Friday, 9 September 2011

Malcolm Muggeridge interviewing John Reith

John Reith
credit: BBC 2
In his blog of the 6th of September Jack Windsor Lewis mentions an interview conducted by Malcolm Muggeridge ( = MM) in 1967 with John Reith ( = JR), former director of the BBC.
Malcolm Muggeridge
credit: BBC2
A section of that television interview was broadcast in Melvyn 'pink shirt' Bragg's BBC feature "RP RIP".

What follows is the script of an excerpt of the interview as played by Melvyn Bragg in his feature. I had to leave out two short sections which were incomprehensible to me (they are marked red). Should any of my readers be able to decipher them if they have access to the transmission, I'd be glad to add them.

MM Your BBC men all spoke, or presumably were conditioned to speak in a sort of educated Southern English voice, which became known as the BBC accent and was one of the numerable ways in which the BBC strongly influenced social attitudes. Now why was it that you wanted them all to speak like that rather than in some rich regional way like ... as you do yourself?
JR Do I speak very definitely Scottish?
MM Very!
JR What do you call the stuff that's coming down that chimney?
MM [sʊt]
JR All right. The Scot and the Northener would say [suːt] - as broad as that. I think I say something between the two keeping the purity of the vowel or double vowel: [sʊt]. [suːt] - [suˑt] - [sʊt]. Now I was just vehemently opposed to what variously has been called the Oxford accent or the south-eastern accent such as 'the [ˈθɪɐtɐ]', 'the [ˈfɑːsaɪd]' with more of the FEH's, you see, they are disappearing and the vowel becoming indeterminate: [ˈθɪɐtɐ], [ˈfɑːsaɪd], [θɪɐ]
MM How did you arrive at your particular, the particular style of the BBC announcer?
JR I had a first-class man appointed to take charge of announcers to give them all sorts of advice and instruction as to how to read inflections and everything and how to pronounce [the voice of Arthur Lloyd James is heard demonstrating the pronunciation of a few isolated words], and moreover I got a committee established with the Poet Laureate on it and Bernard Shaw and all sorts of well-known people who'd made a study of pronunciation.
MM But the interesting point in terms of social history is that this particular accent which the BBC produced somehow identified the BBC with a certain section of society, certain social trends so that to this day the BBC is thought of as the organ of the, as it were, genteel and respectable elements in society.
JR Anything wrong with that?
MM Erm ... well, except that, after all, the people who speak in this standard way are in fact a minority. In the public mind how people spoke on the BBC was associated with a certain type of middle-class education, a certain type of middle-class life, ... erm ... so that it came to seem an organ.
JR Came to seem?
MM Yes.
JR Came to seem!
MM Yes.
JR Who's responsible for that?
MM Well ... I'm not saying anybody is responsible; I'm just saying that something had happened as a result of the decision that you took.
JR Would you have taken anything different! Look! I ... I'm ... I'm sorry if local dialects are disappearing.

The dialogue is fascinating and amusing at the same time, isn't it?

PS: The bits marked blue in the interview were deciphered/explained by Jack Windsor Lewis, whose help is gratefully acknowledged.


  1. >>MM:...the BBC is sort ( = [sɔːrt] of...<<

    Surely this should be "the BBC is thought of". In any case, it's very hard to imagine Malcolm Muggeridge, of all people, inserting an [r] into the word "sort"!

  2. @Kevin: I'll listen to the section again ...

  3. @Kevin: You're right. "sort of" doesn't make sense here.