The first thing to say is that I didn't think Anne Hathaway's much reviled northern accent in the new film One Day was too bad, and I'm from York, just 20 miles from her target area. (The character, Emma Morley, is supposed to be from Leeds.) I found myself fairly convinced, partly because Hathaway resembles a younger, infinitely chicer version of Hilda Ogden, what with blubbery lips, slightly protuberant eyes, and endearingly flat-footed walk.
Voice-wise, she did visit Liverpool halfway through, and she made a quick excursion to Cornwall towards the end, but on the whole she reminded me of my very northern auntie Paddy, a chain-smoking single lady who spoke in a droll drone, and kept budgies. I recall her telling me that one of her budgies had put on a lot of weight, and when she'd taken it to the vet, a Mr Wilson, he'd just shrugged, offering the comment, "You know what they say – fat and happy." "Of course," Paddy had added, blowing smoke, "Wilson himself is about 18 flippin' stone."
The Yorkshire accent and dialect suits that sort of remark. It is not actually possible to say "Have a nice day!" in a proper northern tone, and on my trips back to Yorkshire from London, I have to re-acclimatise. I sat down opposite an old friend in a York pub recently, and asked, "What've you been up to, then?"
It took me a minute to rally.
There wasn't much tone of any sort to accompany Hathaway's accent in One Day, which struck me as generic and emotionally manipulative, like an advert. To that extent I can understand the attacks on Hathaway – "Geoff Boycott in drag", "That accent is a right shocker", etc. She, an American star, was in the film for entirely commercial reasons, and her critics were either speaking from or appropriating the historic sense of economic resentment among northerners. Hathaway is not the first American actor to be exposed to this. Two celluloid Robin Hoods – Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe – were mocked for their Nottinghamshire accents. When Mark Lawson (a Yorkshireman) ventured to suggest to Crowe that he sounded Irish for much of Robin Hood, the star stomped out of the interview. I saw that film, and such was the compelling force of Crowe's physical presence that I just assumed that the men of medieval Nottinghamshire did speak with a strong, if intermittent, Irish brogue.
But there was something more behind the onslaught on Hathaway. A certain kind of northern accent has now become sacred in Britain, not to be messed with. It has long signified down-to-earth trustworthiness. For example, when I was a boy, the world was full of shifty double-glazing salesmen, so when Everest Double Glazing mounted a big television advertising campaign, it recruited the bluff Derbyshire dairy farmer and radio personality Ted Moult to front it. Today, the automated voice of Barclaycard opens proceedings with a brisk, "Hi there, welcome ter Barcl-i-card." Jane Horrocks and Prunella Scales came over all Last of the Summer Wine in that Tesco advert about fish, and Sean Bean is the voice of O2: "Surprises of all sizes, every time yer top up." In an increasingly atomised and globalised world, a northern voice means localism, familiarity, community values.
The Londoner won't do. He is Del Boy, the sole trader, the volatile free market personified. As Stuart Maconie writes in his best-selling love letter to the North, Pies and Prejudice, "It is apparently quite acceptable in the boozers and parlours of Stepney and Poplar for a grown man, when asked of his livelihood, to reply, 'Oh, bit of this, bit of that, bobbin' and weavin', you know.' In Halifax and Huyton," Maconie continues, "we call this 'being unemployed'."
It seems that Liverpudlian and Birmingham accents won't do either. These came towards the top in a survey of the nation's least favourite accents conducted by the BBC in 2005. According to Paul Kerswill, professor of sociolinguistics at Lancaster University, "That's possibly because people don't want to identify with those big cities, whereas the Yorkshire accent is thought of as being rural."
I had thought the appeal of a northern accent might also be connected to a nostalgia for the passing of accents in general, but according to Professor Kerswill the truth is more subtle. "There is a process of accent levelling... big epicentres of accents that tend to invade surrounding areas. Geordie is very strong at the moment, and Scouse." He thinks the strength of the Geordie accent might be to do with a "Cheryl Cole effect", while Scouse stays strong because of the ongoing need of Liverpudlians to differentiate themselves from their regional rivals in Manchester. But internal migration and globalisation have meant a "loss of nuance" in between the epicentres. "You don't hear a Sussex accent very much, or a Surrey or a Berkshire accent," and this he feels is a shame.
I agree. When I was growing up in York, my friend Paul, a considerable amateur actor, could do a range of Yorkshire accents. He'd do York, then Leeds, after which I might archly ask him, "Now do Tadcaster" (which is equidistant from York and Leeds), and he would come up with something that sounded plausible. If he goes to see Anne Hathaway in One Day, he'll no doubt be saying, "She's sounding very Wetherby at the moment... now she's gone back to Leeds... Now she's gone all Scarborough."
Paul was proud of his own Yorkshire accent, and he'd exaggerate it at times. If feeling expansive, he'd greet me with a "Na'then". It was a joke confined to the two of us, because he knew how provocative a "put-on" accent could be. And this further explains the furore about Hathaway, because of course an actor is putting it on. As are young black men according to David Starkey, who recently accused them of employing a "completely false" Jamaican patois.
Well, all accents are conditional. When I was at university, someone said, "You have a northern accent that sounds like it's trying to be posh." That was 30 years ago. Two years ago when I presented a television documentary, someone else said, "You were hamming up the Yorkshire accent weren't you?" And there, in sum, is the social history of our time.
When I was a boy in 1970s York, there was a little panel in the corner of a newsagent's window that advertised the services of an elocution teacher. A few of the pushier children in the area did succumb, but I knew that back in the late 1950s, the likes of Sillitoe, Barstow and Waterhouse had exploited a boom in northern industrial wages to asset the northern personality on the national stage. It was no longer necessary to have elocution lessons – at least, not if you were confident. But my own confidence would fluctuate. At university among southerners, I would come to a word like "pub" and I would hesitate before the northern "U" so boldly employed today by Sean Bean when he says "top-up" for O2. If I essayed "pub" with the short "U" it was as if a sudden flash of lighting would disclose a Lowry-esque townscape behind me, all smoking chimneys and men in flat caps walking whippets. Fearful of this revelation, I would say... "pab". (I had the same difficulty with the word "love", by the way, but that didn't come up as often). So whereas back then I would often half-suppress my northern-nesss, the times now seem to demand that I maximise it, and I can't believe that elocution teacher of my childhood is still in business – unless she's teaching reverse elocution.
Yet I do not quite believe in this democratic revolution that I seem to be describing. William Hague, with his lovely accent, might be giving Colonel Gaddafi a hard time, but he's not the PM, and not likely to be. His function is to lend street credibility to a cabinet of Old Etonians, just as bluff John Prescott was a necessary foil for patrician Tony Blair. Yes, Radio 3 now has plenty of northern voices, but I still think of it as an Oxford college, where the top brass convene for sherry as dusk falls, one gowned figure muttering to another, "Have you come across Ian McMillan? He's one of our evening presenter chappies. Poet, you know. Terribly good on the arts. He came here on a full scholarship a few years ago – from Barnsley, if you can believe it. He's doing awfully well, and if anyone says we're the slightest bit elitist, we point them straight to him."
And why, to come full circle, is the Emma Morley character in One Day from Leeds in the first place? It is to underline the fact that despite being attractive and morally grounded, she is gauche, socially under-confident, unwilling therefore to force herself upon the public schoolboy she loves. Hence a plot that spans 20 years. If sounding northern means sounding cute... well, I'm not sure that's what the Angry Young Men of 50 years ago had in mind.