Truly daring remarks from a voice of sanity
21 March 2007
In the relatively unlikely event of Britain becoming a republic and there being a vacancy for a wise, sensitive, public-spirited person to become head of state, there can surely be only one candidate. He is the man with whom Tony Blair shared a thoughtful podcast last month and to whom, a few days later, Robbie Williams turned for advice on the question of addiction. Prince Charles is said to consult him. He has been in prison, has shared his personal experience of depression in a television documentary and has written a book about how to write poetry. Not only a successful novelist, actor and comedian, he is thought by a startling number of people to have an unusually brilliant brain.
Stephen Fry has had two public thoughts this week. First, in unnecessarily lavatorial terms, he proclaimed his disgust at the celebrity skating programme Dancing on Ice. Then he wondered out loud whether Americans, while watching and admiring British actors, “aren’t fooled by our accent into detecting a brilliance that may not really be there?” Would they have noticed, he asked in an interview, if Judi Dench or Jeremy Irons gave a bad performance?
These are unexpectedly daring remarks. These days, if an actress (and, to a lesser an actor) is still sane and working after a certain age, the Michael Parkinson effect kicks in and she becomes uncritically revered and adored. As for the question of accent, Fry himself has, as he acknowledges, built something of a career out of “vocal chords … made of tweed”. From his early days as a comedy toff in Fry and Laurie to his current role as the know-all host of the celebrity quiz QI, those fruity tones have served him well.
But he is right about the effect of accents, and might even have gone further. It is not only Americans who are influenced by how people speak. If, for example, it had been the brilliant Mastermind-winning, cockney taxi-driver, Fred Housego, who was hosting QI, the programme would have been inexplicably embarrassing. Snobbishly, we still associate donnish intelligence with a cut-glass accent.
English politicians, falling for the old John Major fantasy about this country becoming classless, have worked hard to flatten and sterilise the way they speak, becoming increasingly identical to one another, but the effect has been paradoxical. The public has clung to accents more than ever.
And why not? In life as in fiction, voice is an important indicator of background and personality.John Prescott is perceived as bluff, clumsy but more straightforward than his cabinet colleagues. Prince Charles is well-meaning but slightly goofy. Huw Edwards, even while bravely reading the news in a flak-jacket in Basra, is a gentle, sympathetic soul.
It is only those without any trace of an accent – the Mandlesons, Blears and Blairs – who are instinctively felt to be unreliable. Their words reach us without colour or context, safe and sanitised, as if coming direct from a focus group or PR agency.
The voice is part of life. Even if it has been worked over and polished up, even when it fools Americans, it is revealing. An essential part of the performance of, say, Stephen Fry is his self-consciously studious elocution, redolent of a pervy headmaster at a small public school. North, south, posh, common, fake or genuine, an accent points up the differences between us and is a cause for celebration, not embarrassment.
The princess and the bishop
A promising row is developing around the memorial service for Diana, Princess of Wales, to be held on the 10th anniversary of her death. The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, has been selected to make the address but several of those who knew Diana well have raised objections. The choice of Chartres was “bizarre and inappropriate”, according to Rosa Monckton. As Dean of the Chapels Royal, he had failed to support her during her divorce, says Diana’s former private secretary, Patrick Jephson.
In response, a spokesman for Chartres has rather unhelpfully deplored what he calls “public displays of aggression”. Men of the cloth have never been notable for their humility but, now that no national debate is complete without some bearded bishop sounding off, their need to be centre stage is every bit as urgent as that of an out-of-work actor. The dividing line between religion and show-business becomes ever more blurred.
* The most effective propaganda for reducing air travel is currently coming from the airlines themselves.
On one plane, a stewardess abandoned her duties in order to have sex with Ralph Fiennes in the lavatory.
Meanwhile a British Airways passenger called Paul Trinder has travelled from Delhi to London in the same row as a corpse. After a woman had died during the flight, she was generously given an upgrade into club class, accompanied by her wailing daughter.
Trinder noticed something was amiss when the body kept slipping through the seat-belt. Part Basil Fawlty, part Airplane, this adventure must have made the in-flight movie seem decidedly tame. No wonder BA told him to “get over it”.