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Last Updated: Friday, 2 March 2007, 18:28 GMT
Loud and clear
A POINT OF VIEW
By Clive James

Helen Mirren as the Queen
Mirren's voice was key to her Oscar success
Accents play a key part in British class and regional identity but the volume of the voice is just as telling, says Clive James.

Helen Mirren deserves her Oscar for having learned to sound like the Queen, but the Queen should get two Oscars for having learned to sound like Helen Mirren.

It took Her Majesty a lifetime of study but she finally managed to overcome her origins and start making the same sort of noise as any other well-brought-up girl from the home counties.

She and Dame Helen might not precisely be two Essex girls together, but they share roughly the same distinction, dignity, and air of authority, although I suppose Dame Helen is still the one that springs to mind when, if you're a red-blooded male with propensities towards larceny, you think of the Detective Inspector you'd most like to be arrested by.

Clive James
A measure of arrogance is that you really don't care what the people around you think of the way you sound
Clive James
It's nice, though, to see the class business losing its sting. When I first came to Britain 45 years ago, there was still a class gap, not to say a class gulf. Most countries bigger than an atoll have different social classes but what makes for a really noxious class divide is that there are feelings of inferiority to match the feelings of superiority.

In Australia, there are plenty of people who feel superior, especially if their share of a racehorse is big enough to run on its own, but hardly anyone feels inferior: they're all in it together.

In Britain, the same is at last more or less so. The homeland has caught up with its colony. But when I first came to London, there was still plenty of quietly simmering resentful envy going on from the lower class towards the upper, which only increased the arrogance of the upper class towards the lower.

A measure of arrogance is that you really don't care what the people around you think of the way you sound. Still lingering, in the early 1960s, one of the main differences between the working class and the middle class was that working-class, married couples would rarely raise their voices to each other when they fought in public. Middle class married couples, on the other hand, would bellow at each other as if nobody else was there.

Lost speech

One of my first visits to the West End theatre was to the Aldwych to see a Peter Hall production of King Lear. Paul Scofield played Lear in a leather outfit that squeaked when he walked. I got so obsessed with the sound of his leather trousers squeaking that I missed most of the words, but I would probably have missed them anyway, because he had pitched his voice very low. He was a gravel-voiced, nearly inaudible Lear. Even going mad on the blasted heath, he didn't howl, he growled.

BBC NEWS: AUDIO
In the foyer afterwards there was a lot of polite murmuring and I started to wonder if I hadn't come to a country that had lost the power of speech. Then, through the crowded foyer, there strode towards the street a very suave well-brushed couple who had clearly come in from the stockbroker belt for their weekly culture ration. As the female stalked away towards the exit she shouted back over her shoulder "I'm not your slave, John".

But it wasn't just the volume of her voice that made it stick in my mind. It was the elocution. The full cut-glass number, it was what I had come to London expecting to hear a lot more of.

Shilpa Shetty
Did her accent threaten Jade?
In Australia I had been brought up on the sort of British movies where you could identify everyone according to class by the way they spoke. You couldn't do that in American movies, but in a British movie like In Which We Serve you knew that Noel Coward was upper deck and Richard Attenborough was lower deck. Upper deck had a stiff upper lip and lower deck had a trembling lower lip.

In Brief Encounter, Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson were doomed never to consummate their passion but you could tell they were made for each other by the way they spoke. Celia, even more than Trevor, had that wonderful clipped accent by which all the vowels were formed in the back of the mouth and the lips never went slack.

I'm bound to say that when women were speaking the upper-class British accent it turned me on a treat, but my arrival in London seemed to be the signal for the whole thing to disappear.

Archbishop in drag

All the women from the north started sounding like Rachel Roberts in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and nobody in the south sounded like Celia Johnson anymore except the Queen, who still, when addressing the nation at Christmas, sounded as if she had only recently attended her own coronation and been stunned by the spectacle of the Archbishop of Canterbury in full drag.

The history of Britain since that time can be roughly summarised as the successful attempt to persuade the monarch to approach, from the top down, nearer to the happy medium that linguistic experts call standard English, or received English, or even BBC English, although you might wonder how there can be such a thing as BBC English if someone like me is on the BBC.

I could gladly listen to Ken Stott reading the whole Bible aloud, but even a short reading by Jimmy Nail would leave me puzzled

The BBC, along with the nation's broadcasting system in general, has been instrumental in a monumental social change. Regional accents were correctly judged to be worth hearing.

A mistake, however, although not the biggest mistake, was to suppose that the regional accents were all equally understandable. I could gladly listen to Ken Stott reading the whole Bible aloud, but even a short reading by Jimmy Nail would leave me puzzled, and not just because I'm an Aussie.

It's because a Scottish accent is inherently more intelligible than a Geordie accent except perhaps for Ruth in the Archers. By intelligible I mean intelligible to other English speakers. Americans, wherever they come from, almost invariably pronounce the whole word.

