In the nineties I worked with a BAFTA award winning director who was originally from Wood Green. His father had been a local workman and as a child he wrote letters to his teachers and applied for a scholarship, forging his father’s signature. He told me he spent a lot of time at Oxford University, where he went, learning to speak like the late Princess Margaret only to find that when he’d finished his degree, the theatre and film world had eschewed Terence Rattigan’s plays, in favour of Look Back in Anger, Alfie, Room at the Top and plays written by Arnold Wesker. The upper class accent was dead unless you had a title and were a “real” aristocrat. The director wasn’t able to adapt and it took him some time before he found his niche. Now Terence Rattigan’s plays are celebrated once more. In the end, it’s the heart of the play that matters, whatever your class, race, sexuality, the bonds of being human are there. Inverted snobbery as well as real snobbery, can be rife in connection with the English accent. In the sixties, “Elocution” became a dirty word as Great Britain purged itself of paternal rule and class equality ruled. There are some great film moments from the sixties, when you can hear the R.P. trained actors struggling to do a cockney accent. It was a time of great and much needed change in spoken English.
The eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment was also a time of great change in the way people spoke English. Young “bucks” from stately homes would come into London and hang out with the Hoi Polloi. They adopted sounds from the cockney accent and made them popular in the Hell Fire Club and with other Aristocratic young men in England. The Duchess of Devonshire and her brothers made up their own language which no one else outside their immediate circle, understood. The playwright Sheridan enlisted Johnson’s Scot biographer ,Boswell to have elocution lessons with him. Sheridan later went to Scotland to teach the Scots how to eradicate their accent. Boswell wrote of the “loathsome Scots accent from visitors, excruciating me abominably.” I wonder what Johnson, a Brummy, would have made of that? It was the age of the great tour and as people travelled through Europe, so the sounds of the different accents educated the ear of the traveller. The struggle to show your education and worldly knowledge was rife and the use of English and the English accent, paramount. The flowery language of Restoration Comedy is an example of this Regency Period.
To a degree class and accent have been replaced by academic prowess and accent. Professor Brian Cox has a very clear English accent (Manchester) and a huge following. The very brainy Stephen Fry (Oxford English), also has a massive following. Use of English, rather than “posh” pronunciation of English is now key in communication. There are a few celebrities who, while they were making a name for themselves, dumbed down their accents and speech patterns and put in a few “innits”- thinking perhaps that this would make them more likeable. As their careers have progressed, they’ve reverted to speaking clearer English.