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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 22nd January 2005

The word on the street is people prefer posh

Is that a pig I see flying past my window? I never thought the day would come when the BBC acknowledged that the majority of regional accents are deeply unpleasant and most viewers and listeners would prefer to hear people speaking Standard English. Henry Higgins, where are you when we need you?

In a survey of over 5,000 people, the BBC has discovered that the most unpopular accents are those from Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow and Northern Ireland, while the ones people like best belong to Sean Connery, Hugh Grant and the Queen. In other words, guttural, street cred accents are out and Received Pronunciation is in.

As a long-standing critic of the BBC's love affair with strong, regional accents, I feel I've been vindicated at last. For the past 25 years, BBC mandarins have been promoting people with "working class" accents at the expense of people who sound "posh" in a wholly misguided attempt to win over ordinary people. Indeed, until now, the only way for someone educated at a public school to survive at the Corporation has been to pretend to be from a more humble background than they really are, the most glaring example being Tim Westwood, the Bishop's son who managed to secure a slot as a Radio One DJ by speaking in a ridiculously hammed-up "black" accent.

I've always suspected that this anti-public school bias was prompted by the guilt of white, middle-class BBC executives, many of whom went to Oxford or Cambridge, rather than any genuine belief that it would please the license-payers--and now the BBC itself has proved this to be the case. According to the survey, which was commissioned by BBC Audience and Consumer Research, not only do people prefer presenters who sound like they've been properly educated, but a majority of the British public would happily swap their regional dialects for Standard English.

"I cannot believe how thick my Geordie accent is," said one respondent. "It makes me very reluctant to speak at meetings." (It's unclear whether the Beeb had to employ an interpreter to understand what this man was saying.)

In a perfect world, the BBC would execute an abrupt U-turn and make the likes of Graham Norton, Huw Edwards and John Humphries take elocution lessons as a condition of remaining on the payroll. Come to think of it, forcing these prima donnas to "talk proper", with a panel of toffs pronouncing their verdict after eight weeks, might make for a very entertaining reality show. They could call it Posh Idol. With a bit of luck, they might even be able to get Ben Fogle to present it. Now there's a nice young man--and what a lovely accent he has!


Oh dear. I was disappointed to see that Supernanny, the television programme in which Jo Frost advises parents on how to cope with naughty children, has made its debut in the States. American men already think of British women as starchy, blue-stockinged, Mary Poppins-types--and seeing Jo Frost on television each week, with her stiff-upper-lipped, no-nonsense approach, will only confirm this impression.

Why can't the British export a show like Desperate Housewives or Sex and the City to the States? It's about time we let our cousins on the other side of the Atlantic know that not all our womenfolk are dead below the waist.


What do the big winners of last week's Golden Globes all have in common? To refresh your memory, the films that won prizes included Ray, Sideways and Million Dollar Baby. Give up? They're all over two hours long.

Hollywood filmmakers have always taken the view that the longer a film is, the more likely it is to win prizes, and this year is no exception. The film expected to sweep the Oscars, The Aviator, has a running time of 166 minutes, while last year's big winner, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, clocked in at a whopping 200 minutes.

Still, while few films under two hours ever win prizes, not every three-hour epic picks up an award. So far, Alexander, Oliver Stone's 175-minute biopic, has yet to win a single gong.


I was sorry to hear that Andrew Lloyd Webber is considering selling his business empire. But I can't say I'm surprised. When he took the decision to invest a substantial part of his fortune in the film version of The Phantom of the Opera he broke the number one rule in the producers' handbook, namely, never to put any money into one of your own shows. This is such a well-known maxim, there's even a gag about it In The Producers. As of last weekend, Phantom had only taken $7 million at the US box office, making it a colossal bomb.

Nevertheless, I can't share in the huge outpouring of schadenfreude that has greeted the news of Lloyd Webber's misfortune. I don't have strong feelings either way about his musicals, but at least he's kept open the 11 West End theatres he owns. He claimed the reason he bought them five years ago for £90 million was to prevent them being snapped up by commercially-minded bean-counters. "The thing about theatre is you've got to take risks," he told David Frost in 2000. True to his word, Llloyd Webber spent several million restoring the Palace Theatre before unveiling his latest musical there last year.

So far, only four of his theatres have been put on the block: the Duchess, the Apollo, the Garrick and the Lyric. From a West End theatregoer's point of view, the best possible outcome would be if they were bought by Cameron Mackintosh. Sir Cameron, who owns seven West End venues, spent over £7 million refurbishing the Prince of Wales and is currently developing the Strand into a state-of-the-art multiplex, encompassing several theatrical spaces under one roof.

Lloyd Webber's difficulties are a salutary reminder that not everyone who appears on the various Rich Lists each year is in good shape, financially speaking. "Everyone thinks we've got a fortune hanging around, but in actual fact the company's got a big debt," he said in December. "I'm a very, very bad businessman and I don't think I've always been very well advised."

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