A guest post by Loondon Calling...
The Bolton dialect features strongly in both of two recently broadcast BBC scripted comedies - Peter Kay in Car Share Unscripted and Philomena Cunk (whose alter-ego is actor Diane Morgan) in Cunk on Britain. Morgan tells us that initially she had intended to use an affected posh accent, but after trialling this technique, she had opted for her native purer Northern dialect.
What is it about this regional characteristic form of speech that is of significance? Yes, it has a clarity - it’s easily understood when scripted in plain English and delivered well. It is more or less uncontroversial in its classlessness - in an ‘as honest as the day is long’ way. It represents the lad or lass ‘next door’ without any preconceived political or societal ambition or baggage. It hints at a misdirected education - possibly of low achievement and of limited ambition, but nevertheless of worldly wise experience.
Why Bolton? As we know on this site, nothing is left to chance so far as the BBC is concerned. We can imagine a room full of latter day enryigginses with checklists and focus groups determining on our behalf which local dialects are acceptable for comedy.
BBC favourite Sara Cox, Radio 2 stand-in for Chris Evans and presenter of Sounds of the 80s, The Great Pottery Throw-Down, and more recently Love in the Countryside is also from Bolton.
Philomena dresses as a country-life shootin’ and fishin’ hooray Henrietta. She wears country clothing from the Barbour shop - in homage to a Scottish Laird or some other member of the landed gentry. The get-out clause here will be that farming near Bolton in the wilds of Lancashire would not be as attractive to the would-be aristocrat as let’s say the Cotswolds, the Cheshire plain or Devon. Bolton must be considered as politically neutral. There is an uncanny likeness between these two Boltonians.
Cunk on Britain is a five-part series delivered by Diane Morgan in a child-like manner. The essence of the humour is in the deliberate misunderstanding of history, either by naive interpretation or misheard or misread names of people and places. In this Cunk on Britain leans heavily on a technique established in the 1930s book 1066 and All That, by scholars Sellar and Yeatman, which uses the same methods but to much greater effect for example:
…. ‘Canute had two sons, Halfacanute and Partacanute’ ….
Cunk on Britain attempts the same humour in a less subtle way
…. ‘ Camelot’ and ‘Came a lot’ ….
…. ‘all the castles in Britain were built by one man, Mr Norman Architecture’ ….
It’s silliness really, but once that has been accepted, it is humorous. Where Cunk on Britain doesn’t work so well is in the technique, used to great effect by Ali G, of spoof interviews - asking serious-minded experts questions that are well beneath their dignity to answer. It’s noticeable that these are very short and are neither started nor concluded with any professionalism - possibly because the expert has walked out in disgust once he or she realises that their words are for comedic use only.
Questions are met with awkward silences. Examples here are:
…. Where in England did the Romans come from? ….
and, a question directed to Robert Peston:
…. ‘What’s the most political thing that’s ever happened in Britain?’ …. To be fair, Peston smiled and squirmed in equal measure as he struggled to provide a credible answer.
The final episode dealt mainly with the 20th C. We might have expected that scripts by Charlie Brooker and his writers would give equal importance to the two world wars and the miners strike with its ubiquitous Thatcher-bashing - we assume this must be necessary content in order to secure a BBC commission.
Peter Kay’s Car Share Unscripted episode broadcast on Monday must indeed have been scripted and have undergone a process of production and editing. Otherwise, how could the music have been coordinated with the routine banter between John and Kayleigh? I suspect it was made as an Unscripted episode in order to avoid having his draft rejected.
The show was met with a shower of criticism for what was taken to be comedy at the expense of the trans community. In one scene, John (Peter Kay) and Kayleigh (Sian Gibson) are listening to a letter read out on the car radio. A woman listener reveals in her letter to the programme that she's discovered her partner likes wearing women's clothes. It goes on to say that her husband was beaten up by a gang of lads and couldn't outrun them due to the incumbrance of his high heels. The scene ends with the contributor asking to hear More Than a Woman by the Bee Gees.
For the future it will be very difficult for Car Share to keep up any freshness in humour if the scripts are made to shy away from many of the subjects that a typical driver and their passengers might discuss. The Unscripted episode lacked a beginning and an end and a direction of travel. Apart from the above scene, it was cul-de-sac comedy.
The BBC look as if they will fall into the trap of commissioning more of the same diluted form from Peter Kay. Maybe this latest Unscripted episode was Kay testing the waters to see if anything but inoffensive sugary humour might be allowed. My own prediction is that no it won’t be tolerated, and that therefore he will move his creative energies elsewhere.