Mrs W and I are thee episodes into Netflix’s mega-budget offering “The Crown,” and are loving it. (Though I am developing a slight obsession over one character’s accent.)
It’s not just that every shot is beautifully-composed, or that the costumes are gorgeous, and that even the CGI’d locations and sets are indistinguishable from – probably better than, actually – the real thing.
It’s the voices. Claire Foy as the young Queen brilliantly replicates the cut-glass accent of the era; Matt Smith as the Duke of Edinburgh has the perfect upper-class drawl.
I can just about remember real people speaking like that, but only on television and the radio. By the 1960s the accent was already becoming unfashionable, but clung on in the fruity tones of Maria Bird’s narration of Andy Pandy on the BBC’s Watch With Mother, and a few other broadcasting voices.
The accent is usually called RP – short for “received pronunciation”. Why “received”? According to Wikipedia, “received” here has the same sense as “approved” or “accepted” (as in the phrase “received wisdom”), although my dialectology professor at University, the late Stanley Ellis, declared it was the accent that would allow the speaker to be “received” into upper class society. In fact, standard RP – these days – is pretty much a regional accent. It is standard south-eastern English. Being English, of course, it comes with an additional class signifier. It co-exists with London English (“cockney” and others), and the accents of Essex and the surrounding counties. It seems surprising in 2016, but it’s still true that the higher up the social ladder you are, the more likely you are to speak RP – in the south at any rate. In reality, most natives are bilingual and can easily adapt their accent according to the circumstance.
“Heightened RP” is what the Queen speaks: an even more marked, “tighter” pronunciation in which a phrase such as “that black hat” becomes “thet bleck het”. She’d pronounce “The Crown” like “The Crine” which is what I have taken to calling it. It is a mark of the properly posh. Or was.
Almost no one speaks it now, not even the Queen herself. Doubtless there are some people who cling onto it, but it sounds so mannered as to be comical.
But, like people who scour period dramas for solecisms like television aerials on roofs, or double yellow lines on the road, I find myself listening very carefully to the accents.
In episode one of The Crown, for example, the Duke of Edinburgh says, “OK, come along.”
I had to wind back and check (cue eye-rolling from Mrs W). Surely no one, apart from Americans, said “OK” in 1951?
My main gripe, however, is this: how come Alex Jennings (in an otherwise brilliant turn as the oleaginous Duke of Windsor) kept getting his RP wrong? He’s a native of Essex (I checked) an area with a solidly southern pronunciation, so why on earth did he keep pronouncing “ask” with a short, northern “a” instead of the southern “ah”? Perhaps it’s deliberate, for some reason?
Update: he’s at it again in episode 4. “Ask”, “answer”, and a couple of others (I wasn’t watching with a notebook in hand) – again and again, pronounced with a short “a”, yet – oddly, the word “last” was pronounced with the appropriate long “ah”.