Books: A Point of View: Nob Voices, Yob Voices |
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Nob Voices, Yob Voices : on social voices

(S01E05, broadcast 2nd and 4th March 2007)

"Loud and clear"

Helen Mirren deserves her Oscar for having learned to sound like the Queen, but the Queen should get two Oscars for having learned to sound like Helen Mirren. It took Her Majesty a lifetime of study but she finally managed to overcome her origins and start making the same sort of noise as any other well-brought-up girl from the Home Counties. She and Dame Helen might not precisely be two Essex girls together, but they share roughly the same distinction, dignity and air of authority, although I suppose Dame Helen is still the one that springs to mind when, if you’re a red-blooded male with propensities towards larceny, you think of the detective inspector you’d most like to be arrested by.

It’s nice, though, to see the class business losing its sting. When I first came to Britain forty-five years ago, there was still a class gap, not to say a class gulf. Most countries bigger than an atoll have different social classes but what makes for a really noxious class divide is that there are feelings of inferiority to match the feelings of superiority. In Australia, there are plenty of people who feel superior, especially if their share of a race horse is big enough to run on its own, but hardly anyone feels inferior: they’re all in it together. In Britain, the same is at last more or less so. The homeland has caught up with its colony. But when I first came to London, there was still plenty of quietly simmering resentful envy going on from the lower class towards the upper, which only increased the arrogance of the upper class towards the lower.

A measure of arrogance is that you really don’t care what the people around you think of the way you sound. Still lingering, in the early 1960s, one of the main differences between the working class and the middle class was that working-class married couples would rarely raise their voices to each other when they fought in public. Middle-class married couples, on the other hand, would bellow at each other as if nobody else was there, which is the true sign of unshakeable class confidence, because if you’re that arrogant, nobody else is there.

One of my first visits to the West End theatre was to the Aldwych to see a Peter Hall production of King Lear. Paul Scofield played Lear in a leather outfit that squeaked when he walked. I got so obsessed with the sound of his leather trousers squeaking that I missed most of the words, but I would probably have missed them anyway, because he had pitched his voice very low. He was a gravel-voiced, nearly inaudible Lear. Even going mad on the blasted heath, he didn’t howl, he growled.

In the foyer afterwards there was a lot of polite murmuring and I started to wonder if I hadn’t come to a country that had lost the power of speech. Then, through the crowded foyer, there strode towards the street a very suave well-brushed couple who had clearly come in from the stockbroker belt for their weekly culture ration. As the female stalked away towards the exit she shouted back over her shoulder, ‘I’m not your slave, John.’

But it wasn’t just the volume of her voice that made it stick in my mind. It was the elocution. The full cut-glass number, it was what I had come to London expecting to hear a lot more of. In Australia I had been brought up on the sort of British movies where you could identify everyone according to class by the way they spoke. You couldn’t do that in American movies, but in a British movie like In Which We Serve you knew that Noël Coward was upper deck and Richard Attenborough was lower deck. Upper deck had a stiff upper lip and lower deck had a trembling lower lip. In Brief Encounter, Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson were doomed never to consummate their passion but you could tell they were made for each other by the way they spoke.

Celia, even more than Trevor, had that wonderful clipped eccent by which all the vowels were formed in the beck of the mithe and the lips never went sleck. I’m bound to say that when women were speaking the upper-class British accent it turned me on a treat, but my arrival in London seemed to be the signal for the whole thing to disappear. All the women from the north started sounding like Rachel Roberts in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and nobody in the south sounded like Celia Johnson any more except the Queen, who still, when addressing the nation at Christmas, sounded as if she had only recently attended her own coronation and been stunned by the spectacle of the Archbishop of Canterbury in full drag.

The history of Britain since that time can be roughly summarized as the successful attempt to persuade the monarch to approach, from the top down, nearer to the happy medium that linguistic experts call standard English, or received English, or even BBC English, although you might wonder how there can be such a thing as BBC English if someone like me is on the BBC. The BBC, along with the nation’s broadcasting system in general, has been instrumental in this change. Regional accents were correctly judged to be worth hearing.

A mistake, however, although not the biggest mistake, was to suppose that the regional accents were all equally understandable. I could gladly listen to Ken Stott reading the whole Bible aloud, but even a short reading by Jimmy Nail would leave me puzzled, and not just because I’m an Aussie. It’s because a Scottish accent is inherently more intelligible than a Geordie accent, except, perhaps, from Ruth in The Archers. By intelligible I mean intelligible to other English-speakers. Americans, wherever they come from, almost invariably pronounce the whole word. So one of the secrets of American cultural power is that all Americans understand each other instantly across three million square miles and everybody else in the world who speaks English can understand them too, whereas there are plenty of British people who can’t understand their own countrymen across a distance of a hundred yards. But let’s suppose, for a moment, that all British regional accents were equally easy on the general ear. The biggest mistake was to think that yob is a regional accent as well.

