This has been a great week for the frequently-maligned scouse accent. On Tuesday, BBC Breakfast constructed a jolly item out of a study – a study! – that revealed Liverpudlian to be the accent most appreciated by the nation's plantlife. Apparently, a lily talked to soothingly by a scouser grew 10.2 inches in the same time that one addressed in cockney grew only 6.7 inches. Loving encouragement in Geordie yielded only 5.5 inches of growth, and the lily practically recoiled from a Birmingham accent, growing a mere two inches. I hope that Prince Charles, our most celebrated talker to plants, takes note. If he dispenses with the Queen's English and takes up Queen's Drive English, Queen's Drive being Liverpool's residential ring-road, his garden will flourish.
Whatever, scouse vowels got a further boost on Tuesday evening when Claire Lara from Birkenhead, not quite a genuine scouser but with a voice that would come out of the mouth of the Mersey, if only the Mersey could speak, went and won Masterchef: The Professionals. Moreover, judge Michel Roux declared her the most complete chef he's come across in the last five years, "not just in the Masterchef context, but anywhere".
For those of us inclined to make snap assessments of a person, which I would guess is most of us, this came as a most welcome reproach. Lara reportedly discovered during the competition that she was pregnant, but she was already a decidedly large woman. Some people are fat on too much fine, rich food, but Lara looked like she had eaten too many oven-chips, and indeed has confirmed that, growing up, she did. And when she first entered the Masterchef kitchen the accent – an accent routinely lampooned by comedians not lucky enough to come from Merseyside – compounded the prejudice. She neither looked nor sounded like someone who cooks like an angel, but then, famously, nor did Susan Boyle fit the popular notion of a person who could sing like one, and we all know what happened to her.
From what Roux has said, Lara, 30, could become as successful as a chef as Boyle has as a singer. She has a wonderful palate, terrific flair, great imagination and exquisite finesse, pretty much all that's required, along with phenomenal drive, huge energy, utter commitment and a good blowtorch, to become a gastronomic superstar. And if she does, she also has one other priceless asset: she can make the vegetables in her kitchen garden grow more quickly than anyone else's, just by chatting to them.
Star quality doesn't always equate to acting ability
Still on the subject of accents, Emma Thompson recently asserted that the film My Fair Lady is due for a remake because Audrey Hepburn couldn't sing or act, and in an interview at the weekend she revealed that nothing else she has ever done or said has generated nearly as much hate mail as that one bit of Hollywood lese-majesté. The following day, coincidentally, page three of this newspaper – so much classier than those of some newspapers – featured a charming limited-edition photograph of Hepburn getting into a studio car, and it was easy, admiring her gamine beauty (one of the laws of journalism, incidentally, is that no mention of Audrey Hepburn can ever be made without recourse to the word 'gamine'), to see why Thompson copped so much flak.
I'd hate any of that abuse to come my way, but might it actually be true that lovely Audrey wasn't all that marvellous at acting? Take another look at the first half-hour of My Fair Lady sometime, and ask yourself whether it is a performance of the highest class, though perhaps it would be fairer to declare her grievously miscast, as a cockney waif if not as the elegant society belle that Eliza Doolittle became. Either way, let me respectfully suggest that at least until the 1970s, the aura of a movie star routinely eclipsed the quality of his or her acting, which more often than not, wasn't all that. To some extent this hasn't changed – nobody's ever been able to persuade me that Richard Gere is a good actor, for example – but on the whole acting in mainstream films is much, much better than it was 60 years ago. To those who say that movie stars aren't what they used to be, that George Clooney is no Humphrey Bogart, I say three cheers.
A baby's fall, and our own family's miracle
Yesterday's remarkable story of a toddler who fell from the seventh floor of a Paris apartment block, and survived without a graze after landing on the awning of a cafe, vividly reminded my wife and me of our own family miracle, which occurred 10 years ago on holiday in the south of Spain. We were having lunch with friends, in a restaurant 40ft above a beach, and in the general excited hubbub nobody noticed that our 18-month-old son, Jacob, had manoeuvred his chair over to an open window. The blur of yellow socks and blue sandals as he toppled out head first is a memory that will live with me to the end of my days, as will the unbelievable sense of relief, after we had raced hysterically down a long flight of steps, on finding him, bawling but basically unhurt, at the centre of an astonished group of Spaniards. The parents of the little French boy were arrested, having left him and his three-year-old sister home alone. Our own negligence was more excusable, and yet, had Jacob's fall ended tragically, the sense of guilt would have been almost unendurable.