Send in the voice squad

The middle classes need defending again, and this time the assault is on their ears. People ain’t talking proper no more, and who’s to blame? The BBC, of course

The BBC, the teaching profession, and now the nation’s children: they’ve all got it in for the middle classes.

There is nothing Middle England holds so dear as the Queen’s English. In shire county and chintz suburb alike correct grammar and received pronunciation are seen as the touchstones of civilisation. Such devotion can, of course, lead to some tiresome pedantry – often to do with split infinitives or niceties such as “different from” rather than “different to” – but occasional pernicketiness is a small price to pay for the preservation of precision in spoken and written English.

However, when baiting the bourgeoisie is a national sport it must be expected that treasured values will be ridiculed, undermined and subjected to head-on assault. School children up and down the country are joining in the fun. A recent report by the School Curriculum & Assessment Authority says that pupils regularly say “we ain’t”, “they is” and “she come”, not because they are ignorant of the correct forms but because they prefer the ungrammatical versions.

Bad English is fashionable. It has become so because the bien pensants of Haverstock Hill and Barnsbury Square hold that

correct speech is a form of oppressive paternalism that works to undermine the rich cultural self-expression of the proletarian masses. Since today’s BBC is the spoken voice of Guardian England, rather than of Middle England, broadcasters, particularly those whose audiences are children, use yobspeak as a standard form of communication.

This maddens the middle classes, whose rage must give huge satisfaction to Ms Liz Forgan, the well-spoken crypto-proletarian who controls BBC radio.

There is but a single bolthole and that is the World Service of the BBC which, with a few lamentable exceptions such as the Lancastrian egalitarian Andy Kershaw, still sounds like the BBC used to in the golden age of broadcasting before the advent of pink corduroy socialism and political correctness.

What seems to be forgotten outside Bush House is that since broadcasting is an aural medium, it follows that the broadcasters should have pleasant voices, or at the very least voices that do not jar. In the early days of the BBC people behind the microphone were chosen not simply because they spoke “good English” but also because they sounded good.

It would be perfectly possible to apply the same standards today, were it not for the pleasures to be derived from assaulting the sensitive ear of Middle England. Not all the youngsters in our schools today who use phrases such as “his trainers come off” are rehearsing for careers in broadcasting. There must be others who emerge from education with acceptable voices. That they are not chosen goes to show that the sounds that emanate from its broadcasters are of no interest to the BBC other than for their nuisance value.

My own bête noire is a young woman called Sybil Ruscoe who hosts an afternoon programme on Radio 5. I have no doubt she is a pleasant, likeable person of a kindly disposition. But she has a voice that could summon alley cats from roofs ten blocks away.

She is also a practitioner of an Estuary English word-form that is increasingly common on the BBC – at this point I remove my pipe, which remains linked to my lip by a silver thread of spittle, and address the saloon bar in the authentic voice of the pedant – and that is the intrusive “yer”.

“Yer” is used as a substitute for “you”, “you’re” and “your”. It sounds at once matey, relaxed, and, of course, proletarian. When Sybil was at the Cheltenham Festival, screaming at the nation, she found her way into the commentator’s box and assailed Peter Bromley with the memorable words, “Tell us about yer binoculars, they’re something special”. To a celebrity racegoer she observed in the tones of an over-heated schoolgirl, “Yer love yer racing don’t yer”.

Under the present regime at Broadcasting House, the sports lover with a sensitive ear is particularly hard done by. Again, it is a reflection of corporation policy to dispense with anyone who has a claim to broadcasting skill. In sport the preference is for “retired big names” chosen on the assumption that their fame and prowess earned on the field of play will pull in the punters.

It is a risky policy. Anyone listening to Trevor Brooking, knowledgeable fellow though he is, quickly learns what a buzz-saw would sound like were it blessed with the gift of speech. To Trevor, the “g” at the end of the present participle is an unattainable goal. But the BBC lets him go buzzin’ on, like a hugely amplified version of the dialling tone.

Gary Lineker comes across exactly as one would expect. Likeable, sincere and intelligent. But he doesn’t have the voice for broadcasting. He lacks variation and expression and is prone to accentuate the wrong words when reading a script. That is not his fault, you don’t score many goals using perfect diction.

Surprisingly, Bob Shennan, BBC Radio’s head of sport, interviewed by Michael Parkinson, admitted that Lineker’s voice was a worry. So somebody in the corporation remembers that the spoken word can be conveyed well or ill. Even so, says Shennan, “We sent him for voice training…he’s close to becoming the finished article.” Which makes you wonder what Brooking sounded like before elocution lessons.

Mention of Parkinson is, however, a reminder that even good print journalists, of which he is undoubtedly one, often make rotten broadcasters. It is astonishing that one as articulate and amusing on the page as Parkinson, can become such a mumbling, stumbling, stammering, yammering bundle of incoherency when placed near a microphone.

But yer have to hand it to Parkie. He at least hasn’t got it in for the middle classes.