But the yob voice isn’t regional. The yob voice doesn’t come from a geographical division. It comes from a social assertion, the way that the upper-class accent once did, and a sure sign of the yob voice’s deliberate aggressiveness is that it’s produced with even more effort. It once took a lot of energy to speak like Sir Alec Douglas-Home. You practically had to swallow your own mouth. It takes the same kind of effort to produce the yob uproar, whose sheer volume is the chief sign that what’s really happening is a newly dominant social force arrogantly asserting its privileges. But the privileges aren’t class privileges. This is a different thing.

Yob privileges are classless privileges. One of them is automatic individuality. In the age of universal stardom, everyone has a right to stand out even if he has no detectable characteristics. With half the consonants missing, the sound the voice makes is telling us that it doesn’t matter if there is no information to be conveyed, as long as the message is heard, and the message is ‘this is me’. The angle-grinder loudness of the voice serves to amplify the message ‘this is me’, even if the person shouting it might himself doubt the validity of that statement when he looks into a mirror. On a train, you will hear just how classless yobbery can be, when every carriage except the quiet carriage is occupied by yobs with jobs, important men who are proving it by using their mobile phones as megaphones. The quiet carriage is full of them too, conveying the further message that your space is their space if they say so.

It’s an ugly sound they make, and any dreamy-eyed social pundit is foolish who asserts that all voices have equal value. He would be closer to being right if all voices had equal volume, but the loudness is still the tip-off. Once it was one bunch who didn’t care what you thought, and now it’s another. It’s a change for the better. Long ago, Sir Alf Ramsey was mocked when he went into secret training to pick up his dropped aitches. But he was right to believe that there was indeed such a thing as being well spoken. There still is. When some commentators correctly decided that what Jade Goody said about Shilpa Shetty couldn’t have been a race thing because racism is an idea and Jade hasn’t got an idea in her head, they incorrectly decided that it must have been a class thing. But it wasn’t. It was just that Shilpa sounded like Zeinab Badawi and Trevor McDonald and all the other people who grew up speaking a reasonably pleasant-sounding English, and poor Jade didn’t. She had plenty to resent, because nothing makes you nervous quite like knowing that you get on other people’s nerves. Not that we should encourage the idea that changing the way you sound is an easy trick for an adult. It can take years, even if your face is on the stamps. But it can’t be that hard to just turn down the volume.


Even today, when the reaction has set in and a return to decorum is thought desirable by almost everybody, you will still hear the proposition being advanced that the idea of a received standard pronunciation is a phantom. But the proposition is the phantom: we pay attention, find friendship, fall in love, and even marry, always with the proviso that the voice we hear is tolerable. Even the most stridently confident ladette knows that she has missed out on something by not sounding like the voice of that effortlessly classy woman reading out the information on the London Underground. When the luscious courtesan Abi Titmuss came to prominence, it was instantly clear why so many quite intelligent men were keen to know her. To go with her appearance, she was well spoken, and they were at least as interested in a leg up as a leg over. The same quite intelligent men rarely feel the same way about Katie Price, because she sounds as rough as a gravel road. There are no prizes for pointing out that the proper names of these flamboyant women are already fading on the breeze, but at the time of my broadcast they were common currency, if ‘common’ is the word we want. In the case of Abi, one would have thought, it isn’t: there is no gainsaying a pretty knack for speech. The ability of a model for proactive lingerie to sound better than at least one ranking duchess would have given William Blake material for a poem about the death of England.

I was a bit premature in declaring that the strangled tones of the upper class vanished from Britain at the same time as I arrived from Australia. But there can be no doubt that the tones of the middle class were already sounding more, well, normal. When I was a TV critic you could still hear the beautifully spoken presenter Vanya Kewley on television every week, and one night in Stratford, at the opening night of Les liaisons dangereuses, I thrilled to the delicious voice of Lindsay Duncan. But her voice would not have been so lovely if she had not pronounced the words so well. No form of enunciation that mangles the language can ever be attractive, and it is a mark of sentimentality to suppose it can. One of the disastrous consequences of the BBC’s elevation of Estuarine English to the status of a legitimate regional dialect was that scarcely any new female recruit to the BBC television screen sounded bearable unless her parents came from the Indian subcontinent. Nor is America exempt from the rule that a lack of vocal education is tough on the listener’s ears, mind and nervous system. Mira Sorvino sounds good in Mighty Aphrodite only because Woody Allen sounds so bad. How should a man sound? At the time of writing there is no man in Britain who sounds quite as good as the Archbishop of Canterbury, not because of his Christian principles but because of his precise articulation, although his naturally deep timbre helps.

In the text, where I mentioned the Peter Hall production of King Lear, I should have said Peter Brook. The error got all the way to the air because I spoke with such confidence nobody thought of checking it. So much for the fidelity of memory.