Friday, 27 May 2016

Is this the voice of Charles Williams?

This BBC TV presenter is listed as having been born in North London and grown-up in St Albans - much like Charles Williams. So, is this (more or less) the sound of Charles Williams's famous 'cockney' accent?


Anonymous said...

Interesting - thank you! (I've heard a couple people who knew him - including Dame Helen Gardner! - imitate his speech, and remember their impressions of his style of 'delivery' being different from this, but the the general dialectical qualities beyond such idiolectic points is an interesting matter to try to ponder - though it reminds me what a bad dialectician I am, alas.)

It would be fascinating if someone could get him to read out some of Williams's poetry! (I could kick myself for not recording people who knew him reading his poetry, nor quizzing them about how he pronounced the Arthurian characters' names!)

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...


The purpose of this is really for US scholars who may not distinguish between actual 'Ockney' and this kind of South East English accent that is clearly part of the same general grouping, but is much less extreme.

The main aspect that jumps out for me is the pronouncing of 'l' in the middle of words as a 'w' - such as 'chiwdren'.

I alsways imagine CW had a much higher pitched and clearer voice than this man; but this chap is a university graduate (from Bristol, of of the most selective British universites as you know) - so this kind of accent is not-uncommon among UK intellectuals.

Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, there is and long has been a tendency for some British public intellectuals deliberately to retain, or even exaggerate, regional accents - as I expect this man as done, and as I am pretty sure that Charles Williams did. Williams (as we now know from Lindop) was a socialist, and will presumably therefore have wanted to be supposed more 'working class' or a 'man of the people' than was truly the case.

Williams was, in fact, certainly *upper* class (by definitions of that era - albeit at the very bottom of that class, which included many impoverished 'down-starts' as well as upstarts such as CW); having attending an elite ancient grammar school in St Albans, and the elite University College London - founded in 1826 albeit not then a university officially until 1836, but making it the third still-existing English university after Oxford then Cambridge - and highly prestigious then as now.

In sum, it suited Williams - and helped his reputation - to be regarded as an exotic creature from the working classes wit ha strong 'Mockney' - mock-cockney - accent, rather than merely a low-ranked upstart!

Note: UCL slightly predated Durham in foundation, although Durham was both founded and had its 'charter' as a university in 1832; and Durham was an explicitly religious foundation linked to the Cathedral on the model of Oxford's Christ Church - in response to the threat of UCL as a radical and secular institution.

(I know this stuff because I am a Durham graduate and have read the histories.)

Anonymous said...

How interesting this is!

I ran into the book associated with the 1986 BBC-WNET Story of English a while ago, and enjoyed it, and have started to catch up on the series, with all sorts of interesting interviews in different dialects...

But how little a sense of the fine points of regional dialects and 'Received Pronunciation' in the course of the Twentieth century I have! Including their success (or lack of it) in academic and other circles.

There are interesting little glimpses of things in Williams's correspondence - about hearing from Alice Meynell what Tennyson sounded like,* for instance, or a comment about the Italianate pronunciation of the name of Dante as 'Dahn-tay' becoming popular, while Williams went on saying 'Dann-tee' (I'm not sure those are his spellings - I'm quoting from memory, but the idea's clear). But how fascinating it would be to hear his different 'registers' and what-not - lecturing, quoting verse, in conversation. (I got the impression his voice could be low and sort of 'purr-y' in conversation, if I'm remembering aright...) How unusual would he have sounded in his evening Working Men's institute lectures in London, as compared to in the Divinity Schools in Oxford, for instance?

But I'm sure you're right he could - and did - use his accent for effect at times (as well as probably pretty unselfconsciously in other circumstances).

David Llewellyn Dodds

*I see someone's got the 1969 Tennyson Society record with transfers of five wax cylinder recordings of Tennyson on YouTube - including 'The Northern Farmer' in Lincolnshire dialect!