Last Saturday's edition of Between the Ears (Radio 3) promised a "radiophonic voyage" through the history of the BBC voice, so I tuned in with interest: would they have anything new to say on the subject of RP, or would it be the same old stuff? It became immediately apparent that this programme would not stoop to anything so banal as a "view": as the sound effects piled up, and a procession of unidentified voices mused on RP's pros and cons, we were clearly in the sacred preserve of Art. But the ambient sound - a sepulchral voice reading a mantra-like list of "correct" pronunciations - did imply a message that no one could mistake: this way of speaking is ridiculous.
An actress recalled the dreadful moment when she was packed off - aged eight - to have her regional speech-patterns erased by elocution lessons. A BBC radio veteran spoke of the way his ambitious father linguistically reinvented himself, and of his own decision, at 14, to change his voice and thereby rise in the world. He was full of self-mockery about it, but the process had worked a treat: his voice - currently the voice-over for the Orange TV ads - has literally been his fortune. In impeccable tones, George Bernard Shaw dismissed impeccable RP as a "pedantic affectation". The Brown Cow and the Ragged Rascal got their ritual drubbing. Radio 3's erstwhile anchorwoman Patricia Hughes sadly declared - in that familiar firm mezzo - that she had "a voice which nobody now wants, a twilight voice". And no one gainsaid her.
To be fair, the case for RP was intermittently put. A theatre voice-coach admired the precision and unshiftable pace of the BBC's announcement of the death of George V, and pointed out that its composure did imply emotion below the surface. Peter Porter - an Australian - condemned the inverted snobbery of those who disliked educated Oxford English. But the general drift was critical: RP was a thing of the past, to be affectionately derided along with that old-fashioned BBC requirement that announcers should be able to handle French, Italian, and German. (At which point one was reminded of the wails that went up from British applicants for EU jobs last year, when the exam required knowledge beyond their insular ken.)
Not once in the programme was it pointed out that RP is the idiom most comprehensible to those for whom English is not a mother tongue. This is why you don't often hear broad Glaswegian accents in programmes emanating from Bush House, and why the film of Trainspotting had to be redubbed for the American market. It has nothing to do with snobbery, or with shoring up the British class system: it has to do with communication pure and simple. Patricia Hughes is not a "twilight voice"; hers is the voice in which the World Service addresses - and will continue to address - its 40 million English-language listeners. She should take heart, because this is the voice of the future.Reuse content