Surprise! Surprise! A new survey has revealed that hopeful candidates for the top jobs tend to be judged on their appearance, their speech and – most shocking of all – which school and university they attended; caught me by surprise, this news, as did its helpful response. Since when have different rules ever applied for such posts? Variations on the old school tie theme proliferate throughout the media, though nepotism tends to rank fairly high as well; the BBC is dominated by products of broadcasting dynasties like David Dimbleby, Dan Snow, Victoria Coren, Claudia Winkleman, Zoe Ball et al, and family connections are as rife behind the scenes of all the papers that routinely bash the Beeb. Even Martin Amis once admitted that the merits of his first book didn’t really matter, for he knew it would be published regardless, simply because of whose son he happened to be.
One aspect of this undeniably earth-shattering revelation that made me smile was the grumblings about Received Pronunciation coming, as these grumblings so often do, from nice middle-class London folk expressing solidarity with t’common people in a totally non-patronising way, of course.
Clear diction undoubtedly helps get a message across; anyone who has struggled to decipher the broken English of Indian-based call-centres when attempting to solve a problem with broadband connection cannot deny this. It is interesting, however, that all the help-lines on home soil employ Scotsmen or Geordies; no doubt lengthy and expensive market research came to the conclusion that such accents inspire confidence and trust in the caller. Scousers are not so common on the other end of the line – presumably the caller would be worried their hub caps were being nicked whilst they were distracted on the phone; Brummies don’t figure too highly either.
So pervasive has the shame associated with a clear speaking voice become over the past few decades that it’s often only apparent just how pervasive when stumbling upon a segment of BBC TV continuity from the 1970s on You Tube. The announcers speak with a clarity that sounds as cleansing to the ear as a cold shower in a heat-wave. It is true that the early 60s overnight success of ‘Coronation Street’, in tandem with the rise of The Beatles – both cultural revolutions unapologetic about their regional accents – contributed towards a significant shift in the perception of spoken English. Working-class RADA scholarship boys and girls who had had their native tongue coached out of them now had to re-learn it all over again, whilst their middle-class classmates had to practice northern vowels unless they wanted a career condemned to playing authority figures or posh idiots. No longer did anyone emanating from what used to be called ‘a humble background’ seek to hide their origins by taking elocution lessons. It was almost impossible to pinpoint which corner of the country the likes of James Mason or Peter O’Toole had sprung from (making their respective hometowns of Huddersfield and Leeds a genuine surprise), whereas Michael Caine and Albert Finney wore their verbal origins with pride.
The 60s may have finally called time on the rather silly Noel Coward-type of RP that predominates in immediate post-war British cinema and in BBC recordings from the 50s; but it wasn’t really until the turn of the 80s that a wave of post-punk middle-class students on board the Alternative Comedy bandwagon (posing as trendy lefties aping working-class clichés) infiltrated the mainstream media and begat the vogue for concealing the shameful speaking voice that suggests moneyed beginnings, one that continues to this day. It’s there in such modern media heavyweights as Jonathan Ross, Jeremy Clarkson and Chris Evans. Even Gideon has a crack at it when addressing factory workers, clad in his macho hard-hat to emphasise how in it together we all are. Mercifully, there are some who buck the trend.
‘Test Match Special’ is renowned as a rest home for the quaintest, most old-fashioned form of the Queen’s English, and the retired Rear-Admiral tones of Henry ‘Blowers’ Blofeld are like an Edwardian yacht sailing amongst the plastic pedalos of Estuary English. The show has always specialised in commentators and summarisers with voices abundant in personality, something that was present in the erudite pipe & scotch richness of the late John Arlott and the giddy, PG Wodehouse idioms of the much-missed Brian ‘Johnners’ Johnston. The programme even had a regional representative in the Ee-By-Gum gruffness of Professional Yorkshireman Fred Trueman. It remains a proudly defiant, some might say radical, bastion of eccentricities of speech in a country of Shy Tories speaking Shy RP in private whilst supporting Labour and expressing themselves via mockenyisms in public.
It is unarguably appealing that such a bewildering variety of accents can be contained on a landmass as small as ours. One only has to travel a few miles to detect differences, even remaining within the boundaries of the same city. The colourful character present in the multitude of tongues on offer plays its part in the nation’s identity and few would be happy to see them disappear for good, no matter how much they have been diluted in recent decades. The kind of South Yorkshire accent in Ken Loach’s ‘Kes’ – all the ‘thees’ and ‘thars’ – isn’t as widespread now as it was when the film was made, certainly not as evident amongst the under-60s as it was in 1969; but there is a somewhat Luddite ‘Real Ale’ mindset in some that seeks to preserve the regional accent in artificial amber lest it be contaminated by outside influence. This is a rather futile exercise in that no accent is set in stone. Take any Cockney character from Dickens, particularly Sam Weller in ‘The Pickwick Papers’, and see how pre-sound recording Cockney differed from today’s equivalent; the pronunciation of W as V (as in ‘Sam Veller’) is something that hasn’t existed within living memory, but it was commonplace in early Victorian London.
As we have no tapes of the Victorian voice from the time, we are reliant on the great novelists of the era to provide us with pointers; and whilst there may be a degree of artistic licence present in the dialogue of nineteenth century novels, there is a romantic, poetic fluency to the speech that is absent from modern-day speech and one, as a writer, I mourn the absence of. On a personal note, a woman with a lovely speaking voice I’ve always found to be something of an aphrodisiac. Whether it be Joanna Lumley, Fenella Fielding, Tara Fitzgerald or Lindsay Duncan, there is a seductive, sensual quality to the sound that isn’t present in that of an otherwise attractive actress such as Alison King (Carla Connor on ‘Coronation Street’), whose voice is akin to a chainsaw slicing a blackboard in two.
I have no qualms with the Lauren Laverne’s of this world seeking to maintain their natural accent on radio or television, but I do resent the conscious imposition that one must resist the temptation to improve one’s speaking voice or else one is somehow a faker, particularly when one’s natural accent is especially inelegant. I see no difference between attempting to speak nicer or upgrading one’s wardrobe to make a good impression. Nobody thinks the latter is somehow ‘selling-out’. If you prefer to affect the sartorial hallmarks of a slob and speak with a similarly lazy lack of effort, that’s up to you. I’d rather adopt the voice of the man whose nickname in theatrical circles provided me with my Raccoon nom-de-plume and feel like I’ve had a shave. I do so deplore verbal stubble.