Class Conscious - Northern Accents

When I was growing up in Yorkshire there was an advert for a youth drama academy outside our local shops. There was always a picture of the young performers in their latest production (basically, they did Bugsy Malone three times a year) and certain optional extras were mentioned such as deportment and elocution.

"Ellerkyushun . . ." I would mumble wistfully to myself in my thick northern accent. Could that possibly be the means whereby the world could be turned into my oyster?

I never did take lessons but tried to modify my accent myself, so that by the time I got to university down south, I loathed having to say three words which too starkly revealed my Yorkshire origins. The first two were "bath" and "love" which, my lifestyle being what it was at the time, weren't required that much. But the other problematic word, "pub", tended to crop up every half an hour. To get around this I wouldn't say "I'll see you down the pub", but "I'll see you down the Red Lion" or whatever.

Then someone from a public school told me that I had "a northern voice trying to sound posh" - a terrible double whammy of an insult that left me with a dilemma. Should I make my voice posher or more northern?

I elected to do both simultaneously. My aim was to sound like Melvyn Bragg - rough, and yet somehow . . . smooth. But in fact I ended up sounding more like Russell Harty, with all my vowels archly twisted.

Away from the fraught proving grounds of university and first career steps, my accent has settled down. I have a Yorkshire accent that remains pretty strong. Radio producers say they like the sound of my voice, which is good. But not that good, considering how much they're willing to pay me for using it.

Of course, a northern accent has had cachet in media circles since the Beatles, but the maitre d's of London restaurants and the receptionists of the city's institutions remain oblivious to the charms of the short "a". As I address them I seem to see a crestfallen look in their eyes. "Oh dear," the look says, "you're not posh."

It's something I've learnt to live with.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think