In Britain accent used to matter a lot. It was linked with social class, upbringing, education, career, position in the community, and general outlook. The ability to 'speak well' could mark you out for advancement. My father's Londonised accent got him an offer in wartime that most might have leapt at. He'd had a scanty formal education, mainly in a dame school in rural Devon, but when younger had spent time with an aunt and uncle who were on the fringe of the BBC world in London. That cosmopolitan environment had given him a 'good accent', and clearly a certain 'cut' that got him noticed. These are his own words, taken from his autobiography. It was 1941. Dad was then nineteen, and had been freshly inducted into the Army, straight from service in the Post Office, to commence training at Bulford Camp on Salisbury Plain:
Our hut was No. 21 and its inmates formed a platoon with a corporal, a sergeant and a Lieutenant. The Lieutenant interviewed me.
‘I see, Dommett, that you were a Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist. Why are you not in the Signals?’
‘I do not know, Sir,’ I replied. ‘Most of our chaps were called to the Royal Corps of Signals but perhaps the RASC [Royal Army Service Corps] needed me. Frankly the title 'Telegraphist' means very little. We did nothing more than answer and speak on the telephone.’
‘You speak rather well, Dommett. Would you like to be an officer?’
I thought this one over and replied, ‘I think that I might be at a disadvantage, Sir, because I did not receive a formal education. And, in any case, there is nothing in it for me financially as I receive the balance of my civil pay.’
‘What do you mean by that,’ he asked, and I explained that the government made my army pay up to what I was receiving in civvy street.
‘Do they by Jove. Very well, carry on Driver.’ End of interview.
That’s the nearest I came to being a commissioned officer. Over the next two and a half years, ignoring the privileges of rank, I successfully repelled attempts to promote me to non commissioned rank by using the 'balance of my civil pay' as my excuse. As it turned out I had not realised that my civilian pay figure would remain at the amount paid when I joined up, while my army pay with allowances, etc over the years increased, closing the gap until in the end little balance became payable. Nevertheless over £200 awaited me in a bank account [my Aunt] Elsie had opened when I was released in 1946, quite an appreciable sum in those days.
I hope I make my point. It was only a lieutenant, the lowest rank of commissioned officer, but Dad got 'rather' and 'by Jove' out of him, and was regarded as 'potential officer material' on the strength of using words like 'chaps' and 'frankly', delivered in a 'good' accent.
But this was typical for 1941. Think of the British films of the wartime era, and after, whether newsreels or films, that showed brave Brits coping with wartime tragedy and personal heartbreak. All the men and women in them have a controlled and clipped way of speaking, and accents that, if they were not naturally derived from 'good homes' or a 'good school' or a 'good university', had at least been carefully taught at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. The beautiful but artificial RADA accent, essentially the same accent as BBC announcers, both accents modelled on the speech of those with prestige and power, prevailed until the 1960s. After that, something important started to happen. I'll get to that.
Meanwhile, for the entire first half of the twentieth century and before, if you had the 'wrong accent' you could be dismissed out of hand as a person of no account, or at best condescendingly labelled 'provincial'. It was a real handicap for men and women of culture who came from beyond the Home Counties but wanted to make a mark nationally. They had first to overcome a bias that gave preference to the speech habits of Oxbridge types, or the cream of London society.
This prejudice sustained the great North-South social divide in England between the supposedly sophisticated South (especially of course London), and the supposedly rough and crude North. The whole point about progressive British books and plays and films of the late 1950s and early 1960s was that the North was not simply a place full of unvarnished characters with flat vowels and limited horizons. It was a seething hotbed of undervalued creativity that was going to burst forth, but had first to explain itself. Thus Billy Liar and many other works that seem museum pieces today.
The East and West of England - and Wales - were not part of the aggressive North-South standoff, but just as idiotically treated. They were seen as agricultural backwaters, filled with inbred yokels and fisherfolk with strange accents. As for the Scots and the Irish, their supposed typical behaviour - parsimony to the point of meanness in Scotland, and dimwittedness to the point of insanity in Ireland - were a cruel and lying joke that had an extraordinarily long run. I remember hearing standard Scottish and Irish jokes on TV until well into the 1970s. Even as I retired in 2005, you could call a male Welsh colleague a 'sheep-shagger' at work and still raise a laugh, and get away with it (I didn't join in, of course, being Welsh myself).
Thank goodness these damaging and divisive attitudes were swept aside with social change, and became old-fashioned and then eventually the mark of the ignorant and ill-informed. Events such as the rise of 'youth culture' from the late 1950s, at first seen as a worrying but controllable threat to society, but ultimately beyond all repression as the 1960s progressed, introduced new voices and new standards. Fresh home-grown music from all around the country burst forth in a flood, and made accents from Merseyside, and the North generally, familiar to Southern ears and no longer a matter for snobbery. It also helped that accents from elsewhere, from Jamaica perhaps, were added to the vocal mix that in time toppled the RADA accent off its pedestal.
I'm not saying that the old condescension towards the North or elsewhere died overnight. Nor that it couldn't be learned and passed on, once the 1960s arrived. I remember mimicking at school, in 1966 or so, the Nottingham accent of one of the other pupils. Somehow I'd picked up the notion that this was a cool thing to do. I got slapped across the face for it. And rightly so. I never did it again. It woke me up.
And I'm not saying that elitism and elitist accents are now dead and buried. Far from it. It's a human characteristic to believe oneself better than some others. But nowadays elitism is perhaps based differently - more on what you know, what your lifestyle is, what trendy social group you belong to, and (as ever) how much financial clout you have - and not simply (or mainly) on educational background or way of speaking. Here and there the old world still holds sway, but most of us do not have to endure daily condescension, on the radio, on the TV screen, or in the streets, from self-satisfied folk with very posh accents. I'm not accusing Kenneth Clark of smugness in this shot from his 1969 TV series Civilisation, but he did have a very upper-class accent indeed:
That said, irritatingly posh accents are not hard to find in 2013. On the afternoon that I went to Upwaltham and Goodwood (see recent posts) I drove along some deeply rural lanes in West Sussex, and encountered several couples out for a Sunday afternoon stroll with their dogs. These 'villagers' had a casually well-off look to them. They made a performance of watching me approach in Fiona, and then of stepping aside onto the verge. It was done in such a way that I felt compelled to wind my window down to say 'Thank you' to them as I passed. Each time they'd get in first with a 'Thank you so much' said in a certain kind of accent, and with a certain cold intonation, that, beyond any possible mistake, conveyed a quite different message. The velvet words in fact said 'You are in our private local lane, damn you, and have no right to be here. You are not one of us, even if you do drive a nice car. We don't want to see you here again.' It quite upset me to be judged - wrongly judged - as a crass and insensitive intruder. I soon shrugged that feeling off, but thought to myself: snobbery and elitism is not dead in Britain!
My own accent? Well, it's my father's BBC accent. Transformation into Lucy Melford hasn't changed it. Some of you will have heard it face-to-face. It's unashamedly a Southern accent with faint Welsh echoes. I would be most unhappy if anyone described it as 'ineffably upper-class'. It isn't meant to be, and I have no background in my life to justify that awful description, except a deeply disliked grammar-school education that I'd like to think made no indelible mark on me. I suppose it is however telling that I was sometimes jokingly chided as 'posh bloke' in the past, and have since been referred to as 'posh bird' more than once. That's amusing, but I hope it's not really my public image. I want to be completely accessible and approachable, and I don't want an accent getting in the way.