No wonder the nation's grasp of English is going down the tubes - blame it on the legions of TV presenters leading our children astray, says PHILIP NORMAN.
Sunday Times, Sunday February 14, 1999
If you have children under 12, the Teletotties will be an unavoidable part of your week's television viewing. A Teletotty is instantly recognisable. She is a young woman aged between 19 and 25, usually with her hair chaotically cropped and an errant single strand dangling beside her face. She wears clumpy shoes, a see-through camouflage top with a gaping midriff, and trousers that look as if they've been put on with a spray-can. She talks in a hyperactive babble punctuated by shrieks of laughter - the kind that makes you think: "Nothing in the world could be that funny."
Teletotties are usually, but not exclusively, presenters of TV programmes for children. The best-known, I suppose, would be Zoe Ball on BBC's Live and Kicking, Katy Hill on Blue Peter and Danielle Nicholls on Children's ITV, but there are many more in lower-profile spots throughout the main networks and on cable and satellite. There was a time when television personalities were supposed to have a distinctive, individual style. Yet all Teletotties are essentially identical. It's another of those modern mysteries, like why pop groups all do the same elbow-pumping dance, and why all comedians with shaven heads are so achingly unfunny.
Let's be clear that, in general, I have no quarrel with the programmes that Teletotties present. Children are the last sector of the television audience to be consistently offered choice, originality and innovation. Teletotties may not resemble the female presenters of my youth, the Sylvia Peterses, Mary Malcolms and Valerie Singletons, but (as the departing Blue Peter presenter Stuart Miles complained last week) they still deliver much the same responsible, right-on messages about keeping Britain tidy, kindness to animals, collecting milk bottle tops for charity and being sure to ask a grown-up before you use the telephone.
Their influence over the way our children speak is another matter. Everyone knows that younger Britons today talk with a horrible accent, but young women for some reason are far worse than young men, and the worst of all are young female television presenters. There is probably no more powerful aural influence on children in Britain today - and, dear God, just listen to it! In our house we've been reduced to bribing our eight-year-old daughter to stop copying Zoe, Katy and Danielle and to go back to saying words properly.
The Teletotty accent does appalling violence to all vowels. "U" is flattened to "yee", as in "Thank yee". "O" is mangled in two different ways - either lengthened in the manner once confined to antipodeans, so that "no" becomes "no-yoo", or else squashed into an A so that "road" becomes "raid". "Two" becomes "tuy", "put" becomes "pih" and "good" becomes "gid". Terminal Ys are elongated, as in "real-lee", "love-lee" or "chun-kee." The T consonant is all but extinct.
It's possible, I think, to break down this gruesome patois to various historical elements. The habit of saying "woh" instead of "what" and "waw-er instead of "water", once peculiar to London cockneys, must have been disseminated by the TV soap EastEnders. Likewise, the dragging out of the "o" into "o-yoo" has come from a diet of Australian series, principally Neighbours, to which today's children reportedly become addicted while still in the womb. "Raid" for "road" seems like a hangover of Thatcher's snob-ridden 1980s. "Yee" for "you" is a relic of 1960s hippie-talk, when everyone was supposed to speak through a woozy love-and-peace smile. Even older is the use of "cool" to describe anything agreeable, from an ice lolly to the Parthenon, and the constant interpolation of "like" and "yeah" ("I went down the pub last night, yeah, and like had a few drinks..."), which hark back to the beatnik era of 40 years ago.
In Teletottyland, nobody "says", everyone "goes". Instead of "I said", they say "I'm like" ("I'm like, 'What's happening?' "). The only term for expressing a large quantity is "loads of" ("loyoods of"). The consonants silenced elsewhere receive perverse accentuation in "Excellentt!" and the triumphal "Yesss"!
It is quite incorrect to term this Estuary English, a dialect identified as peculiar to the Thames estuary and the surrounding Essex Girl catchment area. The fact is that Teletotties from every part of Britain, whether Brummie, Geordie, Scots, West Country or Welsh, use the same mangled vowels and mock-cockney glottal stops within their regional inflection, plus other maulings and misusages that the Estuary English lexicographers have not yet listed. I prefer to call it Slop English (vb: to talk Slop).
