Andrew Neil, formerly one of the corporation’s star performers, put it well recently when he said the broadcaster had forgotten what the ‘B’ in BBC stood for. He was moved to comment after a pair of BBC breakfast show presenters were criticized for ridiculing a minister who had posed for an interview in front of a Union flag.
At this point I need to declare an interest.
Andrew Neil is a colleague at the fledgling GB News Channel, which launches next week. This new broadcaster fancies it has spotted a gap in the market, for viewers who feel patronized by mainstream news outlets. GB News aims to court them with a simple message: ‘If it matters to you, it matters to us.’ Our mission is to unmuffle voices that have been marginalized. To introduce some levity into a sector which increasingly feels like a sociology lecture. To show the brighter, more positive side of British life.
The BBC isn’t waiting for this to happen. It feels vulnerable to the charge that it is too London-centric. Its latest defensive measure is to announce the greater use of regional accents on BBC One. These will belong to what’s known in telly-land as ‘continuity’. In other words, the voices that pop-up at the end of a programme to jauntily announce what’s coming next.
The veteran Brexiteer and BBC-baiter Claire Fox, who now sits in the House of Lords, gave a speech in Parliament recently in which she pointed out the flaws in this approach. Different accents are simply window dressing if all those voices then do is parrot the same, monolithic orthodoxy of thinking. It matters not, she pointed out, if the BBC moves thousands of its staff to Salford, if they all still strike the same pose on the burning questions of the day once they’ve got there.
To which I shout: “Hear, hear!” (in a strangely neutral accent that is neither northern nor southern). Because, I strongly believe that it is what we say, not how we say it, that matters.
Which came to me in a flash recently in a pub in Paddington.
I was talking to two more GB News presenters. Gloria de Peiro is a former Labour MP. While Michelle Dewberry is a former winner of the Apprentice who later stood to become a Brexit party MEP. Both are thickly accented. Michelle is from Hull and hasn’t lost her distinctive Humberside burr. The same goes for Gloria. She and I grew up about five miles from one another in Bradford. And yet we sound very different. “We want to see your birth certificate,” quipped Gloria.
There are those who think people like me are shallow, shape-shifting types, sufficiently embarrassed about our roots that we decide to install a linguistics upgrade. Recently I listened to an interview with the Essex-born (and still Essex-sounding) author Tony Parsons. He was offered elocution lessons as a youngster, but his father said no on his behalf. “I don’t want you pretending you’re something you’re not.”
Is that what I’m doing?
I’m certainly not embarrassed about my Yorkshire roots. I visit regularly and have strong family connections. But at 53, it’s getting on for 35 years since I left the north. Since then I’ve lived abroad and in London. My vowels remain flat, but my enunciation has been sharpened by decades of broadcasting. I never made a deliberate effort to slough-off my Bradford accent and my dialect (the words and phrases I use) still owe much to the land of my fathers.
But it would be wrong to say there isn’t an element of fitting in.
I suspect this was once more common and socially acceptable than it now is. When we think of grammar school educated high-flyers like former Chancellor Ken Clarke, who grew up in working-class Nottinghamshire, we are listening to a voice that has evolved. It was destined for the pit, but ended up – via a QC’s chambers – in Parliament. Sometimes the effect can be camp. I think of former art critic Brian Sewell or historian David Starkey.
In particular I remember the voice of my – yes BBC – hero, Alistair Cooke. The much-celebrated radio presenter grew up in Blackpool. His brother stayed there, as a butcher. But Alastair, after a stint at Oxford, left behind every trace of his Lancastrian breeding.
Another journalistic hero, the late Roger Scruton, said that coping with the sneering looks of snobbery was one of the bravest things aspirational working class kids ever do. Why do I say it’s getting harder to pull off? Hasn’t the way we speak long been an obsession of the class-obsessed British? Think of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and the comedy that ensues when Eliza Doolittle becomes the subject of a professor of phonetic’s wager.
But social media makes reinvention harder. Try sounding accentless at 25 if your 15-year-old self can be seen (and heard) on YouTube sounding very different. There’s something else. When the Leeds-born playwright Alan Bennett went to university (where he later wrote about his awkwardness at seeing his parents struggling with cutlery at an Oxford restaurant), he was exceptional.
Then, to go to university was an experience enjoyed by relatively few. Now the capillary tube of advancement is much wider, but less transformational. People who take a degree often now find their lives do not metamorphosise. As a consequence those who start to sound differently are, to our blandly meritocratic ears, objects of greater suspicion than once they were.
In a world where we can announce our gender is no longer the one we were born to, ditching our ‘birth voice’ can seem like a strangely phoney act.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
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