You ’avin’ a laugh, mate? They don’t speak Cockney on EastEnders any more. That’s what June Brown says and she should know, having played the tough old bird with a heart of gold Dot Cotton in Albert Square for more than 30 years. “Slovenly speech, that’s what it is. I wouldn’t call it Cockney, no. They can’t help it, that’s how they speak,” she told me when I went to see her at home in Surrey. “It’s much more The Only Way Is Essex. That has become the Cockney of the times.”
She’s right, as I found out whilst making a documentary for Radio 4 called The Lost Cockney Voice. This isn’t about jellied eels and gentrification. I’m actually after a very specific lost voice: that of my grandmother Gladys and her generation. Gladys sounded half like a Cockney and half like the Queen. Women like her grew up during and after wartime in a vibrant East End culture but with the wireless as the source of news, entertainment and authority – and everyone on it spoke the Queen’s English, with accents that sound comically posh to us now. Nan and her mates developed this curious, one-generation voice that has almost vanished, because they’ve almost all passed away and their kids had other influences, like the telly.
I longed to hear that unique voice one more time, so I went looking to see if there was anyone in the East End still speaking like that – and on the way met some remarkable, inspiring people.
I also found out something that makes me angry.
We think we’re living in a society that’s grown-up enough to treat us all fairly however we speak – regional accents are more popular now, everyone sounds a bit more common than they used to – but it’s not true. There’s still a secret code, it has just changed a little to fit in with the times. If you don’t sound right, you’re still excluded.
I feel strongly about this, having changed my accent deliberately when I was a boy because I had to. My dad came home from work raging about a colleague denied promotion because she sounded too much like a Cockney for the bosses. “They mean she sounds thick!” he said with indignation. I sat in the corner thinking, “That’s never going to happen to me.”
Ironically, as I changed the way I spoke over the years, perceptions of my old voice changed dramatically. Estuary English became ubiquitous, having been created by Cockneys moving into Essex and Kent and merging their accent with the locals.
This is what you hear around Dot these days. Danny Dyer, current king of the Queen Vic, was born in the East End but has an Estuary drawl. Or as June puts it, he speaks slovenly. “People speak differently now… it’s lazy speech.”
She was raised in Suffolk from East End stock, but educated at drama school when you couldn’t hope to play classical roles without a cut-glass accent. Dot’s voice is based on that of her great-aunts, who spoke the Queen’s Cockney, like my nan.
People in power have adopted Estuary to make themselves sound more approachable – from Tony Blair and his glottal stops to the Queen, who sounds dramatically different from her youth. But let’s not be fooled. There’s still a way of speaking to be mastered if you want to get on – posh enough to reassure those bosses that you’ve been educated, regional enough to be perceived as friendly. And there are still people who are excluded because of their voice. Back in the East End, a new accent and dialect has emerged called Multicultural London English, incorporating Jamaican and South Asian sounds and words.
MLE speakers are just as likely to suffer prejudice as Cockneys were, I discovered. You won’t hear them in the Cabinet any time soon. It’s the new indicator that you’re not up to scratch – which (as my old nan would never have said) is a load of cobblers. Would you Adam ’n’ Eve it? Some fings never change.
Author and journalist Cole Moreton presents The Lost Cockney Voice on Friday 28 April at 11am on Radio 4