Never mind the [REDACTED] of [REDACTED] or the grinning, winning strides for representation – for many Scottish film-goers, the surprise of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the sudden interjection of a distinctly Glaswegian voice. That voice belongs to Bala-Tik, a representative of the Guavian Death Gang intent on settling a score with swaggering swindler Han Solo. According to the official Star Wars website, Bala-Tik’s “black leather coat and percussive cannon indicate his status within the galactic underworld” and he seems pretty confident bellowing reproachfully at our hero. “Han So-lo,” he says with a wee shake of his head, “You’re a dead man.”
Alongside Solo, Bala-Tik shares this debut scene with Chewbacca, some anonymous Guavian cohorts, everyone’s favourite non-threatening newcomer, BB-8, and a couple stars of The Raid playing members of the opposing Kanjiklub gang. Yayan Ruhian’s dialogue as Kanjiklub leader Tasu Leech is subtitled, but as yet I’ve been unable to confirm whether or not he’s speaking his native Indonesian – only that his character “refuses to speak a word of Basic*, deeming it a soft language for soft people, though he can understand it well enough”. Bala-Tik, on the other hand, doesn’t require subtitles because, like most movie Scots – thank the maker – he’s easier to understand than your average Wookiee. “We loaned you fif-ty thou-sand for this job,” he levels, “I heard you also borr-owed fif-ty thou-sand from Kanji-klub.” Every uttered word, unusually to Glaswegian ears at least, is distinct and equally weighted.
The accent is broad and unmistakeable, sure – it belongs to Brian Vernel**, a 24-year-old Glaswegian graduate of the former RSAMD (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) living many a young person’s dream right now – but it certainly seems dressed up for international audiences. Vernel joins a long line of over-enunciating Scots in Hollywood films, from Dougray Scott in Mission Impossible 2 (“You are going to give me lots of mon-nay”) to Kate Dickie in Prometheus. Emma Thomson’s drawn out, sing-song Glaswegian in The Legend of Barney Thompson last year was a decent replica of the familiar movie version, if, like that of many genuine Scots on screen, it was a little too crisp and slowed to ring true.
It’s almost certainly not Vernel’s fault – the actor has been picking up plaudits since he was a student playing Macbeth on stage, or appearing in the Citizens’ Theatre’s 2013 adaptation of Takin’ Over The Asylum (see trailer above) – and it definitely could be worse. Gregory’s Girl was actually wholly redubbed for its American release and Trainspotting‘s opening scenes were similarly submitted to a “slowing down” by American distributors Miramax.
So Vernel hopefully has a glittering career ahead of him, especially given he’s proved he can adapt for those lazy American ears. As for Bala-Tik – spoiler – he survives a subsequent Rathtar attack intact and ultimately enjoys more dialogue than R2D2 and C3PO combined. If a dedicated spin-off might be far-fetched, the door is certainly open for a return in Episodes VIII or IX. Tell that tae Kanjiklub!
* [Galactic] Basic is Star Wars’ name for English, or French, or Spanish – whatever the Earth translation you’re watching, wherever you are.
** You may have seen Vernel in BBC’s recent Bernard Cornwell adaptation The Last Kingdom, or in their adaptation of JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy.