Monday, 26 November 2012

Mick Jagger has always suffered from vowel trouble – something my school chums seem to have avoided

BBC TV has been airing some terrific programmes about The Rolling Stones over the past week to celebrate the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world's 50th anniversary, and there’s a whole lot more to come. The most fascinating stuff is from the 1960s, of course – last night’s BBC 4 offering, The Rolling Stones: Charlie is My Darling, filmed during a 1965 tour of Ireland, was particularly good. The music was, of course, superb – but the accents were almost as mesmerising.

The various accents are on display in the following video: it gets tedious, so it's probably best to listen to it from 5'30" on:

Okay, Charlie Watts never tried to posh up his cockney accent. Bill Wyman smoothed his out a tad, by the sound of it, as did Keith Richards (who now sounds like some louche, camp old Fitzrovian who used to prop up the bar between Jeffrey Bernard and Francis Bacon at the Colony Club). Brian Jones was ever so well-spoken. Mick Jagger, the only truly middle class member of the band, veered between aristocratic Mayfair Cockney, public school correctness, and gor blimey geezer-speak – well, the Sixties was the decade for reinventing oneself. (No wonder Jagger turned out to be such a dreadful actor: he evidently can’t “hear” himself unless he’s singing.)

Of course, it still happens, as Harry Enfield highlighted in a series of TV sketches lampooning posh-boy film director Guy Ritchie's pretensions to geezerdom (and, conversely, Madonna's recently-acquired Lady of the Manor status):

I’ll admit I’m a fan of Received Pronunciation, or Oxford English, as it’s also known. Pretty much everyone at my school and university spoke it. One of my producers at BBC Westminster actually created the official gold-standard version of RP by supplying the official voice for English Language courses for foreigners. My wife confused me for years by referring to her “London” accent, when it always struck me that she could have provided the female voice for those language-teaching courses (she was astonished to learn how cut-glass she sounded when I caught her on tape chatting to our son).

Listening to KCS Old Boy Simon Taylor on the Wimbledon 8 Oliver Reed pub crawl video (watch it here) and having dinner with my oldest friend last week on one of his infrequent visits to Blighty from the Far East, it struck me how incredibly well-spoken most of my friends from King’s still are – doesn’t matter whether they’ve spent most of the intervening years abroad or who they’ve been mixing with, they just sound, well, right. Nothing snobby or affected or clipped, I hasten to add - just well-spoken.

I will hasten to add that I love almost every British accent (although odious trade unionist Clive Jenkin and Labour leader Neil Kinnock made Welsh hard to warm to for several decades). I’m particularly fond of Glaswegian, Ulster and genuine old-style London accents, all of which I can mimic to perfection (Welsh, Geordie and Indian tend to defeat me). I’m not a fan of Estuary and I absolutely loathe the harsh, aggressive chav noises produced by youngsters trying to imitate ghetto-dwellers, innit. I suspect it’s because both accents imply the erosion of local identities.

Of course Received Pronunciation – which I tend to think of as a Surrey accent - also tends to mask local identities, but, whereas the average chav-speaker is signalling that they’re ineducable, unemployable, antisocial, violent and quite possibly criminal (or aspire to be all of these things), RP-speakers are signalling that they’re respectable, well-educated, employable, socially adept and probably not criminal. Another difference between the two accents, I suspect, is that if you removed the genuine chav-speaker from their chavtastic environment (where not speaking chav would probably lead to persecution), the accent would soon disappear, while RP, in my experience, tends to last forever (unless, of course, you’re Mick Jagger or Marcus Brigstocke).

