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How a New Accent Overturned BBC Tradition and Messed With the Nazis

A man with the name of Wilfred Pickles brought regional dialect to the BBC as part of an anti-Nazi-propaganda strategy

A radio built in the 1930s. (Wikimedia Commons)
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During World War II, as Britain was caught up in the war effort and rationing and London had only recently endured the Blitz, a new voice appeared on the BBC's radio news service.

Announcer Willfred Pickles, who joined the BBC on this day in 1941, sounded different from other broadcasters that Britons were used to hearing on the air. Rather than speaking in the "standard" accent known as Received Pronunciation, he talked in the broad, somewhat colloquial-for-the-time accent of his native Yorkshire. Why the broadcaster chose to hire Pickles–particularly during wartime–has been the source of some debate, but what is true is that his voice signaled a change on the airwaves, and in the country itself.

Pickles was originally chosen to be a radio announcer for its Northern region news service, where his accent was right at home, according to the Manchester Evening News. Then during World War II he was “an occasional newsreader on the BBC Home Service,” the first to use an accent other than RP.

“Pickles became a hero for some, but others were outraged: there was no place for regional accents on the BBC,” writes the BBC. “It was even said that some listeners were less inclined to believe the news when Pickles was reading it.”

Idiomatic phrases such as “gud neet” (good night) marked Pickles’s difference. However, in time the news presenter became “a radio celebrity,” according to the Manchester Evening News. He went on to an acting career and to host a famous radio show called Have A Go that had over 20 million people in its weekly audience.

Before Pickles, BBC hosts universally spoke with an RP accent. RP is the accent you probably associate with Britishness, but according to the BBC, “unlike other UK accents, it's identified not so much with a particular region as with a particular social group, although it has connections with the accent of Southern England. RP is associated with educated speakers and formal speech. It has connotations of prestige and authority, but also of privilege and arrogance.”

It was originally chosen by Lord John Reith, a founder of the national broadcaster, because he felt that it would be intelligible to the largest number of people. But as this elitist connotation might suggest, the RP accent, which is also colloquially known as “the Queen’s English,” “Oxford English” or “BBC English” isn’t actually spoken by more than about two percent of the population, writes the BBC. That meant news presenters tended to come from that traditional upper class, and not reflect their listenership as the BBC tries to do today.

World War II was a time of great national strife for Britain, which faced the impact of war much more directly than did Americans and Canadians on the other side of the Atlantic. So you might ask why the BBC steered away from tradition in a moment filled with calls for national unity, rather than doubling down on traditional strengths by hiring more RP speakers.

According to the BBC, selecting Pickles was “actually a move to make it more difficult for Nazis to impersonate BBC broadcasters.” (It is unclear whether this strategy had any actual effect.) Historian Robert Colls writes that Pickles’s accent was also a far cry from English-language Nazi propagandist William Joyce, who spoke in RP and was derisively known as “Lord Haw-Haw” to the Brits.

However, historian A.N. Wilson adds that adding a regional voice to the BBC can also be seen as part of a larger push, during the war, to unite the country in its diversity rather than focus on one idealized accent or class. He quotes wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who said that the country must unite to win the war, regardless of differences or arguments in the past. In the new Britain, he writes, “Tradition must play a part, but ‘broader systems must now rule.’”

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