Let's hear it for Melvyn and Cilla

Beryl Bainbridge is potty because today there is no prejudice against a regional accent

Hunter Davies
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:01

THAT BERYL Bainbridge: what a caution, what a tease, rubbishing the accent of Liverpool, which is where she comes from. Stirring it up, knowingly I'm sure, just as Germaine Greer does. Only Germaine takes longer, has more side turnings, uses longer words and more interesting references, but is just as potty.

Beryl got rid of her Liverpool accent by taking elocution lessons, and has not looked back. Sorry, beck. Joan Bakewell didn't take elocution lessons, but got shot off her Stockport accent once she hit Cambridge. Hard to believe when you hear those dulcet tones that Sue Lawley is a lass from Dudley.

Strange how women of that generation did poshen up. An inferiority complex or just wishing to conform and be accepted? Can't think of any men of that generation who did anything similar. Melvyn Bragg, after a few drinks, can still sound like a lad from Wigton. John Birt has lost his overtly Liverpool accent, but is certainly not a posho. Alan Bennett still sounds Yorkshire and John Cole, Ulster. All of them, like Beryl, Joan and Sue, have pursued literary or media careers, without going posh.

Beryl is potty because today there is no prejudice against a regional accent. The movement is the other way. In fact, I wonder if John Peel has actually taken elocution lessons in Scouse. He's a public school boy. Don't tell me he hasn't worked up that accent over the years.

Prince Edward has clearly been taking Essex elocution lessons. He's not there yet, but moving in that direction. It is now impossible to believe he is Prince Charles's brother. The Queen is probably appalled by how he sounds. I bet Beryl is as well.

All the surveys show that today a Scottish accent is the most acceptable, followed by Geordie, Welsh and Irish. Bottom of the pack is Cockney, as they are still perceived as spivs. A Brum accent is thought to make you sound stupid. Scouse is also towards the bottom of desirable accents.

Scots are so confident, so pleased, so proud of their accent that you rarely find them changing it, except in the case of Malcolm Rifkind. His was more a case of strangulation than change. The Scots in the Cabinet today, such as Gordon Brown, Robin Cook and Donald Dewar, have remained unmistakably Scottish, apart from Derry Irvine who sold out years ago when he became a London lawyer, though if you listen hard, you can still hear bits. Hard to believe that Tony Blair was born in Scotland, brought up by Scots, and went to a Scottish school. But then he doesn't pretend to be Scottish. He considers himself English and Durham his home town.

I longed to have a Scottish accent, which both my parents had. We moved to Carlisle when I was young, so I ended up with a Carlisle accent, which is nothing really; at least not identifiable. Hold on. Just thought of a woman of that generation who hasn't changed her accent - Bea Campbell. Her accent has got more northern with the years. I don't remember her talking like that when she was a gel in Carlisle.

When I came south in the Sixties and got a job on The Sunday Times, I did feel prejudiced against. It was all oak-panelled walls and everyone seemed to be southern and public school. I didn't think of elocution lessons, just of leaving and going somewhere else. All I seemed to do was ring up heads of Oxford colleges or bishops who couldn't understand my accent. I once went to Italy to interview a famous English writer, so famous I've forgotten his name. The minute I arrived at his house in Lerici, he said: "which school did you go to?"

Then, suddenly, in the mid-Sixties everything changed. I never had to interview another Oxbridge bishop. I was able to write about the really, really important people in Britain, such as Scousers who played guitars, scruffy Cockney photographers who had never been to school, and artists who talked about drawing as if it had an "r" in the middle.

I remember once being up for a job with an Old Etonian of exactly my age and experience. I got it because prejudice had moved the other way. It was thought that a grammar school boy from the north must be somehow superior.

Things have evened up today. I like to think there is little prejudice either way, at least based on accents. Until Dear Beryl comes along, stirring things up again.

Not that it's totally gone away. Only this week I was personally attacked for being a northerner. The details don't matter, and the attacker was merely a second-rate novelist who went to a minor public school, but his form of ridicule was to call me "Oonter" and go on about how I enjoyed "faggots and mushy peas". I was amused, of course. Worralaff, as Cilla might say. And also amused by Beryl. Did you notice that having attacked accents she went home to watch EastEnders?

I don't actually watch it, but some of my servants do, and when I have chanced to walk through their living room it seems to me the accents in EastEnders are not London but Latvian. But I could be wrong.

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