Macbeth - Reviews - Daily Telegraph

Last Update: 20 November 20002

Source: Daily Telegraph

A northern accent's non-U? Don't talk daft
Sarah Johnson

There were a genius living over t' road when I were a lass, and he had a distinct Yorkshire accent. Words that I, a Home Counties girl, would end with a prim "Y", the sculptor Henry Moore ended with "eh". "Come" became "coom", and so on. If a tree could talk, it would sound like Moore. Of course, he was our village's most distinguished local dignitary; addressed by us urchins only as "Mr Moore" and eagerly feted, if they ever got the chance, by the matrons of the county.

Both my husband and I grew up surrounded by highly educated relatives who spoke with either a Yorkshire (my lot) or a Lancashire (his lot) accent. Take my aunt Ruth: the sort of person usually described as a pillar of the community, indeed a lady of the manor.

She lived in an tastefully-furnished eighteenth-century house, was a magistrate and a local philanthropist, her life commemorated by my uncle with a beautiful stained glass window in the village church. Not the sort of person that the BBC would dare to describe as socially "below" anyone. She spoke with a distinct, well-modulated Yorkshire accent, every syllable crystal-clear, every vowel gracefully lengthened.

So it was a shock to me when the other evening I heard a Radio 4 theatre critic, Michael Arditti, describe a Yorkshire accent as indicating that the speaker was "several rungs below his own servants." Below?

The victim of this breathtaking piece of old-fashioned snobbery was the actor Sean Bean, currently playing Macbeth at the Albery Theatre. John Gross, the wisest of men of letters, made similar comments in the Sunday Telegraph: he was deeply uneasy at the idea of anyone so important as the Thane of Glamis and Cawdor having a "Northern" accent (as opposed to a Scottish one).

The most tellingly stuck-up-Southerner remarks came from critics on the left-leaning broadsheets: the Guardian's Michael Billington clearly never ventures north of Watford since he got in a complete muddle and thought Bean's accent was "Geordie", whereas the man from the Independent could only associate it with football.

To complain that Sean Bean has a Yorkshire accent is like complaining that Nigella Lawson is not flat-chested: the attribute is part of the package.

And speaking of chests, I admit freely that "What a lovely accent!" is not the first thought that comes into a red-blooded Englishwoman's mind when Bean gets his acting boots on (and shirt off). But it might be the fourth or fifth thought, for the Yorkshire accent, capable of being clipped and warm, aggressive and tender, pompous and down-to-earth all at the same time, can be very sexy.

Sexy? A Yorkshire accent? Give over. It is the most commonly mocked accent in the British Isles.

Which Southerner has never couched a potentially embarrassing remark in a cod-Yorkshire, Mrs Slocombe or Compo accent? We do it all the time, to denote distance, irony, the feeling of not wanting to be associated too much with the sentiment. "'E's a loovleh man." "Nice 'ere, in't it!"

Northern English accents are closer to the speech of Shakespeare than any of the supposedly "classless" Irish, Welsh and Scots accents. That ueber-snob Evelyn Waugh noted with interest the regional variations in the distinctly upper-class voices of Lords Westmoreland, Salisbury and Curzon.

But to the ordinary Southern snob, a North of England voice is forever working class - and therefore comical - think Jane Horrocks, Sara Cox, the Boddingtons girl Mel Sykes. The only true escape is to lose it.

Hence Beryl Bainbridge's clipped Camden tones. And imagine the furore if globetrotting Michael Palin ever reverted to his native Sheffield. The John Noakes comparisons would never end.

The Yorkshire dialect itself is closely linked with Old Norse (for example, "cake-hole" come from the Norwegian for jaw - kake). To keen ears, its rhythms sound exactly like Norwegian or Swedish, but even these romantic, Viking connections cannot unseat the prejudice.

On the plus side, Northern English is the Holy Grail for call-centre managers. Research shows that when people hear a Yorkshire accent down the phone, they "hear" moral integrity, yet never condescension.

Scottish accents, by contrast, can be intimidating and the London voice has us counting the spoons before we've put the phone down.

Is it because the Yorkshire dialect speakers clung to the final "g" of words ending in "-ng" long after the rest of the English-speaking world had dropped it, that we associate it with resistance to change, therefore trustiness? Or are we just crashing snobs?

Southerners seem happy to buy stuff from the Yorkshire voice, but still expect its owner to come round by the tradesman's entrance.

Which (as Sean Bean fans know) is exactly where the lady of the house is usually waiting in her negligee. Coom 'ere, lass.

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