We live in London. You’d think living in a city would make it easier to find the ‘right’ accents but we felt the pressure and took our time. Also, there was the added stress of avoiding London noise pollution (perhaps recording under the Heathrow flight path wasn’t one of our better ideas). However, given all this, we managed to find the most amazing people to record and ended up with the most extraordinary sound files.
In early 2014, I was invited onto the Jo Good show at BBC Radio London to talk about London accents. On air, I put out an appeal for London volunteers to record for the app…and…we were inundated. I called each and every person who contacted us and in the end chose Mike, who has a ‘textbook’ accent with not a sound out of place. Plus he has impeccable Cockney roots: born near London Bridge, raised in Rotherhithe in a family of dock workers and now living in New Cross. Mike came over to my house for the recording and we collected so much material that it was difficult editing it down for the app. Take a listen and you’ll find his energy infectious.
A few weeks after appearing on BBC Radio London, I received a call out of the blue from Tony. Tony is a London cabbie and his cab driver mates insisted that he call me for a recording after listening to the show. At the age of seven, Tony became part of the ‘Up’ social documentary series that interviewed fourteen children from across Britain and then conducted follow-up interviews every seven years after that. Tony’s last appearance in the series was for ’56 Up’ in 2012. I’m a huge fan of ‘Up’ so I was absolutely delighted to hear from Tony. We travelled over to Bethnal Green in East London for the recording, where Tony was born and raised (although he now lives in Woodford, North East London). After lunch at E Pellicci (not just a café but an East London institution) we recorded Tony in his cab. Although we have all sorts of equipment to focus sound, it was a challenge to avoid external noise pollution and we had to drive on at least three times to find quieter spots. Tony loves to talk and is very open about his life experiences so the session was a breeze. We’re very proud to have him on our app.
Tony ‘donated’ his daughter, Perri, for our third Cockney recording (although our first call to her was interesting since he’d neglected to tell her about the donation). Perri is in her twenties and lives with her partner and three children in Woodford, North East London as well: so that’s where we headed for the recording. Perri’s accent was perfect and we enjoyed hearing about her previous job as a Post Person (and, yes, there is an altercation with a dog in one of her stories).
London: Multi-Cultural or MLE (Multi-Cultural London English) is the accent of Londoners in their teens and early twenties so the search was on for younger native speakers. We found Darnelle (17) and Kayi (16) through an ex-student of mine who lives in Stratford, East London. They decided to trek across town to my house for the recordings, which went extremely well, apart from the busy Heathrow flight path overhead that day. Therefore, the sessions took much longer than expected because we waited, between sentences, for each plane to pass by. Excruciating. Fantastic stories though: Kayi told us all about her diverse family and ambitions for the future, Darnelle, all about how he escaped from teenage gangs in East London.
We expanded our search into the home counties around London for RP (Received Pronunciation or Standard British Speech). In the end, however, we found two recording subjects closer to home.
We've known Charlie for many years. His accent is a very traditional, ‘marked’ RP accent. He lives in South West London so we recorded him across two separate sessions to minimise noise pollution from the unrelenting stream of aircraft on the Heathrow flight path and the glass-rattling trucks speeding past on the South Circular nearby. Interruptions aside, it was an incredibly easy set of recordings. Charlie is a wonderful talker. We thought we knew most of his best stories by heart but each session still held a number of surprises. We loved hearing about his music, his work in IT plus a juicy story or two.
We were also looking for a young, contemporary, ‘unmarked’ RP speaker (‘Made in Chelsea’ style) so Charlie volunteered his niece, Plum (18) who’s at boarding school in Westminster. Tired of our Heathrow flight path problems, we hired a recording studio in Central London. However, on arrival, we were let down so made a mad dash to the Actors Centre in Covent Garden, who (brilliantly) sorted us out with a last minute space. Plum was a fantastic recording subject and offered us up all sorts of interesting stories from boarding school and playing polo to the way in which posh London boys work hard at perfecting their MLE accent. Our only problem was a rattling air con unit that placed a few boundaries around what we could and couldn’t include on the app but we managed in the end.
As well as appearing on BBC Radio London, I was also a guest on Radio 4 Midweek alongside Robert Powell, Mike Rutherford and Harry Shearer. Although I didn’t put a call out for recording subjects, literally, hundreds of people contacted me in the weeks following the broadcast. Katharine was one of them. She offered us up something different RP-wise because she comes from a military family background. As she says in her recording: ‘army children tend to talk with what would be considered a posh accent because it’s the way of bonding with the army tribe.’ Indeed, there have been times in modern history when an RP military accent was considered requisite for British army officers.
Katharine travelled up from Canterbury for the recording session and we spent a wonderful morning chatting about her world, including: military family, living in Canterbury, selling wood burning stoves and her role in a Territorial Army unit called the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) that was formed in 1907. Her accent turned out to be the perfect balance between Charlie and Plum.
Thank you to everybody who contacted us about recording for the app: we wish we could’ve included you all. Extra thanks to those people who did end up recording with us: Mike, Tony, Perri, Darnelle, Kayi, Charlie, Plum and Katharine. Plus, extra thanks to the following people and organisations who helped us out: BBC Radio London (now BBC London 94.9), Radio 4 Midweek, Sarah Oguntona and the Actors Centre.