Brief Encounter
An equal match - Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard

So one of the secrets of American cultural power is that all Americans understand each other instantly across three million square miles and everybody else in the world who speaks English can understand them too, whereas there are plenty of British people who can't understand their own countrymen across a distance of a hundred yards.

But let's suppose, for a moment, that all British regional accents were equally easy on the general ear. The biggest mistake is to think that yob is a regional accent as well.

But the yob voice isn't regional. The yob voice doesn't come from a geographical division. It comes from a social assertion, the way that the upper class accent once did, and a sure sign of the yob voice's deliberate aggressiveness is that it's produced with even more effort.

It once took a lot of energy to speak like Sir Alec Douglas Home. You practically had to swallow your own mouth. It takes the same kind of effort to produce the yob uproar, whose sheer volume is the chief sign that what's really happening is a newly dominant social force arrogantly asserting its privileges. But the privileges aren't class privileges. This is a different thing.

Yobs with jobs

Yob privileges are classless privileges. One of them is automatic individuality. In this age of universal stardom, everyone has a right to stand out even if he has no detectable characteristics.

With half the consonants missing, the sound the voice makes is telling us that it doesn't matter if there is no information to be conveyed, as long as the message is heard, and the message is "this is me". The angle grinder loudness of the voice serves to amplify the message "this is me", even if the person shouting it might himself doubt the validity of that statement when he looks into the driving mirror of his boom-box car.

On a train, you will hear just how classless yobbery can be, when every carriage except the quiet carriage is occupied by yobs with jobs, important men who are proving it by using their mobile phones as megaphones. The quiet carriage is full of them too, conveying the further message that your space is their space if they say so.

Only Fools and Horses
Luvly jubbly
It's an ugly sound they make, and any dreamy-eyed social pundit is foolish who asserts that all voices have equal value. He would be closer to being right if all voices had equal volume, but the loudness is still the tip-off. Once it was one bunch, the nob yobs, who didn't care how much noise they made, and now it's another bunch.

In one way, it's a change for the better, because at least the top dogs no longer have the most confident bark. Long ago, Sir Alf Ramsey was mocked when he went into secret training to pick up his dropped aitches. But he was right to believe that there was indeed such a thing as being well spoken. There still is.

When some commentators correctly decided that what Jade Goody said about Shilpa Shetty couldn't have been a race thing because racism is an idea and Jade hasn't got an idea in her head, they incorrectly decided that it must have been a class thing. But it wasn't.

It was just that Shilpa sounded like Zainab Badawhi and Trevor McDonald and all the other people who grew up speaking a reasonably pleasant-sounding English, and poor Jade didn't. She had plenty to resent, because nothing makes you nervous quite like knowing that your voice gets on other people's nerves.

Not that we should encourage the idea that changing the way you sound is an easy trick for an adult. It can take years, even if your face is on the stamps. But it can't be hard to just turn down the volume.


Thanks for your comments. The debate is now closed.

What an excellent programme and a breath of fresh air .Living in Oxford you have the whole range of accents and so to hear Clive James articulating the mechanics of the yob and their voice volume ,confirmed it for me . So I may not enjoy listening to other people's mobile phone conversations whilst I am captive on the Oxford Tube to and from London ,I will have a better appreciation of what's going on.
Humphrey Truswell, Oxford

I think you've really put your finger on it with the idea of the classless yob privilege being automatic individuality, the only thing needed to claim it being volume. A connection here with the illusory power of the blog?
Susan Samata, Peterborough

Personally, I find the pitch and volume the most important things. If someone is talking loudly in a high-pitched voice, I will not hear what they are saying, because all I'm thinking is 'please stop screeching in my ear', in that case accent doesn't matter, although some accents naturally suit a higher tone than others. Talking like a Scouser from Harry Enfield can't be done in a deep voice for instance.
Mike, London, England

You may have been here 45 years, Clive, but you've managed to miss the point. We English LIKE to be the same as each other. We LOVE the class thing - still. And no matter what you think, every working class man or woman will spend time effort and cold hard cash on 'improving' his or her accent. If that wasn't true, then why do we chase the trappings of high class living - but on the cheap?
Peter Keen, Chichester England

Ruth's accent isn't Geordie, it's Northumberland which is much softer. Genuine Geordie (Newcastle,)and even more, 'pitmatic' (broadly, Ashington )accents are at least as unintelligible as Scots
Barbara Sim, Kent

I love living in a country where my accent, so far as everyone around me is concerned, is "English" mixed with a little Texan. The Americans have no idea of which class I am, and could not care less. It's good to get away from that snobby, elitist structure that plagues the UK.
Jane Wilson, San Antonio, TX (British ex-pat)

I love to her the different accents in the UK, some of which are entirely unintelligible to me. I was brought up in the East End and had the thickest and fastest Cockney accent imaginable. Then my parents moves to Wiltshire and my accent went haywire for a while. Now I speak with either a 'posh' or a Cockney accent, the combination of which, oddly enough, sometimes sounds like I have a South African accent...
Heather, Wolverhampton