One can see how it has evolved on children's shows, where there is little time for crystalline received pronunciation as the participants are plunging into seas of green slime. But Teletotties and Slop English and their concomitant babble have become just as rife on adult programmes, signalling the fashion among television networks for pitching virtually all light entertainment at audiences with a supposed mental age of about 11.
The pioneer of this genre, Channel 4's The Big Breakfast, nowadays looks almost staid in comparision with what has seeped into grown-up prime time. And the new generation of star presenters all, to some degree, have the look and sound of Teletotties. There's Davina McCall of Channel 4's The Real Holiday Show and Streetmate (the latter a downmarket version, if you can imagine it, of Blind Date.) There's Carol Smillie of the National Lottery show and Changing Rooms (though, in fairness, she does sound her Ts). They're all over the holiday shows, the cookery shows, the consumer shows and the cut-price karaoke of Channel 5. There are even BBC continuity voice-overs, in the footsteps of Frank Phillips and Alvar Liddel, announcing forthcoming attractions on "BBC Tuy".
They also have numerous counterparts in real life, with exactly the same dangly hair, bare midriffs, too-long cardigan sleeves and hideous articulation. You can see Teletotty lookalikes (and, alas, soundalikes) on any street, swaggering arm-in-arm, four or five abreast, hooting with laughter and sucking in cigarette smoke, or seated in boozy covens in the kind of pub that has a bow-tied bouncer on the front door. There was more than a touch of Teletotty, I thought, in several of the female passengers recently thrown off a flight to Jamaica for what one of them described as: "Just having a sing-song." How long before we see that little group trading cackles and double entendres with Davina on The Real Holiday Show?
Slop English is said to epitomise our new classlessness, a further resonance of the much-missed 1960s. But there is an important difference. Back then, the lower classes tried to talk up. Today, we have the middle and the upper classes trying to talk down. Tony Blair on chat shows is by no means the only culprit. Debby types talk Slop as eagerly as anyone, wrinkling their noses to get the right inflection. Zoe Ball, their high priestess, may put on the accent of a navvy, but a well-spoken upbringing glimmers through every word.
Teletotties supposedly represent today's emancipated young woman - post-feminist, post-ladette, post-Spice Girl, raunchy, sassy and in-your-face, competing and winning in the formerly male-tyrannised media marketplace. If you look more closely, however, they are not far removed from the fluffy bunnies who spin wheels and show off prizes on old-fashioned game shows. They are merely hostages in the programme-makers' eternal quest to attract "younger people", their hyper-energy, their shrieks of mirth - and, perhaps, their awful speech - not a mark of confidence but of insecurity.
Before 19-year-old Kelly Brook's recent debut on The Big Breakfast, she was photographed by Heat magazine audaciously poking her tongue into the ear of her co-anchor, Johnny Vaughan. But on-screen during her first week, she seemed almost pathetically eager for approval.
Clearly, nothing can or should stop the British accent from changing and evolving. At the beginning of this century, polite society spoke with the Germanic inflection of the royal family. My Edwardian grandmother used the refined cockney of H G Wells novels, saying "ketch" for "catch" and "stummick" for "stomach". I would hate to go back to the lace-doily voice of the 1950s, or to the 1970s lisp still so stomach-churningly practised by Richard Branson.
As a child of the 1960s, I'm all for classlessness. To me, that means speaking - and encouraging my child to speak - clearly, pleasantly and unaffectedly. So I'll go on fighting the baleful influence of Slop and the Teletotties. Even if it means resorting to bribes.
* * TALKING SLOP
- BBC Tuy: not BBC1
- raid: the thing chickens cross.
- ho-yoom: as in "I wenh ho-yoom for my tea".
- T: lost consonant of Slop.
- pih: as in "Brad pih the glass on the tabew".
- reams: things you change with Carol Smillie.
- yessss!: quite definitely. he goes: he says.
- I'm like: I said.
- lo-yoods of: a lot.
- no-yoo: that's a negative.
- gid: as in "Gid grief!"
- brillianh: okay.
- orsum: passably pleasant.
- a resulh: good.
- sor'id: very good.
- rilly gid: highest praise imaginable.