|How the Edwardians spoke
||[May. 8th, 2007|09:45 pm]
I haven't been following the BBC's in-depth investigation of the Edwardian era, presented as the period in which our own day was shaped, but we did watch a recent installment on How the Edwardians Spoke. The story starts with treasure trove: the discovery in Berlin of a huge collection of shellac discs, on which the voices of prisoners of war had been recorded during the first world war. The recordings had been made by Wilhelm Doegen, a sound recording pioneer and Alois Brandl, an Austrian academic whose study of British regional dialects had already brought him into contact with Thomas Hardy and Henry Sweet (that's 'Enry 'Iggins to us). They had travelled around seventy or more camps, recording the prisoners, and now the BBC had brought in voice coach Joan Washington to introduce us to the voices of our ancestors, those Edwardians we had hitherto known only through silent photographs, those who were not famous enough to have their speeches recorded for posterity. (Here's the BBC press release about the programme).
This could have been wonderful; in practice, it was interesting but frustrating. It suffered, like so many documentaries, from lack of faith in its material. I picture the production team holding meetings, in a panic, thinking that what they've got is a bit boring, desperate for something to spice it up. The first sign of this is the choice of presenter: I don't know Joan Washington, but from the film of her at work I infer that she coaches actors to reproduce the required accent. Because of course we have film of her at work; and film of her visiting the surviving families of some of the men recorded, playing them the recordings and making an effort (not entirely successfully) not to patronise them; and film of her on the way to these visits travelling around the country, and propounding her theory of accents. Namely, that accent echoes the landscape in which it originates: the tonality of East Anglia is as flat as the Fens, while the accent of Wales lilts up over the hills and down again into the valleys. I forget why Manchester is nasal, and port cities all have accents with decisively abrupt syllables, but there was a reason. As a theory, it struck me as a great teaching tool, but I would have liked a second opinion on its soundness (which would not have been relevant to the programme, but then nor was the theory).
At first I suspected the programme of choosing their examples for the visual beauty of the locations, but it emerged that we owed this selection to the recording team's preference for rural accents. A Dorset farmer would be recorded, but a Jewish cabinet-maker from Leeds (that's my grandfather) would not. What's more, their procedure seemed designed to bring out the subject's accent at its heaviest: men were given a text to prepare (an account of the parable of the Prodigal Son) and encouraged to use as many dialect terms as they could, or to recite local verses, or sing. One family, a mother and daughter, did not recognise the recorded voice, and denied that their brother, their uncle, had spoken like that. Certainly these voices were more foreign than the voices of my grandparents, and I could have believed them a generation earlier.
This was not really explained. We were told that written records justified the exercise as a necessary preliminary to Germany's colonisation of Britain: when they had won the war, they would need to be able to communicate with the residents of their new territories. But this didn't make sense of the preference for the most archaic, rural accents: surely the new master would speak a socially superior form of the language? I suspect that the enthusiastic researchers had come up with whatever story would best justify government funding for their pet project.
So I would have liked more exploration of how and why the recordings were made. Failing that, I could happily have listened to more of the recordings: there are hundreds of them, and we heard substantial fragments of three or four. Which is a terrible waste. There's a wonderful programme to be made about this material, but this wasn't it.