhelpfully pointed out the other day. "I sometimes wonder if Americans aren't fooled by our accent into detecting a brilliance that may not really be there," he said. "Would they notice if Jeremy Irons or Judi Dench gave a bad performance?"

These days Americans can take lessons in speaking like us. "Get a British accent in just 15 minutes a day using our low-cost accent training course," is the pitch of one such outfit, Speakmoreclearly.com.

Someone who might consider signing up is Britney Spears. When she was carted off by ambulance in the middle of the night suffering from some sort of nervous meltdown, she arrived in hospital and insisted on affecting a British accent. She had been caught doing the same a few weeks before during a nocturnal petrol station stop in Hollywood (paparazzi in tow). A YouTube search will turn up Britney sounding more Madonna than Malibu, inquiring, "Do you have a loo?"

Clearly, she needs someone like me to give her individual coaching lessons for an extremely high fee. Except, of course, that with me she might come out sounding Australian.