Archive on 4: RP RIP?, Radio 4, Saturday
In Living Memory, Radio 4, Wednesday
Sex Night, Radio 1, Monday
Is the sun setting on the voice of the British Empire?
Sunday 07 August 2011
Regional accents are something of a badge of honour these days, and Received Pronunciation is on the back foot. About time, too, cry provincial types, after a couple of centuries of plum-in-mouth hegemony. In Archive on 4: RP RIP?, Melvyn Bragg, whose Cumbrian burr is still faintly detectable, conducted a fascinating trawl through the tape library.
Received pronunciation (RP) didn't catch on until the 19th century, when public schools mobilised it to signify authority and power. Their alumni became agents of empire, and Britannia ruled with a cut-glass accent. Then came RP's glory days, when the BBC swung into action with nary a regional accent. Lord Reith imagined that something geographically indistinct would make fewer feel excluded, but the strangulated vowels of dinner-jacketed newsreaders came to be resented by hicks from the sticks.
There were some fascinating excavations, such as elocution exercises conducted by a staggeringly posh Michael Aspel, and Beryl Bainbridge dissing her fellow Scousers. "They sound as if they don't know how to speak properly," she chided. "They should get some elocution lessons."
She probably wouldn't have liked the Tristan da Cunha accent, a sort of West Country burr. When the islanders were evacuated in the 1960s after the island's volcano erupted, researchers were keen to investigate a patois all but unchanged since 1800. For In Living Memory, Jolyon Jenkins looked back at what became a traumatic experience for the inhabitants of the world's most remote settlements. When they arrived here the attention was overwhelming, and soon most of them had gone back to their lava-covered paradise.
It was a sad story, too, in that inbreeding had left many islanders with medical problems. As a BBC Sound Archive researcher recalled: "Quite a number of them were mentally a bit backward." One who stayed in Britain had no regrets: the eruption was the best thing that had ever happened to the island. What would life have been like, Jenkins asked, if it hadn't happened? "The same old thing – farming, fishing, farming, fishing, farming, fishing ..."
"If you're embarrassed ... turn it off." So ran the advice from presenter Aled on Radio 1's Sex Night, the main, er, thrust of which was an advicefest featuring Radio 1 regular Dr Mel. (That's "Dr" as in a proper doctor, not as in Dr Dre or Doctor and the Medics.) There were some great questions. "Is it true the Pill won't be effective if you go on a long-haul flight?" My favourite came from a teenage lad. "When I get an erection I feel very light-headed," he texted. "I've only passed out once. I asked my friend about it but he just laughed and said it's because I've got a massive willy."
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