Second in a series of posts touching on English accents.
Before we moved to the UK, we used to come here on vacation/holiday every chance we got, rent/hire a car, and drive from stone circle to stone circle and from castle to castle until our time or our money ran out. On one of these trips, twiddling the radio dial in the car, we ran across a comedy improv program/programme that had us laughing so hard we had to pull off the road until the show was over. We’d stumbled across BBC Radio 4, the BBC’s spoken-word radio station, which fills the airwaves with drama, news, documentaries, readings from books, and lots and lots of comedy.
Before the show was over—it was “I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue”, but the BBC web site doesn’t offer any clips I can link to at the moment—we were fans. As soon as we had a place to live in the UK, we subscribed to the Radio Times, the BBC’s guide to what’s on, launched in 1923 because newspapers refused to carry radio listings, afraid that radio would put them out of business. Back then it only listed BBC programmes, but it now covers radio and television—broadcast, cable, and satellite—from all kinds of providers.
With so much to choose from, it was a good six months before I caught the Radio 4 panel show/comedy game show “Just a Minute”. The Radio Times didn’t make it sound appealing; it listed big-name comedians, sure, but the point was apparently for them to speak on a given topic for a minute. So what?
So funny, that’s what, and sometimes outstandingly hilariously funny. The host gives four panellists a topic, and they have to speak entertainingly for 60 seconds without hesitating, deviating from the subject, or repeating a word they’ve already used, while the other panellists listen for clever ways to catch them out. In the hands of the kind of performers they get it’s great improvisional comedy, but you don’t have to take my word for it, you can listen via the BBC website; the most recent show can be heard here.
As luck would have it, the next-to-most-recent show (as I write this, anyway; I’m referring to episode 4 of series 58) included a round on the topic “My Accent”, and aired just after I posted my last blog piece. I’d mentioned RP and the mainstream use of the pronunciation “samwidges” here, both of which cropped up on the show.
Sheila Hancock (actress and author; widow of John Thaw who played Inspector Morse) spoke about the two years of training at RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, a prestigious British acting school) that erased her original Cockney accent and left her speaking Received Pronunciation.
Gyles Brandreth (actor, author, former Member of Parliament) in a different round said “I never forget a face, but I’ll make an exception in your case” and implied he might have been quoting Harpo Marx, until he was challenged on the grounds that Harpo never spoke. Brandreth said the challenger clearly didn’t know Harpo as well as he did, and that Harpo “was quite chatty at home over the samwidges”.
The Harpo challenge came from Paul Merton, who speaks with a working-class London accent. During his turn to extemporize on “My Accent”, he said that in the 1980s someone at the BBC told him that with his voice (meaning accent) he’d never appear on BBC Radio 4. That’s about the same time the BBC moved announcer Susan Rae, who speaks with a Scottish accent, onto Radio 4; rumour has it she got death threats, though I’ve only been able to confirm that there was a neo-nationalist outcry and she got some rather impolite suggestions, the printable ones telling her to go back to Scotland.
Clearly, times have changed. And even though people had strongly negative feelings about non-standard accents on the Beeb as recently as the 1980s, it’s possible that opinion began to change during World War II. Since German propaganda radio broadcasts in English used RP, the BBC began using announcers with non-standard accents so listeners could be sure they were listening to real British news, or so Wikipedia suggests.
I like what Radio 4 offers so much that I don’t much care what accents I hear. I have to discipline myself, or I’d putter around all day listening to the radio and, er, never get my next blog post finished.