I Want To Hear The Black Country’s Accents On Stage

It’s been a long time since I heard a Black Country accent on stage”

I was thrilled to sit in on rehearsals for “Fred Jeffs: The Sweetshop Murder” by Graeme Rose this week. It is a fascinating story based on the murder of Graeme’s Great Uncle, Fred Jeffs, in Oldbury in 1957. As soon as Graeme stood in the middle of the room and began to perform, I realised it had been a long, long time since I’ve heard a Black Country accent on a stage.

I remember very clearly the first time I heard someone on the TV with an accent I recognised. I watched as Lenny Henry bounced across the screen in a video-taped recording of an 80s episode of TISWAS. I bounded up to the screen and began to realise that these moving shapes may actually be real people.

I had to wait a long time to see my accent on a stage. A few years ago, I headed to the panto at the Wolverhampton Grand and onto the stage came Doreen Tipton. It was a dazzling performance that had my family in stitches, where she brilliantly played to every Black Country stereotype.

I love to see Black Country humour at its finest. It’s a wit I know well and love and can recognise across my community. However, if I were to cut together every theatrical performance with my accent and show it to someone who’d never been north of Birmingham, you’d think that we were all hilarious, idiotic sidekicks who rarely left the pub. I’m sure we can agree that we are much more than that. I don’t know how many people have had the following conversation:

“Where are you from?”

“Wolverhampton”

“Where’s that?”

“In the Black Country”

“Where’s that?”

“Near Birmingham”

“Ohhh… Buuurrrmingummm. Alrigghhht Babbbs!?”

“No”

I’ve seen so many Shakespeare plays where the fool uses a (more-or-less) Brummie accent (no, it’s not the same as any of the Black Country accents!), while the hero expresses the fundamentals of human nature in beautiful verse in an upper-class London accent. More than half of theatre in the UK features a “Received Pronunciation” accent (defined as the “standard accent of those in the south of England”), when only 5% of the population naturally speaks with one.

But does it really matter what accent someone speaks with? Well, I think it does. Four years ago, the Birmingham accent was voted the least-sexy in the UK and Channel 4 subtitled a documentary filmed in Birmingham. However, last year it was voted one of the sexiest accents. What changed? Peaky Blinders. The hit TV drama, filmed at the Black Country Living Museum, has given the accent a voice beyond the stereotype. The accent is even being loved by fans in the US, where the show is no longer being subtitled.

Sitting in rehearsals this week, I watched as Graeme inhabited multiple characters who lived in Oldbury, not too far from where my Aunt is from. The show is hilarious, but it has its darker moments. It is, after all, about a murder. Seeing these dramatic scenes in my own accent made the performance incredibly personal – a feeling that I suspect would be shared by the other 1.2 million people in the Black Country. Seeing a 3D character who unironically calls someone “duck” felt like a victory over anyone who’s mocked me for my accent, and a slap on the wrist for any time I’ve tried to hide it.

This region has such a rich array of accents and dialects, where you can move a few streets and find a whole new vocabulary. Let’s show it off in all its glory. I keep hearing that it’s not the most beautiful accent in the world, but maybe that’s because when it comes to the arts, we’re not given beautiful things to say. It is yet another reminder of the importance of representation in theatre and performance and how excited I am to see my first BCT production, Back in 10, in August, where local stories will be showcased in all their glory and nuances.

I’ll leave you with the words of theatre critic Tracey Sinclair:

‘…..we deserve our gorgeous, sweeping, epic stories against brilliant backdrops,  spanning countries. We deserve our love stories and our stained-glass windows and our journeys into the sunset, and if you won’t give us them as due, we’ll take them. And we’ll resist your dismissal of us as loud and cheap and shabby and ungrateful, and we will defiantly proclaim not just our worth but our beauty.’

I highly recommend you check out the show for yourself on the following dates:

The REP: Wed 15th May – Sat 18th May 2019

Glasshouse Arts Centre: Wed 5th June 2019

Thimblemill Library: Fri 7th June 2019

Newhampton Arts Centre: Sat 8th June 2019

Find out more about BCT’s production, Back in 10 here.

By Joanne Blunt, Administration and Communications Co-Ordinator