Oh dear, I really don’t want to pick a fight with a Radio Times columnist. We usually all get on so well. Eddie Mair, Gillian Reynolds and I are such good friends that every summer we hire a camper van and head to Ayia Napa for the bungee jumping and banging tunes.
Dr Laura Wright isn’t a regular columnist, she was our guest a couple of weeks ago, which somehow makes having a go at her feel particularly bad-mannered. But, hey-ho, that’s what I’m here for. When Dr Wright, a respected academic, wrote, “The working-class voice is excluded from British television,” she was talking tosh.
There are nothing BUT working-class voices on British television, give or take the odd posh-o actor or well-spoken newsreader. Even that once unassailable bastion of clipped tones and received pronunciation, the men and women who talk over the credits and do the links between shows, has discarded its ballgowns and dinner jackets to let in people with regional accents.
- There needs to be a more diverse range of voices reading the news
- Lenny Henry says Ofcom is creating “fake diversity” by focusing on actors and not those behind the camera
There’s one woman with a particularly hotpot rich Lancashire accent of a type that would have sent Lord Reith into a toff-spin and no mistake. Besides, aren’t we confusing accent with class? Surely there are middle-class people who speak with Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, whatever, accents?
But where Dr Wright really tripped up is her insistence that regional dialects should be at the heart of British television. This sounds terrifically laudable but television is about mass communication, and having someone come on with a dialect so boutique it’s impenetrable is clearly ridiculous.
Put brutally, who the hell would understand a Cornish person (apart from presumably another Cornish person) in her quoted example, “Lie hine down there and just ditch hine a little”? What are they on about?
I have moderate experience of people looking at me as if I have broccoli for a brain because, even with my mildest of northern accents, there are some words as pronounced by me that non-northerners don’t understand. Or think are hilarious. My pronunciations of “toast” and “moor” for instance. Oh yes, it kills them, I tell you.
But what if I went on telly and properly banged on, coming over all Ian McMillan with “By heck, thar’s a right lummox”, people would be perfectly justified in persuading me to sit quietly while they called an ambulance.
Regional accents are lovely. I find them completely fascinating and always ask people with unfamiliar accents where they are from so I can learn more. Anyone who loves words (and, surely that’s all of us, isn’t it?) SHOULD be fascinated by accents and dialects. Yet Dr Wright claims, “If regional dialect speakers are excluded from television – as they currently are – then that is the same as excluding working-class people.” What rubbish.
Television contorts itself to include non-Home Counties and therefore, by Dr Wright’s lights, “working-class” people in everything. Its dramas all seem to be set in the North (I know this is an overstatement, but that’s how it feels), while anything featuring anyone even vaguely middle-class is a cauldron of festering evil.
Just look at Doctor Foster. No way would that have featured anyone who didn’t sound bourgeois. And the brilliant Kiri on Channel 4, whose white middle-class family is painted in the bleakest of terms, riven with guilt, suspicion and, just possibly, the worst wickedness of all. No writer in the world would have dared make any of these people working-class – accent and all.