Where did all the flat vowels go?

I suppose it’s partly my own fault: it’s what happens when you spend too long doing pretentiously highbrow things like listening to Radio 4 and taking a vague interest in culture. Such activities are the preserve of those with family trees the length of the average oak, whose university education was cheaper than their primary school, and who differentiate between the pronunciation of aunt and ant.

Anyone who has ever watched a film with me will know that there are certain actors I can’t abide. And yet, one of them actually came out and said something sensible this week. Judi Dench, she who has been found lurking in everything from Pirates of the Caribbean to James Bond, was quoted in an article that, quite rightly (although it is also stating the obvious, really), pointed out that, “the ever-growing list of public school-educated actors dominating British film and television is often offered as proof that posh actors are squeezing out working-class talent. Acting, some fear, is increasingly the preserve of those with cut-glass accents whose parents can afford to bankroll them when starting out.” Another Guardian article recently pointed out, more generally, that it is becoming increasingly different for people from working class backgrounds to become successful in the arts. When even the Daily Mail is offering lists of ‘posh people’ in the sphere, you know you’re in trouble.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a personal thing, some kind of bitter diatribe about being rejected by the establishment that controls the arts in Britain (well, not yet, anyway). It is a simple statement, or maybe a question: where did all the flat vowels go?

It is, of course, always dangerous to draw conclusions from anecdotal observations. But that’s what I intend to do. Because, to be honest, that’s how we form opinions, isn’t it? Now, living in France, I am reasonably isolated from the English language, certainly in a spoken context (hearing it spoken by the French doesn’t count, since they’re going for intelligibility, not the nuances and potential prejudices of implying they’re from a particular region or economic background). Maybe that’s what makes me a little more attuned, or maybe it just makes me chippy and/ or nostalgic. But either way, my daily podcast listen (yeah, I’m a glutton for punishment, and I listen to reviews of British cultural things as I walk to my French office), has, over the past few weeks, more and more frequently ended with me fuming at my desk. Why? Well, I’ve begun to notice a pattern, you see.

There are a selection of presenters. All of them have what I shall call, for the sake of (a vague pretence of) neutrality, an RP accent. And then they interview people, or get critics to give reviews of things. In theory, these are people from across the arts, and since there are, say, four to six of them each episode, you wouldn’t expect there to be much of a connection, right? Wrong: there is one key link. Almost without exception, they share that same accent, pronunciation, and, dare I say it, background. We have the bloke from Downton, two actors playing Prince William and Kate, an art historian, several TV critics, a poet, an author… All of them sound like they went to the same elocution lessons. And then, because we need to pander to the masses, after all, since they pay their TV licence fee and fund the BBC too, after all, and they might have accidentally been looking for something about fish and chips or the Job Centre or benefits or something, we throw in something regional. Doesn’t matter what. Scottish referendum next week? We’ll get Val McDermid to review a crime drama. Moves to empower the north? What about the drama about Cilla Black, that’s got Scouse in, that’ll do for them, right? Rural areas feeling neglected? What about something with farmer-y types from somewhere vaguely Somerset-cider-sounding? And so on and so forth.

Am I imagining it? Maybe. But I shouldn’t be able to. Because what this is currently telling me is that there is a hierarchy of culture that is still very much defined on socio-economic lines. I know that Matthew from Downton has an English degree (as in, the actor that plays him), but does that really qualify him for the Booker Prize judging panel? Or, to put it another way, would one of the actors who plays a Downton servant have been offered the post? I doubt it, somehow. But the one that really set my teeth on edge was the fictional Prince William from some faux-Shakespearean thing about the future of the British monarchy. Asked if the plot might offend the real prince, what does the actor respond. “Oh, I couldn’t disagree with you more. In a world of hysterical, ill-educated clamour over our “celebrity” royal family… this play is an educated and thought-provoking, thoughtful counterpoint to every hysterical tabloid headline.”

I nearly choked on my coffee. And yet the interviewer made no response, just moved onto the next question without batting an audible eyelid.

So that’s where we are, is it, as a country and a culture? We observe a dividing line, in which we can either be well-educated, intelligent, thoughtful, privileged and upper-class, or be part of the Great Unwashed, ignorant, hysterical and inherently Wrong.

I’ve said before that at times I feel that the great deception of my generation (because I suppose every generation must, at some point, realise that they do not live in a social utopia) is that we are taught to believe that we live in a post-class society, and then, suddenly, the scales are torn from our eyes and we realise that nothing could be further from the truth. It’s not quite as simple as me saying that I woke up and knew that I would never be a Radio 4 presenter. But it is about acknowledging that our inherently rotten society still makes judgements based on a whole host of irrelevant factors, puts us in boxes and then tapes up the top and leaves us to rot away in there.

Am I exaggerating? Possibly. But here’s something to think about. How often, when you watch a drama (I don’t mean a soap, I mean something that somebody might label with the eternally vague ‘critically acclaimed’) does someone have a perfect, private-school educated RP accent for no reason, when it is utterly incoherent with their character’s back story? And now think about how many regional accents, of any type, that you hear with that same lack of explanation. Noticing anything? Who decided what was ‘standard’, what was acceptable, and why do we still think it’s OK to complain that we can’t understand Peter Capaldi’s Doctor Who and wish he’d ‘speak properly’ and ‘enunciate clearly’, as though we still believed, as we clearly do, that there is a hierarchy of spoken English, and that if an actor breaches the boundaries of what we consider ‘normal’, we have a right to complain?

Why do I care? It is, after all, just the wishy-washy world of the arts, nothing life-changing. Except maybe the arts are actually a symptom of a wider phenomenon. I challenge you to find me a regional accent in the three leaders of main British political parties. Ed Miliband has more problems than his accent, of course, but I can’t exactly say that his vowels scream ‘workers’ solidarity’. (As for David Cameron, he wouldn’t know a glottal stop if they sold it to him in a Portuguese fish market). The one obviously regional accent at the top of British politics at the moment belongs to the man who has brought a referendum to Scotland and led a campaign that is now ‘too close to call’. And could you really blame a Scot, of any age, looking at the ‘leaders’ of ‘their’ country in Westminster and failing to find any point of contact with them, for deciding that an Edinburgh government was the only solution?

I leave you with a final thought. 2011/12ish saw the meteoric rise of Danny Boyle and Guy Garvey (we say Elbow, of course, but I challenge you to name another member of the band). And when that first happened, it was a matter of pride for me, and a lot of other people from our area too, that they were ‘our’ boys. But you know what? We’re sick of it. We’re sick of them being identified as Northern, and us being identified as them, just as we’re sick of Oasis and Morrissey and Coronation Street. We don’t want to be loveable and bearded and bacon butty-eating, or, at least, that’s not all we want to be. We in the regions are not a novelty. And who decided where the centre was anyway?

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