There was a time when people with northern accents found themselves at the cutting edge of fashion, and were even more in vogue if they happened to be from Liverpool.
It began in the late 1950s with those classic British New Wave films like Room at the Top (Bradford), A Taste of Honey (Salford) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (OK, Nottingham, but no one dropped their Hs better than Albert Finney). Then came The Beatles, who ran a gauntlet of microphones every time they set foot outside. Ringo’s answer to the question “How do you find America?” (“Turn left at Greenland”) on their first US tour was delivered in Scouse as thick as the Mersey mud, as was John Lennon’s jokey invitation to the Royal Variety Performance audience to clap while “the rest of you rattle your jewellery”. Even The Times grandly proclaimed that Scouse was the accent that defined the sixties.
That point wasn’t lost on the late John Peel, who saw a career opportunity in turning his public-school Wirral accent into a vague approximation of Lennon’s Woolton drawl and used it to get his first DJing job in Texas.
But how times have changed. Now, it seems, the northern accent is something that has to be erased or at least softened around the edges by anyone hoping to make it big in the world of acting, according to recent revelations about accent demands made by the BBC. Among the more shocking was one from Maxine Peake, who said that producers initially told her she wasn’t suitable to play an “educated barrister” in the TV series Silk because of her Bolton accent.
It was something she had considered an asset after studying at Rada, where they actually have classes to help northern people sound like they come from Surrey, so she persuaded the BBC she could play the role of barrister Martha Costello without having to “speak the Queen’s English”. Her performance won two awards.
Salford-born Christopher Eccleston also tells of arguing with the producers of the BBC’s Doctor Who after they asked him to speak with “received pronunciation”. That means “posh” to us up north. To his credit he refused, although the dispute meant he played the Time Lord for just one series back in 2005. The producers had more luck with Eccleston’s replacement, David Tennant, who agreed to drop his natural Scottish brogue.
So things have gone full circle. The regional accents that TV viewers and cinemagoers once couldn’t get enough of are now passé, and the voices in the ascendancy are straight from the BBC of the 1950s, delivered by old Etonians like Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston, and middle class English roses like Emily Blunt and Michelle Dockery. And the trend towards non-regional accents is quickening, with a recent study confirming what everyone who watches TV already knows: a privately educated elite now dominates the profession, with three-quarters of actors defined as being middle class despite the social sector making up only 29 per cent of the population.
So maybe it’s time for a few more era-defining films set in the north, or even a new Merseybeat. Perhaps, but it’s also time the TV and film world recognised that not everyone lives in the leafier suburbs of London.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe