A word in your ear 

1 Feb 2006 0 tbs.pm/2091 Article text released under the Creative Commons Attribution license Media copyrighted Report an error in this article

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The steady corruption of broadcast English is easily overlooked, but insidious – and the BBC is to blame.

Stubbornly awake at 2.00 am, I resorted as usual to the soporific drone of the BBC World Service. Having survived ‘it’s 9 o’clock in Wagga Wagga, 12 o’clock in Pago Pago and half past drinking time in Adelaide,’ – nonsense to cover the commercials elsewhere – I was soon semi-snoozing through Write On, an inverted confessional where the confessed denounce the sins of the confessor.

After a moment’s irritation that soon turned to delight I was jolted awake by hearing the accusation from far-flung listeners that the World Service was no longer a model for those learning English because the presenters spoke so badly. The heavy brass at the WS, still aching from a slap on the back from linguistically-challenged Directors-General were still, it seems, unable or unwilling to admit that their vocal style is not going to enhance the eloquence of earnest students in Pago Pago. Gone were the heady days when English by Radio garnered millions of listeners; the mongrel miscegenation of the once thoroughbred BBC English had been rumbled. A somniferous relief I found in Australia suggests that the best model now is not the BBC but Germany’s (impeccable) English language service. Like the Rolls-Royce, our language has been driven across the Rhine.

It’s easy to overlook its steady corruption – like my face in the mirror each morning, it doesn’t seem to change. Suppose instead I’d been given a vision of that battered mug in 1945 or even 1965? Ah well – even such is time. But what if a BBC interviewer at the 1948 Olympic Games had greeted a medal-winning pair with the words ‘sailing is a stuck-up sport, you have to be fairly unique to take it up’? The roof would have fallen, questions would have been asked in Parliament and a special session called at the United Nations. But that is the swill that was idly thrown over us during TV coverage of the 2004 games. And, proudly, they’ve preserved it on the internet- I took it down yesterday from the archive. The young person, as Jane Austen would say, was one of the guileless maids whose role, it seems, is usually defined by boobs of one sort or another.

Programmes now are all ‘shows’. This was clear in a Radio Times note that billed a TV discussion about the Third Programme saying that it was the history of this ‘show’ – an inanity taken up by the Guardian Guide, another rich bed of extramural verbosity. Shows of course must all have producers – even a ten-minute talk – with their names boldly announced and printed. Who remembers that this was not the practice in the days when their anonymous forerunners actually knew how to pronounce not only foreign languages but even English; with a vocabulary that didn’t depend on a thesaurus, and a cultural acuity that would have shredded much of the verbiage that drips into our homes? But now the producer of the TV series on the space race came on to the morning programme and mispronounced the names of the pioneers featured in her show. Announcers give a different version of a name before and after a talk in which it was correctly pronounced – do they listen to it? Did the famed producer send a guide? I’ll apply an ear-muff to the horrors of the TV coverage of the Proms – that ‘treasure house of inspirational music’. But of course there would soon be another programme with a pained tut-tut as a minister is carpeted about the decline of language teaching in schools.

This schizophrenia is commonplace. A quiz show, with a host paid millions for reading an autocue and tormenting and expelling the failures, is followed by a programme deploring the widespread bullying that disfigures our schools; dramas glamourising promiscuity are framed by the tragedies of teen-age pregnancies and the alarming statistics of sexual diseases. And now parents have noticed the bad language and grammar in children’s programmes – but where were the producers? Busy preparing another hot show to condition the 8-year olds to their role as consumers in the pop market?

They seem to have taken over the adults’ shows, for the language and tone is rapidly being infantilised. While we see this on one channel: ‘BBC3 gets going at 7pm’; ITV has ‘Programmes begin at 7 pm’. The weather presenter tells us that the roads may be covered with ice and ‘a bit slippy’. A pop archaeology series host says, ‘I’m stood in a Roman bathhouse’. We’re told that the BBC is anxious to interest more of us in politics, so Carolyn Quinn, the ubiquitous handmaiden of current affairs, covers the party conferences and adorns the message of our leading politicians with helpful and prescient comments over their voices while they are speaking with ‘here’s the tummy-tickling bit’, and to vary her style for the Prime Minister, ‘here’s the inspirational bit’. Perhaps these experts need reminding that such contempt for democratic politicians was the battle cry of the Bolsheviks surrounding the Duma and the Nazis outside the Reichstag.

