More Sir Mortimer

April 22 2015

… or, How we spoke then

A further Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? (recent post) is on the BBC’s site here (UK only, unless you cheat), but not on YouTube.

This is October 28 1954.

Moderator: Glyn Daniel again.

Panel: Geoffrey Bushnell, Froelich Rainey and again Sir Mortimer Wheeler.

Challenger: Manchester Museum.

The series looks thoroughly English, but it was, in fact, a copy of a CBS programme called What in the World?, which ran in the US from 1951 to ’65.

The BBC programme began with “good” music (familiar, but I can’t identify it); the CBS does a spoof of science fiction soundtracks of the time, though I think even here the music may actually be “good” (we get Peter Grimes at one point as well).

In one episode, at some point in 1955, CBS asked a panel to examine some of the objects that had been presented on the October 28 1954 BBC show.

Moderator: Froelich Rainey, who had appeared in the BBC episode.

Panel: Alfred Kidder II, Jacques Lipchitz, Richard Ettinghausen.

Challenger: Manchester Museum.

Rainey, the moderator of much or all of the series, was director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. (You may need to route through the UK here, too, if you are elsewhere in Europe.)

A commenter says:

“Funny how the American accent hasn’t changed at all in nearly 60 years, while the English accent has changed utterly.”

I would say the American way of speaking has changed somewhat. For one thing, there are fewer old-style European accents such as those of Lipchitz (who reminds me of Fritz Reiner) and Ettinghausen.

But the ’60s noticeably changed the way “educated” British spoke. I called Glyn Daniel’s accent “fake” in the last post.

Until the ’60s and later, if you rose in society, and especially if you spoke on the BBC, you were expected to drop your regional and/or class accent in favour of received pronunciation. Toynbee would have called this an “ordeal”. A few professional Yorkshiremen, Irishmen and trade unionists were licensed provincials and could keep theirs.

But if you were covering up a very strong accent, the strain would sometimes show. I am sure it does with Daniel, who was the son of a village schoolmaster in Wales. He sounds as if he has taken elocution lessons. The disguise is too perfect. Others simply talk as they talk. Educated English could sound natural.

BBC English was a formal version of mid-twentieth century received pronunciation. We often hear it, since it has been much recorded. It is better described as a version of educated English than as upper-class English.

The Oxford English which Toynbee spoke was a variant of educated English, but came from a way of talking at the university, not in the rest of the town (let alone in the county).

Other terms used are Standard English and the Queen’s English, but even the Queen has changed her pronunciation over the past half-century.

The masses were going to be able to listen to broadcasts, so deciding what they should hear, and in what tones, was a heavy responsibility. Long before television had got underway, the BBC’s Director-General (1927-38) Lord Reith declared that the BBC’s purpose was to “inform, educate and entertain”, but the emphasis under Reith and afterwards was on informing and educating.

After Reith, the BBC’s prestige was increased during, and by, the war.

A similar patrician spirit is seen in a reviewer’s statement in the 1950s about The Pelican History of England, which I have quoted.

Experts spoke down to the public. They were experts. Hence a radio programme called The Brains Trust. I can just about remember another called The Critics. It was the age of “the critic”, whose literary high priest was FR Leavis.

Related post on the high priests of Darmstadt in the 40’s and ’50s.

The excellent BBC Third Programme (radio) was dedicated to introducing the public to “good music”.

This, I suppose, is some of the cultural context of Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?

A quadrumvirate (old post).

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