BACK to NRC articles page

The Thursday Radio Column: Class, the final frontier.
Source: The Independent - London, July 20 [via Newsreal via ]

"LIZ KERSHAW. You're as common as muck, aren't you?"

This was the Nicky Campbell show earlier this year (Mon-Fri 9am, BBC 5 Live) and our host was just playfully provoking that little bit of controversy that makes his, I'm told, the UK's foremost phone-in. Oh, that's all right then.

The day's debate was on class-consciousness in Britain. I'd been promised that I was being asked on as someone with something informed to say and not as "yer token northerner". After one caller referred to me as "that token northerner", another accused me of pretending to be working-class (what?), and Campbell accused me of having a chip on my shoulder. I made my excuses ("Sorry, I've got my whippets to feed," they liked that) and left them to it, vowing never to touch the subject again.

But this week came a similar request, this time from Radio 4's Feedback (Friday 1.30pm, repeated Sunday 8pm). "We're hoping to air a discussion on whether Radio 4 excludes working-class listeners," I was told. OK, but why ask me? I live in the sophisticated South and keep a bottle of balsamic vinegar next to the microwave. "Oh, it's not because you're a northerner or anything, it's just that it appears from your column that you listen to anything."

How true. I decided it would be best to do just that and hear who they'd put up instead. Step forward, Stuart Maconie. Hang on. Isn't he from Wigan? Yes. And (rather handily) his parents live in a council house and work in a mill. But he's clever enough and has done a bit on Radio 4, so give the lad a chance and let's see what he has to say for himself. Roger Bolton opened the proceedings by telling us we were about to discuss "class or clarse". (Good point, Rodge) and asked: "Is it true [as one listener had suggested] that Radio 4 is a middle-class bastion?"

A rather uncomfortable-sounding Laurie Taylor brought the subject immediately round to accents, with: "The idea that because someone has an accent they are working-class is an absurd stereotype." We then heard that when Arthur Smith started broadcasting on Radio 4 on Saturday mornings (Excess Baggage, 10am) there were complaints about his "rather un-Radio 4 voice".

A listener wanted to know, "Why is it unacceptable to say that Arthur Smith is common?" Stuart Maconie suggested that Scottish is favoured (really?) "because there isn't a class implication there". Kirsty Wark and Rab C Nesbitt do sound similar, don't they?

He related how he'd been perceived as "none too bright" by listeners because of his "flat vowels". He went on to say that Radio 4's tone is "metrocentric and, to use a Marxist phrase,

bourgeois´ " and "doesn´t reflect the robustness of working-class life". Could Stuart Maconie have hit on why, when one in four people in London listens to Radio 4, only one in 10 does so in Wales?

As for the North-west, well, Radio 4 audience research told me it simply didn't know. I could guess, but instead let's have a few facts. Home Truths is the programme on Radio 4 (Saturday, 9am) on which, in January, cosy, comfortable couples aired their angst over how to load the dishwasher. Home truth: in Bootle, Liverpool, the presenter John Peel's adopted birthplace, 58 per cent of homes still do not even have central heating. Now that's robust.

And let's all stop pontificating on "accents: do they matter?". In the 12th and final programme of Melvyn Bragg's Routes of English series (being rerun at 9am, Thursday, Radio 4) we will hear this from Professor Stephen Pinker of the department of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Massachusetts:

"Accent is a way of identifying who's in your coalition and who's in someone else's coalition. Studies on racism and bigotry in Canada and the United States have shown that attitudes are affected far more by accent than skin colour. So if you make up fictitious people by pairing up a photograph and a tape and you measure prejudice, bigotry and racism, it often goes with the lower-class accent more than with the dark skin. A dark-skinned face with an upper-class accent doesn't elicit a negative reaction."

One Feedback correspondent suggested: "If a person's skin colour is mentioned, then that's considered racist. Mention of physical appearance is considered sexist. Mention of social class should be considered antisocial." He continued: "The BBC could make a major contribution to society by simply banning any reference to social class. Forget it, and it will disappear."

Well, for another couple of months, anyway.

BACK to NRC articles page