Did anyone else catch Michael Gove doing Harry Enfield on breakfast television? If you didn’t, I half want to beg you to watch it, immediately, and half want to save you from making your eyes bleed. Because it is cringe.
It is the equivalent of your dad dancing at a different beat to everyone else at a wedding, his arms wheeling like windmills to the “Y.M.C.A”; your mum kissing you square on the mouth at the school gate and calling out that she loves you. It has the same, skin-crawling horror as realising you’ve been talking to the person you’ve a crush on with something green stuck between your teeth, or of walking through the office the day after the Christmas party with flashbacks of that “private” conversation you had with your boss in which you told her exactly what you think of her.
It is memories of singing Bonnie Tyler too loudly, too badly, on the train ride home – and of someone posting the footage on Instagram the next day. It is walking the length of the high street with your skirt tucked into your knickers; tripping over broken paving and having to turn around and glare at it like it’s wronged you. It is that level of cringe, Defcon 1 levels of cringe: forever to be known as Michael Gove levels of cringe. You have been warned.
What happened? Well, Gove appeared on BBC Breakfast and did some interesting impressions... first, (weirdly) channelling a California tech bro, complete with jazz hands, as he head-wobbled through the idea of an “emergency budget”. He then segued into a kind of Dick Van Dyke character in the middle, using some completely made-up, posh-boy words – “commonsensical”, to add to his now-famous “bonkerooney”. The bonkerooney bomb, if you like (though I have a sneaking suspicion those bits were the real Michael Gove).
In the middle (and most jarringly), he channelled the ghost of Christmas comedy specials past, by way of Harry Enfield. No, you didn’t read that wrong: the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities really did use the well-worn (and if you know the 1990s, you know) parody Scouse catchphrase of “calm down, calm down”, when talking about... the cost of living crisis. Oh dear. Watch out, lads: we’ve got Alistair McGowan in the cabinet.
Finally, just to finish us all off, Gove lapsed back into US tech bro and did a self-conscious, cartoonish skit about a “CAPITAL LETTERS BIG NEWS STORY” in which we can assume he was trying to be funny – but actually, he just sounded a bit weird. A total misfire. And when it comes to apeing the stereotype of a permed, tracksuit-wearing Liverpudlian, as per Harry Enfield’s gag, who alternately falls out and makes peace with his mates? Well, that just seems pretty offensive to me.
“Unhinged”, some people called it; “god help us” one person commented on Twitter – basically, when you try to change your accent, it never works. It just doesn’t. It makes you sound like a prat. And that goes for either direction – whether you’re changing it to sound posher, if you’re worried you’re not RP enough; or (worse) “dumbing down”. Particularly if you’re a Tory. Not least if you’re a Tory MP, talking on live television about the cost of living crisis. Don’t do that. Just don’t.
I’d also go as far as to say changing your accent backfires, every single time – take it from someone who knows. I spent years trying to hide my Essex accent: brought up in one of the parts of the country which has always been so widely mocked that whole TV programmes have been made about it (Birds of a Feather, anyone? TOWIE?).
When I went to university in Wales at 18, I was so conscious of the stigma that has always come from being branded an “Essex girl” that when my new housemates, who came from the delightfully-accented south west (Bristol, Devon, Cornwall) asked me where I came from, I said “north east London” off pat. I mean, it’s almost true.
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I’ve been confused with being Australian or American more times than I can count thanks to that specific home-counties-meets-East-End twang, then betrayed by the fact that I can’t help dropping the occasional “innit” into conversation. I know my accent has changed over the years – I now sound slightly posher than I have any right to be, and it’s because I grew up learning to feel ashamed of my Essex roots.
Like so many other regions, like Scousers, we’ve long been stigmatised and disparaged – is it any wonder we might be desperate to escape the cries of “Sharon” and “Tracy”, with all the usual connotations: that we’re loose-moralled, white stiletto-wearing airheads?
Which begs the question: what’s Michael Gove’s excuse? We need to unpick that, first, before we really mug him off (a little Essex idiom there, for you).
Still, it’s interesting to see how people feel about accents. I asked a colleague how he felt about Gove’s performance and he laughed it off, and said we all should, too. “I thought it was quite amusing, to be honest,” he told me. “A bit more silliness in politics is what we all need.”
Commonsensical, bonkerooney silliness? Maybe Gove is right. Maybe we all need to “calm down”. Or do we?
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