Sorry but we don't recognise you. Could you please come from somewhere else?
Until recently in America, it seems there were only two types of Englishness recognised by the T.V. audience…Upper class twit as exemplified by Hugh Grant/John Cleese or Cockney, as exemplified by Dick van Dyke’s chimney sweep in Mary Poppins. English actors playing parts in American sitcoms were required to conform to one of these stereotypes. I believe, in one case, an English actor was even offered a dialect coach to help him acquire the English accent the TV audience would expect. Perhaps now, regretably, thanks to the TV sitcom ‘Frazier’, a third stereotype, ‘low life northerner’ is developing in the way the family of Daphne, (the care assitant from Manchester) is portrayed.
Well..that’s American TV. But here in England are we any better at acknowledging the diversity of Englishness? ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet ‘ returned to our screens in 2002 with its cast of six regional characters. In reality there is no reason why the gang could not have come from Carlisle ,Nottingham Middlesbrough, Scunthorpe, Stoke-on-Trent and Portsmouth but instead we get five easily recognised TV regional stereotypes. Geordie, Scouser, Brummie, Cockney and West Country Yokel The one other TV acceptable regional stereotype a ‘Last of the Summer Wine Yorkshireman’ was thrown into the last episode as a laughing policeman from Middlesbrough even though Middlesbrough is at least 80 miles north of ‘Summer Wine- land.’
In fact, the creator, Teessider Francis Roddam, got the original idea for Auf Wiedersehen, Pet from talking to Teessiders who had been working in Germany yet the central characters were made Geordies even though Newcastle is forty miles north of the Tees. In the 2002 series which, for most of its episodes, was actually set in Teesside, not one significant Teesside character was portrayed. The expert ‘bridge consultant’ was made to be an Ulsterman even though Teesside is renowned for bridge building having built them all over the world including the Tyne Bridge and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. An Ulster accent , however, can be easily identified by the T.V. viewer whereas a Teesside accent cannot. Three North Easterners go to work in Germany ? Best make them Geordies. Everyone knows about Geordies . Teessiders? They don’t really register in the national consciousness. It’s easier for the media to pander to stereotypical notions than to challenge them.
A Sunday Times article ( 5th March 2000) described Middlesbrough as a ‘town with no identity’ Now anybody who has spent any time in Middlesbrough or the wider area of Teesside knows this is nonsensical. There is a clear identity. What is really meant is that Teessiders do not neatly fit into the Auf Wiedersehen, Pet Geordie , or Last of the Summer Wine Yorkshire mould, as if these are the only two possible identities for English people living east of the Pennines and north of the Humber. Middlesbrough is the central town in a compact conurbation of half a million people i.e Teesside, an area which makes an important economic contribution to the national well being. Why should Teessiders be prepared to settle for an quasi- Geordie identity simply to make life easier for the Sunday Supplement writers?
I do not object to being called a Geordie, because I have some Teessider chip-on-shoulder prejudice against Tyneside. (Soccer rivalries should be fun. They shouldn’t come between you and your wits! ). Newcastle is a great city , one of my favourite places. I love the way Tynesiders and Northumbrians talk (One of my most treasured books is Fred Reed’s ‘ The Northumborman’, a collection of beautiful dialect poems). I am married to a Geordie. I object because I am not a Geordie. And really it is a lazy perceptual attitude which requires me to be one. Middlesbrough is about as far from Newcastle as Bedford is from London. Are Bedford folk Cockneys?
Despite all the modern pressures to homogenise , globalize, Americanize or Europeanize we still have a wonderful tapestry of variety in English provincial life, far greater than the few limited stereotypes portrayed by the media. This variety is reflected in the spectrum of accents we use and the dialects we speak.
It might be easier for the sitcom/comedy drama writers and Sunday Supplement writers to stereotype us all into a few stock characters but, for the less lazy, it’s just a matter of pinning back your lugs and listening and delighting in the differences in speech that emerge over even the smallest distance.
So..long live the Black Country twang..but let’s hear some Potteries also, Teesside as well as Tyneside, North Lancashire as well as Manchester and Liverpool. East Anglian as well as ‘Estuary’ And..if you speak a dialect ,even if only a few words, the message is succinctly put by Prof J D A Widdowson in his preface to DrArnold Kellet's Yorkshire Dictionary .
USE IT OR LOSE IT!