Sarah Sands: Sorry, Joan, the lack of an accent is not a bar to a BBC job

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The thinking man's neglected crumpet Joan Bakewell believes that her ruling-class voice makes her unemployable by the BBC. Look how cockneys dominate the ratings: Benedict Cumberbatch, for instance, or the pearly king himself, David Attenborough.

My day starts with the patrician tones of Sarah Montague on the Today programme, and ends with Jeremy Paxman (Malvern College, St Catharine's, Cambridge). If Joan wants a shot at popular television there is always Downton Abbey. She could appear in the drawing room – or revert to her native Stockport and get a part in the kitchens.

So far as I can see, Etonians have never been in greater demand on screen and the standard of brainy beauties would not disgrace a younger Joan Bakewell. I hear no regional twangs from Emily Maitlis, or Katie Derham. There are a disproportionate number of Scottish accents, which we may wish to address as part of the referendum. For some reason, they have always counted as received English in the way that, say, Norfolk accents clearly have not.

Joan Bakewell is right, however, that regional accents are a BBC aspiration. When it announced its expensive and unpopular moved to Salford, the reason given was that it would get "more non-metropolitan accents on to the air". It certainly succeeded in silencing metropolitan guests in arts and sports, who refused to make the journey. Like many state projects, it made no accommodation for human nature.

There has always been a natural movement from the provinces to the capital. A unionist remarked to me the other day that the reason for the local calibre of the Scottish parliament was that all the bright Scots made it to London. I love hearing traces of accents in Londoners. My husband has a lovely Yorkshire intonation. But if accents are unseasoned, they can be incomprehensible, alarming or comic. Why are Shakespearean fools usually played in a regional accent? Simon Russell Beale's comic menace as Stalin in The Collaborators was assisted by a West Country twang.

The BBC is behind the curve in its quest for regionalism. In the real economy, people looking for jobs in the service industries are taking elocution lessons. Globalism encourages received English. Cheryl Cole's Geordie accent may have been part of her charm, but if she had spoken like Joan Bakewell, she might have had a career in America. The perfect professional accent is probably Carey Mulligan's.

An ungallant online correspondent makes the point that it was not Joan Bakewell's voice that barred her to broadcasting so much as the fact that she is old. Actually she looks terrific, but it is true that styles have changed. A younger generation talks twice as fast and is dismissive of punctuation.

The mistake is to equate the "classless" new accents with democratic social representation. The plummiest voices are often those of working-class or foreign origin. Joan Bakewell's playwright pash, the late Harold Pinter was an example. Meanwhile, Prince Harry can do effortless estuary.

I am always admiring of elocution voices such as Joan Bakewell's or, of course, Lady Thatcher's. It is a moving mix of ambition and diffidence. The idea that people can take you as you are strikes me as complacent and inconsiderate. So if we can all agree that regional accents are not inherently more virtuous, I can admit to liking them. I turn up the radio for Bea Campbell. But this is a matter for linguists rather than BBC policy-makers.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening Standard

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