Gordon Griffin, the actor who is playing me in the Magna audio version of my book ‘Paperboy’ is trying to get my accent right, and needs to know if I have a ‘Sarf Lundun’ accent. I’ve never thought of myself as having any accent whatsoever, other than what is know as ‘Received English’ – the way newscasters tend to speak, neither very posh or common. But hearing myself back, I realise that I sound very middle class. Daniel Day-Lewis went to the same school as me, and I can hear my sound in his voice. Ordinary but ‘nicely spoken’ as my mother would say.
It’s been famously said that there are more accents in a London street than there are in the whole of the USA. The saying apparently came about because until the Second World War, the average distance travelled by Londoners was just three miles, and without mass transit, accents stubbornly remained localised. In America, more people left home and travelled, blurring their accents. I certainly remember the neighbours from one end of our street not talking to the other end because they sounded common, and that was in the seventies. Nowadays there’s still a huge variety of accents, but it’s more to do with ethnic grouping.
What’s shocking now, of course, is hearing how TV presenters used to speak in earlier times. The children’s show ‘Picture Book’ from the 1950s featured a lady presenter with a classic cut-glass English accent. Here’s the multi-talented Jane Horrocks giving a terrifyingly perfect (and hilarious) impersonation of her, and it’s worth watching the whole sketch (just the first third of the segment). Did we really speak like this?