Magazine article The Spectator

Time to Rescue BBC English

Magazine article The Spectator

Time to Rescue BBC English

Article excerpt

Last month at the British Library, as part of the admirable series of poetry evenings organised by Josephine Hart, Edward Fox and Dame Eileen Atkins presented a reading of 'Four Quartets'. It is not eccentric to declare Eliot's long poem, composed between 1935 and 1942, as the greatest written in English since the death of Tennyson, and it is certainly the greatest English poem of the last century, conjoining, as it does, the language, landscape and history of this country. Fox and Atkins, sensitive to its music and grave beauty, gave a memorably lustrous performance.

Afterwards, however, the gratitude that one felt for hearing Eliot's resonant, mysterious language spoken with such sympathy was disturbed by what the writer, in another of his famous poems, called 'an overwhelming question': how often does one hear the world's greatest language spoken with respect by its native speakers? Not often in England, that's for sure.

It is not only on the streets of our cities (and, increasingly, our villages) that the verbal barbarians have taken over, with their glottal stops and rising inflections. Turn on the radio or the television, and anybody who cares for the sound and meaning of the English language must recoil with horror at how it is abused by those who make a living from speaking it. Although it is our greatest gift to the world - and the world has not withheld its thanks - too many English people are cither unable to speak it clearly, or, in the case of a metropolitan media class tainted by inverted snobbery, they refuse to.

This is not a matter of accent, though it must be said that the number of bogus proletarian voices on the airwaves has reached epidemic proportions. Has anybody heard the continuity announcers on the BBC recently? Plenty of broadcasters have spoken with distinctive accents, and many, notably Benny Green, were first-raters. Compare Green, whose London voice was genuine and warm, with the ghastly Jonathan Ross and you can see how far we have slipped. Where once there was elegance of delivery, now there is cultivated oikism.

No, it is to do mainly with language: the colour, weight, clarity, rhythm and articulation of words. Their meaning, in other words. For every presenter or reporter who speaks clearly, like the much mocked Ed Stourton, there are half a dozen guilty of elision, omission, addition and exaggeration. Familiar words, names and places are mispronounced. Verbs are left to fend for themselves - 'troops arriving in Iraq'. The letter T (either ignored, or pronounced as a D, as in 'alodda') is a lost cause. Even Andrew Marr, the BBC political correspondent and a well-spoken man in most respects, cannot say, 'going to'. Instead he says - emphatically and repeatedly - 'gunner'.

Ah, 'well-spoken'. There's the rub! The most persistent foot-soldiers in this Kulturkampf are those middle-class types who feel that by speaking poorly as a matter of principle they are expressing solidarity with that mythical sub-culture, 'real people'. Writing in this magazine recently, Charles Moore (who speaks well, as Etonians should) observed that Ruth Kelly delivered a 'breathtakingly graceless' speech at a Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year lunch four years ago 'in an accent which she would never have had while at Westminster School'. Of course she did. …

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