I don't normally watch X Factor. Like Stephen Fry, I find the emotions it exploits - awkwardness and embarrassment - overrated as entertainment vehicles. But last Saturday night, before I left for a 1-3am DJ set in London, I was forced to switch on the US version of the show after seeing Steve Jones trending on Twitter.
Among some tweets that were just a massive release of hormones, and a sizable number along the lines of "this guy is going to annoy me", the vast majority all said the same thing: "What happened to Steve Jones's voice?!" Somebody in the Jones camp has obviously stuck their oar in and encouraged Steve to lose his Welsh accent as he moves to American TV, which is a crying shame, because he's clearly struggling as a result, adding to an already awkward situation with a voice that he seems to have borrowed off somebody else.
I know Steve from years back, when we both worked at the marvellously named Pop Factory in South Wales. An actual former fizzy pop factory, where they had once made drinks like Corona Fizzy Orange and Dandelion & Burdock, was enterprisingly converted into a TV production facility by a brilliant producer/director called Emyr Afan, who I'd worked with before. Emyr made use of European and UK governmental funding to help launch a creative oasis in a relative desert, the Rhondda Valley in South Wales. While there, I presented two series of a great little show called This Way Up on ITV1 Wales, the show on which I had that excruciating experience with Muse.
Emyr was not only great at seeing the potential for development in an area crying out for it, he was also very canny at spotting talent and giving it the chance to develop. The other two presenters working at The Pop Factory at that time were Steve Jones, possibly the best looking man ever to grace a cathode ray tube (or Liquid Crystal Display), and the magnificently over-endowed Alex Jones, now of The One Show.
Steve was, in those days, so young, so naïve, so buttock-clenchingly thick, but so lovely with it, that you wouldn't want him any other way. He really was one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to meet, and the fact that he could only dream of beating anyone over the age of eleven at Scrabble only made him more lovable. Somehow, being super intelligent just wouldn't be fair with Steve, he's just too good looking, as if the gods who were giving out looks asked him to skip the brains queue and stay for a triple helping of what they had to offer.
So, anyway, back to last Saturday night, and the curious case of Steve's missing voice. The poor boy has obviously been leant on by someone, because you can bet your bottom dollar this wasn't Steve's idea. So WHY do you think they did this?
Could it be that in the wake of Cole-gate, the show's broadcaster Fox is paranoid about alienating US audiences who are unable to understand a regional British accent? If so, they're doing themselves and Steve a disservice. Because while Cole's Geordie twang might take a little getting used to for those not already familiar with it, the Welsh accent only makes words easier to understand. It's a very well pronounced variety of the English tongue, probably the easiest to understand of any.
Of course we've already been through all this, and out the other side, here in the UK. Many decades ago regional accents were simply not allowed on TV. Everybody had to speak like Harry Enfield's hilarious character, Mr Cholmondley-Warner (pron. Chumley-Warner). By the noughties, things had swung to the other extreme, and posh accents got no voiceover work at all, you had to speak like the dude who does 'Big Brother' - "Porl, Jern and Meyk oor in tha smerking aaairea..."
That said, as voices moved from posh to regional on British telly, in the 1990s probably, it did sometimes feel like the Welsh accent was the one being left behind. Perhaps that was linked to the fact people from Wales were increasingly the victims of what I call 'internal racism' within England. Because, of course, in the UK, the bias against regional accents was never to do with whether or not people could understand what was being said, but was more about the preconception viewers - and TV bosses - would form about someone based simply on how they spoke.
When I was growing up it was the Irish who were the butt of every joke in England, which I found mystifying. Without the Irish, things would be very different in this country. For starters we'd all be speaking French now if it wasn't for Arthur Wellesley, The Duke Of Wellington. His victory over Napoleon at Waterloo insured English independence, yet the history books (written mostly by English men) seem to conveniently gloss over the fact he was Irish. But as Ireland gentrified through the 1980′s the pisstake-pendulum swung over the Irish Sea and seemed to get stuck over Cardigan Bay.
I was born in Cardiff, and my great uncles, on my father's side, played rugby for Wales. As a person of Welsh heritage I've long sensed an undercurrent of 'internal racism' against the Welsh. And up until the marvellous Huw Edwards first read the BBC Six O'Clock News in 1999, there were no Welsh voices in the mainstream public eye. The last flirtation the UK had had with a Welshman was fairly disastrous. Poor Neil Kinnock, both Welsh AND ginger. He may as well have publicly poured petrol over himself and struck a match.
Things do seem to have got better recently, with Huw getting the most coveted news reading position in the country on the BBC News At Ten, and the aforementioned Alex Jones being groomed for chat show stardom via evening TV. But this Steve Jones thing has got me thinking about this all over again. I really do hope the edict for Steve to adopt a more neutral voice on American TV didn't come from the UK-end of the X Factor operation, from some English person deciding that the Welsh accent sounds too stupid for a US audience. Did Simon Cowell stand there, with his daft flat-top hair and trousers pulled up to his hideous moobs, and tell the most gorgeous man on TV to lose the Welsh accent?
And even if the ruling did come from US TV bosses, while that might be less surprising, it's still a stupid rule. With an increasing number of British TV presenters popping up on shows over there, surely even American viewers would welcome a bit of variety in how those people speak. Though, I suppose, the decision - whoever made it - has had an upside for the all new X Factor USA on this side of the Atlantic. Because Steve's attempts to cover his natural accent sound so ridiculous at times, everyone is talking about it, and therefore the show. To the extent that even I ended up watching a bit of the programme. And I even heard my marvellous Xfm colleague Dan O'Connell talking about Steve's voice, and its unknown whereabouts, last week.
But if this is a battle that can't be won, if all British TV presenters are going to be asked to neutralise their accents if they want to work in the States, no matter how bizarre it makes them sound, well here's an idea: why not just make them all do their best New York private detective impression and be done with it? Or maybe, for international promotional purposes, all Brits - you and me included - should have to mask their true voices.
And then we could swing back right the other way and have Mr Cholmondley-Warner presenting every show on TV... "Helloo, end hwelcome to thee 'Hex-Fector', en engaging end edifying televisual progrum thet discarvers telent in the most hunlikely uf pleeces".
You know, come to think of it, I'd watch that.
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