Cometh The Hour, cometh linguistic errors, say critics

Writer of Fifties newsroom drama told she does not use lexicon of the era. By Georgia Graham
Click to follow

It is 1956. The air crackles with the threat of war in Egypt and producer Bel Rowley's waist is nipped, her hair coiffed and her lips rouged. The newsroom is clouded with a very Fifties fug of cigarette smoke.

"Note to self: drink more whiskey," bolshy reporter Lix Storm exclaims in a phrase more at home in the sitcoms from the nineties than the BBC newsroom of the late Fifties. The mood is shattered.

Throughout the five episodes of the eagerly anticipated BBC2 drama The Hour, such linguistic anachronisms have frustrated those who had hoped that the language of the era would be as lovingly recreated as the series' stunning sets.

Blogs, comment boards and forums have been filled with examples of jarring phrases that would never have been heard in a 1950s newsroom. Freddie "bottled it" in one scene, a phrase not recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary until 1979, you would not just "go for a Chinese", Bel wouldn't complain about "the commute" from Clapham and ex-public school boy Hector would never utter the vulgarism "pleased to meet you".

"It is aesthetically offensive to anyone who cares about accuracy," says the cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht. "A key line in the opening episode which was repeated twice and was intended to establish a character was just wrong. Hector wouldn't say 'I'm a big fan of yours' – it is an Americanism, it just leaps out at you as alien to the period.

"The jokes are not 1950s, the word play is not word play drawn from the lexicon of the period."

From Ian Fleming's novels to the Elizabethan colloquialisms that peppered Shakespeare's poetry, slang has always been used as a badge of authenticity.

Lexicographer Jonathon Green, the author of Green's Dictionary of Slang, says that an understanding of slang is essential to any decent scriptwriter. "The people who can do it well," he says, "Shakespeare, later Dickens, do it seamlessly. They can show they know the world they are writing about by slipping in appropriate slang without jarring the audience or the reader.

"The Hour has a big banner out saying that this is a presentation of the BBC exactly as it was in 1956, and you owe it to your audience to get the language right and not use phrases and words 20 years too early."

But it isn't easy for writers to keep their scripts free of all anachronisms. Sometimes the words may well be in use at the time but feel wrong in certain contexts.

"Farting about", for example, was an Americanism recorded first in Britain in a 1949 letter from Larkin to Kingsley Amis but it feels out of place when Lix berates a colleague for "farting around with a light bulb" in a 1950s office.

Green explains: "Those letters between Larkin and Amis were consciously obscene they were being little boys having a giggle."

"My suspicion is that some of these words would be in use at the time but would not be uttered inside the BBC – and certainly never on camera.

"The phrase BBC English is not plucked out of the air – and everything it implies was true. It was imbued with Calvinist, Reithian, Scottish attitudes."

This is a criticism that the creator and writer of The Hour, Abi Morgan, agrees with. "The past is another country," she says. "I write as an intrigued foreigner inspired by a new landscape.

"But I am a dramatist. I elaborate. I imagine. I tell a story. And hope it will be enjoyed. When a line of dialogue jars and is seen as an anachronism, one holds one's hands up, but more because it has taken an audience out of the drama.

The Hour is escapism and for that moment the escapism hasn't worked."

And linguistic pedantry is not alone in causing unease on set. Bel Rowley's world sometimes seems too perfect.

Inside her cupboards a pristine packet of Bird's custard is next to a box of Brillo pads. But we all know you'd put them under the sink. It is also unlikely that a lord of the manor would answer the phone in his pants clutching a slice of toast. It was also probably gratuitous to have Bel adjust her stockings to calm her nerves.

But the lumpy legwear people would have worn in those post-war years wouldn't get many 21st-century pulses racing. This is entertainment, not a history lesson. Deborah Cameron, Professor of Language and Communication at Worcester College, Oxford, says this is also the case for language. "Linguistic anachronism doesn't matter unless it is done in a way that the audience finds really jarring," she said.

"The speech given to characters has a different function from the costumes they wear, their hairstyles or the design of the set. With dresses and chairs and cars, period detail is important: it's the way you create the illusion of authenticity.

"But dialogue is primarily there to convey information about character and situation and an obsession with avoiding contemporary ways of speaking would not be helpful for those purposes – it would sound mannered and, therefore, inauthentic.

"How far do you take this anyway – do we want to hear Dominic West speaking in the cut-glass tones of the Pathe Newsreel, or the later version of received pronunciation, which is his normal accent?"