Very bad language on the BBC

Very bad language on the BBC


norman lebrecht

July 20, 2011

With the confidence of well-fed poodles, we snuggled down in  the basket last night to watch the BBC’s 1950s Mad Men tribute, The Hour. It was, as expected, beautifully produced. The costumes walked straight out of V&A showcases, the women smoked with conviction, the walls were tiled by Dutch masters and even the walks were a good imitation of Brighton Rock.

Every leading actor had been puffed in the press for two weeks and expectations were sky-high. Or should that be Sky-high?

And then they opened their mouths.

The language was all wrong. The moment one character said ‘I’m a big fan of yours’, the illusion was shattered. This was not the 1950s but the 2010s making a feeble attempt to sound like the mid-1950s. The more one listened, the wronger it got. Cliché after cliché, pleasantry after unpleasantry, the script reeked of anachronism.

The Hour was supposed to be a thinly-disguised take on the birth of the BBC’s Panorama programme. Not one journalist sounded like the oldies I knew when I came into the profession in the 1970s. This was pastiche crossed with word-search, neither witty nor catty, nor period. It was wrong, wrong, wrong all the way down the hour.

The writer’s credit goes to Abi Morgan. I’m not sure credit is the right word. Morgan’s chief past achievement is the screenplay for Birdsong.

This was a good idea, spoiled for want of a writer’s ear. All that detail, all that expense, and no-one to listen to the language. It would not have cost the BBC much to employ a word-checker, someone who cut the anachronisms from the script and produce a period drama as faultless as Mad Men.

Memo to Mark Thompson: next time, have a good listener on set.


  • I enjoyed The Hour, visually, but kept wondering why it felt wrong. Now you have put your finger on it. I don’t think Mad Men need worry about a rival! Also, Dominic West is no Don Draper – he does not have John Hamm’s charisma. In fact, a few minutes in his company and I wanted to wash my hands, thoroughly….. Also, would the Ben Wishaw character really have been admitted to the BBC with such an estuary accent, in the 50s? When I flirted with working for the Beeb in the mid-80s RP was still almost obligatory…..

    It’s got such a good cast. Such a pity the language has let it down!

  • Ian McArthur says:

    In the second episode, Ben Wishaw says to Dominic West, imagining a reason for his failing to get a First at Cambridge: “…but sadly [you] partied more than you should…” (not ‘should have’). I’m guessing the Wishaw character went to a grammar school, but that’s by-the-by. It’s the glaring anachronism of using ‘party’ as a verb which grates. I’m 44, and I’m quite sure I never heard this usage before the late 1990s (and even then only from an American). This is one example of many.

    The last time I got really annoyed by the sort of linguistic anachronism that would not go unnoticed by anyone who is not in a coma, it was when I watched ‘The Royal Wedding’, a TV drama which aired in 2010. So full of howlers I was almost foaming at the mouth. The writer? Abi Morgan. Does she do this sort of thing as a joke? I look forward to her adaptation of Brideshead including such period phrases as ‘that is SOO not true’ or ‘you da man’.

    Another point: there is absolutely no way that someone of the background and upbringing of West’s character would forget his manners and allow a woman to get out of his car in the pouring rain and walk to her front door like he did (he remembered himself eventually). He would have automatically and instinctively got out the car with his umbrella, walked round to her side, opened the door under the umbrella and walked to her front door (and perhaps lingered a while, hoping to cop off)..

    Does the BBC employ script editors? What are the qualifications? This sort of thing makes a potentially good drama unwatchable (save for the opportunity to snipe at it).

    • Keith Edgerley says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only one annoyed by the anachronisms. The worst for me was to hear the words “pleased to meet you” from an ex-public school boy and guardsman. An incredible viulgarism.
      There are so many thinsg wrong… smoking,yes, but this was ridiculous (episode 1). And “for the likes of you and I” last Tuesday . Then there was the footman or butler who filled a wineglass to the top — he would have been sacked. And the string quartet in episode 1. But there are so many.
      The problem is, I don’t think a script editor would necessarily pick up on these things

  • Betjaboy says:

    I rather gave up on watching tv drama some years ago but was taken by Mad Men and have followed it through its several series. It took me some time to work out that it is, in fact, a cartoon strip, but none the less interesting for that. When the BBC gave the big build up to The Hour and critics chose to make comparison with MM I was seduced into watching; part of the attraction was the much stated efforts of the production team to create an authentic fifties environment – it was to be perfect in every detail. Was this a joke? It is a decent enough drama, but the inaccuracies are comical and go far beyond the script. That a twenty eight year old middle class woman with ambition and drive would have possessed a “Bill Haley collection” is laughable for 1956 – it took at least another decade before Mick Jagger could lay a loose claim to inventing working class chic. Besides which, only a clutch of BH records were even available (or known) in Britain in 1956 and they would have been issued in 78 rpm format. Freddie’s desk ‘phone is 1965 at least (the earliest version of the model only came out in 1959), The reference to synthetic dress material as a substitute for silk was about four years too early; the government minister’s glasses are from1963/4; there are air conditioning fans in the utility area of Lime Grove; the leading lady’s hair is too bouncy… They just come and come, these anachronisms but, fortunately, they actually add a little more then they take away.