Regional accents on TV and radio are in short supply

How wonderful it was, then, to hear Olivia Colman as an intelligence agency chief in the TV adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager

Jane Merrick
Sunday 28 February 2016 00:01
Olivia Colman’s flat vowels in the ‘The Night Manager’ are a cheering change from the norm
Olivia Colman’s flat vowels in the ‘The Night Manager’ are a cheering change from the norm

In our house we have a very old radio alarm clock that struggles to find its FM signal in our digital age, and therefore it must be retuned every day. Whenever I need to find Radio 4, I don’t peer at the tiny red line and even tinier numbers, I simply carry on turning the dial until I can hear someone speaking in a non-regional accent.

This might be an exaggeration from a Liverpudlian whose hearing is distorted by the chip on her shoulder, but it is only a slight exaggeration. Regional accents on TV and radio are in short supply. On the BBC in particular, they know their place: CBeebies: no; CBBC: yes. Radio 4: no; Radio 5 Live: yes. There is little point complaining about Sacha Baron Cohen’s portrayal of a working-class northerner in his new film, Grimsby, because he is a satirist: everyone is fair game – except to say that his attempt at a Grimsby accent is terrible. But we northerners are starved of positive portrayals on TV and film.

How wonderful it was, then, to hear Olivia Colman as an intelligence agency chief in the TV adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager. Not only was her performance a contender for another Bafta for Colman, she plays a woman named Angela Burr with a strong northern accent and fearless principles. I’m not sure where exactly in the north Burr is supposed to be from, but her voice passes a resemblance to a woman from Halifax who used to be my line manager when I worked as a temp at Yorkshire Water.

Anyway, as cheering as were her flat vowels crashing through the normally RP-dominated BBC1 9pm Sunday slot, Colman’s accent is so striking because, in real life, Whitehall is almost devoid of regional voices. In 15 years of dealing with civil servants while working in Westminster, I must have heard only a handful. Some MPs, of course, keep theirs as a badge of honour and to keep it real for their constituents. But the rest of us are blended into a gigantic smoothie of estuary English. I am complicit in this: after living in Liverpool and Leeds I moved to London in 2001 and was so aware of my deep Us and flat vowels – being openly mocked by a press officer when I called him to ask what his boss was “uup to” – that I started to style out my accent in order to feel less of an outsider.

The Civil and Diplomatic Services are not the stuffy organisations they once were, although they are still dominated by ex-public school boys and girls. They are very conscious of their need to become more diverse. But when I try to imagine a real-life Angela Burr telling a colleague: “He was my leg man in Kiev”, it seems like an improbable fiction.

Promises, promises

Of all the pledges David Cameron regrets making, surely promising to cut migration to the “tens of thousands” in 2010 is top of the list?

Brexit campaigners have seized on the latest figures showing net migration in the year to last September was 323,000, including 172,000 from within the EU, as further evidence why the UK should leave. It is hard to see migration ever being below 100,000, despite the PM’s claims that his Euro deal, which places restrictions on benefits for EU migrants, will curb the pull factor. Yet as long as migrants are portrayed as a drain on the economy, rather than an essential contributor, he will struggle to win the argument.

Days before the migration figures were published, another set of data came out: unemployment remaining at its lowest level since 2005, of 5.1 per cent, for the last quarter of 2015. Are the two figures linked, perhaps?

Everybody out ... to vote, that is

Whatever happens in June’s referendum, it must be recognised as a triumph for democracy. Given that everyone has a vote on a simple question, there can be no claims of unfair boundary changes or dodgy candidates for political parties.

The 2009 expenses scandal fuelled voters’ concerns about politicians being out of touch and not listening. Now we have petitions that have to be debated in Parliament once they reach 100,000 and a nationwide plebiscite to settle one of the most divisive arguments in our country.

There can be no excuse for apathy, with the accompanying cry of “all political parties are the same”, when everyone is being given their say on Europe.

Cameron tie-ed in knots

The Prime Minister’s attack on Jeremy Corbyn’s attire at PMQs – when Cameron said his mother would tell the Labour leader to “put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the National Anthem” – was ill-advised (although DJ Taylor on page 40 may disagree), particularly when many of his backbenchers are irritated at the way the PM tackled Boris Johnson in the Commons earlier in the week over the EU referendum.

But it was also hypocritical. From early on in his leadership, Cameron was obsessively tieless as part of his modernisation get-up – not just when he was channelling Boden Dad in his navy pullover and jeans, but frequently, when he tried to show Just How Much The Conservative Party Has Changed, he would be in shirtsleeves but without a tie.

In his first term as premier, he took into No 10 one of the scruffiest men in Westminster, Steve Hilton, who would walk around in what my mother calls stockinged feet. Cameron’s former strategist also once reportedly tried to board a plane in California without shoes. There is no chance he even possesses a tie, let alone knows how to do one up.

Given that Corbyn revelled in his scruffiness during last year’s Labour leadership campaign, his appearance at PMQs is relatively smart. Perhaps it is one rule for brilliant gurus, and another for leaders of the Labour Party. Or, you might say, Corbyn is a clock radio struggling to find his FM signal in our digital age.

Twitter: @janemerrick23

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