We’ve all noticed there are more northern accents than ever being heard on the BBC’s Breakfast settee since it moved to Salford, and maybe on the BBC generally; it must make the BBC sound normal to at least half the population. As a man said to me on the train the other day: “They’ll all be sounding like you soon!” Nice idea.
So, as a proud son of Barnsley, let me open my scrapbook of Regional Accents in the Media Memories and have a look inside. It’s full of treasures is my scrapbook, tha knows, going way back. Here’s the lady who overheard me talking in a café a few years ago and said, in a voice you could have sliced cheese with, “I love your voice; it sounds almost natural!” What’s on this page? Oh yes, the radio critic who wrote “Ian McMillan, with his ee by gum ecky thump pervading the airwaves like bindweed on an allotment.” Nice!
This item goes back decades, to when I presented a show on BBC Radio Sheffield and a man in a cap came up to me in Barnsley bus station, pointed a bony index finger in my face and said, his voice shaking with anger, “Tha can’t talk like that on’t wireless!” I was taken aback. “But I talk like you!” I said. I may even have said, “I talk like thee.” He got even angrier: “Yes, but tha can’t talk like that on’t wireless!”
So, Joann Fletcher, you’re an Egyptologist who’s sharing your knowledge on TV; you’ll be able to start your own scrapbook soon because you’re from Barnsley and you say that you love your accent, so the self-appointed guardians of the language will be sharpening their knives.
You’ll have to be prepared for people doing really bad impressions of you. You’ll have to be prepared for people to say the word “Barnsley” as though the “a” lasts for half an hour. You’ll have to be prepared for people to assume you can’t be clever or profound because, well, you sound like that Ian McMillan or that Sarah Walker from Radio 3. We just have to convince them, that’s all, Joann. And the way we convince them is by opening our mouths and speaking.
Things are getting better: accents from Northumbria to the Black Country are all over the media these days, enriching the air with their location locutions, as I’ve decided to call regional accents. Each week I catch the tram to Media City UK in Manchester to present The Verb and I love the fact that the BBC has a shiny northern base and I love the fact that the tram is full of Englishes from the estuary to the moors, from the inner city to the suburban close.
The BBC is a national institution so let’s have its language reflecting the nation. Let the radio hum with Brummie and the TV crackle with the way they talk by the Tees, because if the BBC talks like me and you, then you and I will know it’s really ours. Carry on, Joann.
And I’ve never said “ecky thump”. Until now.
Ian McMillan presents The Verb on Radio 3. Dr Joann Fletcher presents Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings on Friday on BBC1.