And then consider ‘standout’ as an adjective for outstanding; ‘showcase’ as a verb; ‘bored of’ (are holes ‘bored of’ a 5mm drill-bit?); ‘two times’ ( is ‘twice’ too posh?); the ludicrous ‘from hereon in’; the singular usage of ‘phenomena’ and ‘media’; ‘ex cetera’ (even by J Dimbleby ) that in bad Latin would mean the opposite of ‘et cetera’; ‘adaption’ from the presenter of Breakfast; ‘mutual love for each other’ in a serious scripted commentary; and of course the ubiquitous ‘the final conclusion.’

There’s also what I call ‘dooling’, where ‘do’ has become the all-purpose word for any action – ‘I don’t do Christmas’; ‘I do sculpture’; ‘I don’t do French’. It’s now the standard verb in reply to ‘Have you…?’: in the toga-ed soap-opera masquerading as ancient called Rome, the Centurion asks, ‘Have you rich friends?’ and gets the answer, ‘I do’. If Cicero asked a witness ‘Copiososne habes amicos?’ and received the reply ‘Ago’, he’d have had him whipped.

Philologists reassure us that as language evolves it gains in brevity and clarity. Oh really? What about ‘Do you have any idea what the minister is going to say?’ Even the sainted John Humphrys, who, I’m told, is fussed about words, gave us ‘we didn’t use to.’ Then there’s the misuse of ‘all’ and ‘each’. When Humphrys in the morning says ‘all the papers have a different story’ he means of course that ‘each of the papers has a different story’.

But the real prizes go to TV continuity, which seems to have hired its speakers in a fairground, such as the man who shouted that the next programme would feature that world-famous opera singer, Charlotte Church, who hadn’t sung an operatic role in her life. I expect each day to hear ‘Roll up, roll up!’ The delivery is sometimes so unlike any human speech that I wonder if it’s computer-generated. It’s time we had an off-season for superlatives, and spare us the puerility of this in Radio Times: ‘Here’s a tricky one for Boyd (the increasingly showy-offy Trevor Eve)’ But a Radio 4 trail is spoken slowly and reverently with appropriate music, as if talking to an old lady in a church: ‘the classic… serial on… Radio 4… at… 3 o’clock… on Sunday.’

There are outstanding documentaries, splendid dramas and ingenious serials, but why frame them with verbal sludge? It’s like publishing War and Peace with a dust-jacket designed by Andy Warhol and drawn by a child.

The women sound like 12-year-olds, as if they don’t want to frighten the men by reminding them of their mother; the men ape the style of a football manager – in vocabulary, both would get a first in ‘greats’. And why is it always ‘the lads’ or ‘the boys’? Would the sky fall in if someone referred to the men on the English team? (As boys, of course, they can indulge in adolescent excesses that would shame a man.)

This slovenliness now extends to dress – the men have clearly been ordered to remove their ties. I cherish the sight of ‘Dimbleboy’ looking as if, having been caught in flagrante delicto, he’d pulled up his trousers in a hurry and didn’t have time to fix his tie. How sad that these highly-paid experts in current affairs have been instructed by the politburo upstairs that the dishevelled look will pull in the punters.

Slovenly speech and dishevelled clothes are signs of a profession – and perhaps a people – losing its identity and its dignity. The national vocabulary is shrinking to the 850 words of Ogden’s Basic English. I may be a boring old fart but I remember the BBC as an inspiration to a boy growing up between the wars in a tiny terrace house in South London – a door to a world beyond my imaginings. It taught me the use of language and respect for accuracy and truth. I’m convinced that the once-admired British character was largely created by the BBC. Read Jack London’s People of the Abyss to experience the sordid world of pre-1914 London.

We’re sliding back into Edwardian wealth and want, when parts of our cities were no-go areas, and the only women walking the streets were looking for customers. Do you remember when the BBC set the standard of broadcasting, not just for Britain but for the world? Now they send producers to America to learn how to run a radio station.

Bernard Keeffe is a conductor, broadcaster, writer and TV/radio producer with an extraordinarily varied career behind him, ranging from wartime cipher decoding work at Bletchley Park to producing a stage gala celebrating the history of NUPE. Active both as an actor and singer including appearances in the West End, the Glyndebourne Opera, Edinburgh Festival, BBC Radio and TV, he has written, presented and conducted numerous radio and TV programmes on serious music, including over a dozen music documentaries for BBC2, as well as BBC2′s magazine Music International. A classics scholar, he has written and presented programmes in BBC2′s Chronicle series as well as series on architecture and art for Thames.

Bernard Keeffe

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