Interestingly, my old chum visiting from the Orient tells me that the main reason he got into quite a few fights as a teenager was that there was a general view that “those with cut-glass accents won’t fight back”. He enjoyed proving the posh-baiters wrong. I’m getting very tired of RP-speakers having to apologise for the way they speak – what the hell’s wrong with sounding as if you went to a decent school? I’m glad we no longer live in an age where Bradfordians like Michael Parkinson have to practice saying “bath bun” in an RP way – or, like Joan Bakewell, have to lock themselves in the lavatory at work until they’ve mastered Oxford English - in order to ‘get on”. Ridiculous – as I’ve said, distinctive regional or national accents should be celebrated, not punished: I'm all for richness and diversity. But I’m buggered if I can see why, for instance, politicians like Cameron, Clegg and Osborne should be castigated for sounding posh – to my ears, they just sound normal: and there are plenty of other things to attack them for.

As for my own accent – well, it’s a bit of a mess, to be frank. My mother’s Scottish accent (which grew less pronounced in the five and a half decades she spent not living there) and my father’s unique Norwegian-Canadian hybrid accent mean – I’m told – that I sound slightly West Country on occasions (no bad thing, obviously, although I’d hate anyone to think I was doing it deliberately because I’m keen on Cornwall). Despite that I’ve overheard myself being lampooned for sounding posh on several occasions - once, disconcertingly, by the wife of a friend whom I'd been doing my best to amuse all evening, despite jet-lag, and once by a video-tape editor at the BBC whom I'd just generously forgiven for making a truly dreadful mistake.

Ah well, I can’t help other people’s inverted snobbery. Or their ingratitude.

I recently blogged approvingly about the phenomenon of some successful comedians admitting to having received a top-class education (here): let’s hope we’re also entering an era where no Briton feels the slightest pressure to hide the fact that they talk proper. And congratulations to my old school chums for refusing to pretend to be something they definitely aren't. Innit.


  1. I find the English or Scottish accent when spoken by a well educated female can sound truly lovely,and French too,or am I going totally doolally?

    1. Not at all, southerm man - sounds spot on to me (especially the first one) - one only needs to listen to Joanna Lumley or Honeysuckle Weeks for about 30" to concur.

  2. My favourite regional accents are Liverpudlian [the omnipresent John Bishop is particularly pleasing along with Cilla Black], Brummie [Amy Turtle and Jasper Carrot] and Geordie [the lovable Ant & Dec and C4 continuity announcers]. But towering above them all is the Welsh accent [ a fine example of which is the shrieking Nye Bevan who always sounded as if he had just had his nuts zapped].

    My least favourite accents are those developed by English actors who emigrated to Hollywood who developed ersatz mid-Atlantic pronounciation [Cary Grant, Peter Lawford, Roddy McDowell, Errol Flynn].

    The most glorious accent "in English" of all time is that of the homosexual, Albanian wedding-planner Fronck in the remake of "Father of the Bride".

    Finally, Sir Donald Sinden's accent - "orotund vowel syndrome" - is very interesting. How did he arrive at the final product?

    1. Agreed about the mid-Atlantic accent (although Cary Grant's was acceptable, because he sounded like nobody else has ever sounded - sort of Los Angeles mild cockney, or "Lockney" - or something: he was born and raised in Bristol and arrived in America at the age of 16. As for Sinden, the mystery is that he sounded perfectly normal in 50s films like The Cruel Sea.

      Roy Strong, A.N. Wilson, Brian Sewell - their pukkah tones interest me: surely you have to work jolly hard to maintain an accents like that (mind you, I have no objection to them doing so).

  3. Michael Parkinson is from Barnsley, not Bradford, and there is a difference, at least to those of us from God's Own County.
    I think I was at Christ's with you, Scott - unlikely there are two of you with the same name.
    Phil Atkinson

    1. Name definitely rings a bell, Phil - being a bit of a sad bastard I actually checked that group photo of Christ's freshmen taken the term we arrived. I've narrowed you down to one of three possibles, all physically very distinct. Did you, like me, start off in that new building at the arse-end of the college?

      As far as I know, I'm the only person with my name in the universe - but there are quite a few Gronmarks in North America, and there's a chance there's a Scott in amongst them who hasn't turned up on Google (I think I'm safe when it comes to Finland, where most Gronmarks seem to hang out).