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Inside Out: Surprising Stories, Familiar Places

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   Inside Out - North West: Monday January 17, 2005


Exclusive web interview
Mark Radcliffe
Mark Radcliffe interviews Fast Show's John Thomson
"Do you remember your first gig?"
"Was it easier to get started by hiding behind characters?"
"What about other northern characters?"

What do George Formby, Les Dawson, and Peter Kay all have in common? Aside from being among some of the nation's top comedians, they all have North West accents. Coincidence? Or is the North West accent naturally more comedic? Inside Out investigates.

When it comes to being funny it's not just what you say, but the way you say it and if you can say it in a North West accent, then you may just be onto a winner.

But what is it about the accent that the nation seems to find so amusing? We enlist the help of Radio 2 DJ and professional northerner, Mark Radcliffe to find out more.

Social history

As part of the North West comedy brat pack, it's not surprising to learn that one of the comedians who inspired the Fast Show's John Thomson, was fellow northerner and comic great Les Dawson.

"Genius. Very intelligent man with a very good command of the English language," insists John.

Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough as Cissy and Ada
"You said you might have to have an hysterical rectomy."
Cissy (left) enquiring about Ada's health

And nowhere is this command more apparent than in one of Les's trademark sketches "Cissy and Ada".

Cissy: "Is it the old trouble - women's trouble?

"You said you might have to have an hysterical rectomy."

Hysterical it might be but Cissy's tendency to mouth unmentionable words was in fact an acute observation of a real tradition which began in the cotton mills.

The sound of the machinery was so loud, mill workers developed their own way of communicating over the noise.

Rochdale music hall star, Norman Evans, was the first comedian to spot its comedic potential back in the 1930s.

"We see a direct line of descent with Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough doing Cissy and Ada," explains Cultural Historian, Dr Chris Lee.

"It's a wonderful tribute that it goes from them, back to Evans, to the mill girls, to the 19th Century.

"It's living history to watch a routine like that."

Caroline Aherne and John Thomson as The Fast Show's Roy and Renne
"I said to Roy, 'the prices aren't old fashioned are they?' What did I say Roy?"
Renne to Roy about a visit to Stratford

"Sauce" of inspiration

And it's not just the industry of the North that provides inspiration for comics.

The Fast Show's put-upon Roy and overbearing Renne are straight out of a saucy seaside postcard.

Renne: "It's still very "oldy worldy", still very Shakespearian, you could buy his story books on the way out.

"I said to Roy, 'the prices aren't old fashioned are they?'

"What did I say Roy?"

Roy: "The prices aren't old fashioned."

Renne: "We did laugh."

Easy on the ears

The round vowel sounds of the North West accent naturally sound safe and unthreatening, making the North West accent a desirable one to acquire.

It is this safe and unthreatening accent which allowed Caroline Aherne's character Mrs Merton to ask the most outrageous, below-the-belt questions of her guest stars.

Steve Coogan as the Fast Show's Paul Calf
Steve Coogan's, Paul Calf is spreading the nasal tones of Irwell English

She famously asked Debbie McGee, "So, what attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?"

With the explosion of North West comedy, writers have continued to create unforgettable character with accents that have been mimicked around the country as Dr Chris Lee explains.

"We've heard a lot about Estuary English, now there's also Irwell English which is like a new Mancunian.

"It's apparently spilling over into other language pools."

Dim up North

The popular stereotype that it's "grim up North" goes part way to explaining why such comedic talent has been nurtured here.

Working class communities traditionally overcame poverty and hardship by developing their own sense of humour, often at their own expense.

George Formby
There is nothing dim-witted about this talented performer

But as Dr Chris Lee explains, it's not just considered "grim up North", but "dim up North" too.

"The Formby character developed as a dim-wit character, but it was a character that people could associate with and that people liked.

"Very northern, very unique."

Whether it is the soft accent, or the unthreateningly dim characters, one thing is certain, the North West is a hotbed of comedic talent which continues to go from strength to strength.

"We know we're not gormless," says Dr Chris Lee.

"We know we've pulled the wool over their eyes, that's why we laugh longest and we laugh hardest."

Knock knock

Got a great North West joke? Or do you simply want to tell us who your favourite comedian is? Why not fill in the comment form below and we'll publish a selection on the site.


The BBC is carrying out a huge survey of how we speak called Voices.

If you'd like to get involved click on the website or call our freephone number 0800 056 6787 for more information about how you can become part of history.

See also ...

On the rest of Inside Out
East Midlands accents
London accents
North East accents
South accents
South East accents
South West accents
West accents

BBC Voices
BBC Comedy
BBC Guide to comedy

On the rest of the web
British Library: Accents and dialect

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

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