Americans may understand each other, but the differences can be striking. The volume seems required to sort it all out. In Pittsburgh, I ordered a 'round cake with clowns' only to have the order repeated back as a 'rond cake with clons'. The 'youz' guys of Philadelphia became 'yins' along with 'pop' for soda, which I was told meant an ice cream soda, and 'jumbo' for bologna. The birthday party shopping list proved a definite challenge that day.
Candace, New Jersey, US

How great it is to hear again the sharp observations he makes, and, with which I heartily agree. His relaxed delivery is perfect for Sunday mornings. I look forward to further comments. It is a pity that the "listen again" is limited to 7 days.
Michael Kearley, St Albans, UK

Clive James is worth every penny he gets paid from the B.B.C. Had me in stitches yet again. I envy his command of the English language and this is yet another classic following his wheelie bin episode ! Long may he continue his slot
Glasgow, UK

Great! Made so much sense. I work with those on the margins - social inclusion, etc and find their mind set and language so interesting. There does seem to be a lack of real dialect replaced by aggressive and abusive everyday language.
Colin Jenkinson, Horsham, West Sussex

I like all of this apart from the assertion that everyone can understand all types of American accent. I can't. Any American film which involves deep south drawlin' or gangstas rappin' out words like machine-gun bullets has me stumped.
Bridget, Slough

It's amazing the amount of people with grating, loud voices, and it's not just a class thing. Why do people feel the need to shout into mobile phones, or even during a face-to-face conversation? Are they afraid that if they speak with a softer, more pleasant voice, they'll be ignored?
Michelle, London

Always entertaining. Always a delight to read. Always read even though I have listened to the broadcast for it is even funnier second time around.
Roger Nash, Thetford. Norfolk.UK

Three cheers for Mr James! At long last someone in Britain speaks out against this aggressive sound pollution. How wonderful it should be an Australian, still the victim of that British myth that mistakenly holds Antipodean English to be inferior. Thank God for sensible, reasonably pleasant people!
Willem Ginckels, Mechelen, Belgium

"I'm not your slave, John". Rude and offensive maybe but every English speaker from Land's End to John of Groats would have understood her then and now. I listened to a doctor recently talking about MRSI. Surely not a variant already? No, she could not pronounce "A". Not inconceivably this could be dangerous. Hasn't 'regional accents good, BBC newsreader accent bad' run its course?
Peter White, Lisburn, Co Antrim

Wonderful stuff- brightens up Sunday after the service. MORE please
Kurt Ryz, London

Please keep Clive James in the Point of View slot. He's the only one I have listened to since Alistair Cooke left this Sunday morning slot. Clive is just what we need. Brilliant, incisive, witty and RIGHT!!
Andrea Cole, Kegworth, Leicestershire, England

An extremely well written entertaining piece, created and delivered by an intelligent and experienced professional. Perhaps most important of all it was current, factual and an observation that would resonate with a great many.
Phil Barrett, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Clive James pinpoints the Jade Goody problem.
Irving Stewart, Ipswich/england

Trust Clive to put the despicable phone-shouters on trains (not to mention the toxic Jade Goody) into their rightful place. A serious suggestion is that we should adopt the mobile phone rules imposed by the train companies in Japan. Phones are permitted, but users may only make or receive calls if they do so out of the hearing of fellow passengers. This leads to the delightful sight of expensively dressed businessmen dashing to the end of the compartment (outside the toilet door) whenever their phones ring. Well, we can hope ...
Mike D, Forest Row

Thank you Clive, and BBC team. Potentially putting in place the delivery of a slightly substantially better world, going wel' forward. Potentially. Thank You. Clive for President
Peter Bye, Cwm Gelli , Wales

What a joy to hear Clive James express his views. So it's not just me! Such insistent and ugly noise from so many people who have little to say that is original, informed or interesting.
Michael, Surbiton, UK

This story and all those before it are superb and so good to listen to on a Friday night and even better when I hear the repeat. I have no idea how much longer CJ is going to be given this slot, a LONG time I hope, and while his wry sense of humour, accent and warm personality are maybe not all carbon neutral or organic, hey, who cares it's good to hear him again after too long an absence.
Ray Balson, Bristol

Britain has changed over the last 40 years to displace the feudalistic class system, and it's a good thing; different people have money these days, and its people that can actually earn it. The ignorant and the stupid morons in tracksuits and white trainers have created a 'Lord of the flies' linguistic implosion where, "you know what I mean", "whatever", and "bling" are the vernacular, so don't blame the BBC, the theatre, Big Brother or the Queen. Blame the stupid and the feckless.
D Tritus, Cumbria

Certain words seem to go with certain accents - the nob-yob (or nouveau nob-yob) will come out 'do you know who I am?' attempting to establish some kind of superiority. Unfortunately both the volume and the words immediately prove the inferiority. But having an accent is no excuse for poor diction - saying 'I were hungry', 'you was late' or 'you should of' instead of 'you should have' is simply bad English and should be corrected at all times.
Sandy, Derby, UK




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