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Northern Voices

Edward Pearce on Northern Voices

UUP not OOP…

If, like Broadsides, you identify with a strong specific accent, mostly in Yorkshire tough I think Lancashire would get in on a working visa, you know what you are doing. The speech is what the actors heard themselves as children.

But any northern character part is a steel trap waiting to snap on the genteel outsider. TV repeats of the film Hobson’s Choice illustrates the desperate attempts of John Mills to play Willie Mossop three social classes down and two hundred miles north of what came naturally. You can hear the director saying, “Just play the chappie half-witted”.

John Thaw, fine as Inspector Morse, classless, educated, with a fleck of Oxford academia, is, as Kavanagh QC, calamitous. Kavanagh is supposed to be Bolton. Now, Bolton is highly distinguishable from Rochdale or Oldham, never mind west Lancashire. It is a slow, sweet, dragging speech, softer and gentler than anything else in the North. Thaw, despite northern connections, speaks prop basket northern, a quick rummage for a short vowel or clipped consonant, then comes on the plain, blunt bit.

The phrase “plain, blunt”, as in “I’m a plain, blunt man and I speak my mind”, recalls another kind of stage northern, the sort once given by Uncle Toms performing in the West End and Ealing Studios. I recall without affection Edward Chapman, who in a hundred Bradford aldermen, mill owners, heavy northern fathers – witness Room at the Top – gratified the complacency of his audiences. He had, though, in that silly film, the advantage of playing aganst the least convincing Yorkshire accent ever recorded, the poison oil speech of Laurence Harvey.

Men like Chapman were like those black actors who, before about 1965, played stereotyped negroes, and I mean negroes – “yes massah” – notably Eddie Anderson as Rochester, brisk, fond lackey to Bob Hope. Chapman accepted professionally that a northern voice implied a northern type, loud, brazen, truculent, thumping from overdone stress. He diminished the north for decades, it beat acting any day.

Half the trouble is that the southern ear, even where the actor means kindly and is conscientious, invariably starts with the wrong assumptions. You will see these spelt out when a London journalist tries transcribing northern speech, writing ‘oop’, as in “op for t’ coop”. Probably you will find it next to “Eh bah goom”.

No-one from Holderness to Morcombe Bay ever said “oop”. This, Messieurs, Mesdames, is the land of the reinforced consonant! What a nice gentleman didn’t quite catch was “Upp fer’t cupp”. Not difficult, it is usually found impossible. And while we are about it, there is the diminished article, ‘t, which belongs affixed to the end of the preceding word. So “Goin’ ower ‘t moor” is “Gowin’ owert moor”. A Daily Telegraph friend tried to mimic the style, attaching this weird native locution to the successor word, producing “Gowin’ ower tuh moor”. It would be much kinder if they didn’t try.

Almost certainly the short vowels and strong endings, within which northern speech varies like quicksilver, approach the speech of Shakespeare’s time. They have been overlaid by the colonic constrictions which gave us Queenspeak – ‘ectually”, “heah” and “glarss blewing” – and by the London trick, a fault of many capital cities, of consonant-dropping: “The bar’ she sa’ in was of burnish’ gol’.”

The point of Broadsides is not bloody-minded North of England, or anyway not just that. It is an insistence upon the plainness of classical English speech, its demotic clarity before court affectation and slatternliness got into the woodwork. “And did you once see Shelley plain?” asked Robert Browning. The whole purpose is that, through this northern filter, we may speak Shakespeare (and other masters) plain.

© Edward Pearce.

Edward Pearce is a former Daily Telegraph Commons sketchwriter,
Guardian columnist and author of ten books.