Where is the West Country accent?
Once the BBC has finished buttering up the North, how about promoting the West? asks Roland White
One of the entertainment highlights of this year will be watching the BBC struggling to become more northern. And once the corporation is so established in the North that Emily Maitlis keeps whippets and owns a holiday home in Scarborough, somebody might mention to the director-general that other parts of the country are even more neglected.
Why, for example, is a West country accent so rare on the radio?
You can hear Northern accents, cheery voices from the Midlands, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. You can hear Asian accents, and the soothing Anglo-Caribbean of Radio 4’s Neil Nunes. But you’re more likely to hear an American accent on Radio 4 than anything west of Reading.
The last high-profile presenter with anything resembling a West country accent was Jimmy Young, who was from Gloucestershire. “I never lost my accent and nor do I wish to,” he once said. “I think it is warm and friendly – a nice soft burr that falls easy on the ear.”
Not only easy on the ear, but friendly and unthreatening. Yet even pronunciation discriminates against the West. When somebody mentions Newcastle on the radio, they very often use the local pronunciation: with emphasis on the “cas” and a short “a”.
A survey of accents in 2019 named Essex as the country’s most alluring
The BBC can’t get enough of the Glastonbury Festival, but presenters almost always pronounce Glastonbury with that short “a”. In the local pronunciation, the “a” sound can go on for weeks, and it’s the same with Baaaaath.
It’s not just the BBC: there is a wider problem of accent discrimination. A survey of accents in 2019 named Essex as the country’s most alluring. Of the seven least popular accents, four were from the West country.
Birmingham was voted the least attractive accent, which was a surprise because Brummies always sound rather friendly. It’s the same for Geordies. A Glasgow accent suggests a certain robustness of personality, while ever since the days of Minder and The Sweeney a London accent sounds as if the owner is helping police with their inquiries.
And the West country accent? It has traditionally suggested somebody slow, dim-witted, and very keen on tractors. Which is a bit tough on the sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke, from Minehead in Somerset, the space scientist Colin Pilinger, who was born just outside Bristol, not forgetting the Wiltshire archaeologist Phil Harding. Or indeed the Times Radio broadcaster Matt Chorley, who is originally from Taunton and is one of the few West Country voices to be heard on the air who isn’t a comedian or a member of The Wurzels.
Prowse’s accent was so agricultural that he was nicknamed Darth Farmer by his co-star Carrie Fisher
Perhaps the most famous victim of accent discrimination was the actor Dave Prowse, who played Darth Vader in Star Wars with a Bristol accent until it was dubbed by the more threatening tones of James Earl Jones. Prowse’s accent was so agricultural that he was nicknamed Darth Farmer by his co-star Carrie Fisher.
It’s no surprise that he once warned fellow Bristolians to disguise their accents when going to a Star Wars audition: “You can’t go: ooo-aaar, m’dear, here’s my lightsabre.”
At least the West country gets a better deal than East Anglia. For a high-profile Suffolk or Norfolk accent you have to go right back to Allan Smethurst, The Singing Postman, and his 1964 hit single Hev Yew Gotta Loight Boy.
So, once the BBC has finished buttering up the North, how about promoting the West? They could start with Match of The Day, which would certainly be a lot more entertaining if it was presented by the former Bristol Rovers manager and local boy Ian Holloway.
Roland Whit was born and went to school in Somerset, but now lives in Wiltshire.
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