Category Archives: Video

552. Discussing Comedy & Culture (with Amber & Paul)

Amber, Paul and I listen to a comedy video which is often sent to me by listeners to this podcast. The video is about the experience of trying to understand people when they speak English. Let’s see what the pod-pals think of this comedy from another country. The conversation then turns to comedy, culture, language and some more Alan Partridge. I read out some listener comments at the end of the episode. Notes, transcripts and links available.

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Transcripts & Notes

Introduction

Welcome back to another episode featuring the PODPALS Amber & Paul.

In this episode we discuss comedy in different countries, including what makes comedy funny, what can make comedy culturally inappropriate, whether Brits have a different view of comedy to other cultures, and whether understanding comedy is just about understanding the language or if there’s more to it than that.

This is clearly the topic which I’m a bit obsessed with: How comedy or humour can reveal our cultural differences in the most striking ways. Perhaps comedy is the key to truly understanding our cultural values somehow.

I often talk about how learners of English often don’t find British comedy funny, and that this is a pity for me. One of the worst things I can hear is someone dismissing British humour or comedy as simply “not funny”. I don’t really mind if people say our food or weather is bad, but don’t touch the comedy, I think. But honestly, when I see comedy from other countries – like TV comedy in France where I live, I have to admit that I often don’t find it funny and I do find myself saying things like “oh, this is French comedy…” meaning – French comedy simply isn’t funny or only works on one level. Is that true or am I being hypocritical? I don’t really know.

Anyway, these questions are at the heart of the discussion in this episode, which also involves the three of us listening to and discussing a video – a video that I have been sent many times by listeners. Listeners have sent this video to me more than any other. I wonder if you know what that video could be.

Unfortunately Paul had to leave halfway through this episode because he had a live radio interview scheduled. He’s a busy man who is in demand all over the place. But after he leaves, Amber & I continue the discussion which goes on to discuss my recent episodes about British comedy and we revisit the subject of Alan Partridge.

So without any further ado, let’s get back to my coworking space and jump into the conversation once more.


The video that people have sent me more than any other

I get sent things like videos and memes and stuff. Sometimes it’s the same thing, like the “Eleven” video and also “What British People Say vs What They Mean”.

But this one more than any other.

I’m not going to tell you what it is yet. We’re just going to listen to it and I want you to tell me what you think is going on, and what you think of it.

Outtro Transcript

So there you are folks. Quite a lot packed into that episode. Lots of questions and points about comedy in different cultures and that video from Russia too. About that video, on balance I’d say that I personally didn’t find it funny when I first saw it. I found it a little odd. It’s like a big family entertainment show with a lot of attention being paid to what I expect are (or at least look like) celebrities in Russia in the audience. The comedians are just sitting on the stage, which is fine I think because you don’t always need lots of stage movement and stuff as long as the material is good.

I got the joke, which is that this is how it feels when you listen to people speaking English, but I found it really quite weird the interpretation of the British guy, but also fascinating.

He basically does this … [Luke copies the impression]

…and is stuttery, hesitant and incoherent.

It’s interesting to sort of look at British people through the eyes of Russians.

I guess this means that Brits must seem hesitant when they speak and I expect this also comes from hearing Brits with accents like perhaps the cockney or northern accents, but the result sounds nothing like any of those accents really. It’s a sort of garbled, lost in translation version of a British person with certain traits highlighted and emphasised perhaps because they don’t quite match the Russian way, or something.

I found the impression of the English guy more weird than funny. It felt like, “Is that what they think we sound like?”

The Indian guy is sort of a funny impression in that he’s got the tone and rhythm right but it’s a pretty broad impression and in fact more of a caricature than a full impression. Also there’s just the issue that copying an Indian accent if you’re not Indian is somehow considered a bit inappropriate in the UK.

I talked about this with Sugar Sammy in a recent episode.

534. Sugar Sammy Interview (Part 2) Language & Comedy

I still don’t know where the comedian in the Russian video is from but he could be Indian maybe.

But I get the joke. This is how it sounds for you when you hear these people.

I didn’t find it funny at first but actually I’m finding it more and more funny as I watch it again and again.

It’s also funny to me that I often talk about the challenge of showing UK comedy to learners of English and how they don’t get it, and then someone sends me a comedy video from another country and I have the same reaction, more or less!

I expect there are people in the audience who know more about this (video) than us so leave comments telling me more about this Russian TV Comedy Club video.

Also, I’m heartened to read some of your comments relating to the recent episodes about comedy.

Right now: I’ve just uploaded the 2nd Alan Partridge episode. There haven’t been many comments yet. Slightly disturbing silence. Have I confused everyone?

Edit:
**TIMESHIFT**
It’s now a week later.
I’ve received more messages than I did last week when I recorded this part of this episode.
Thanks for sending your comments. I’ll go through those messages in a moment.
But first, here are the messages I had received at the time I recorded this outtro last week, which was just after I’d released the Edinburgh Fringe Jokes episode and the first two Alan episodes.
*TIMESHIFT back to the present*

Here’s a selection of comments

Salwa • Alan Partridge Part 1
Oh that was really funny and enjoyable. Thank you very much for introducing Alan Partridge to us. I did not find the comedy difficult to understand at all. In fact, some of the jokes made me laugh out loud.

Mariangel García • Best Jokes from the Edinburgh Fringe
Hi Luke, I hope you’re doing alright
I’d like to tell you that you should continue making these podcasts about comedy, they’re quite enjoyable and help us improve our English, as you just said, understanding jokes in our second language can be the hardest thing.
By the way, please don’t forget my proposal of making an episode about British pop music. I’m definitely looking forward to listening to it.
Lots of hugs from Venezuela.

Anastasia Pogorevich • Best Jokes from the Edinburgh Fringe
Thank you, Luke! I’m really keen on your excellent Joke explanations. I think English humour is fabulous and would like to know more about that stuff. You make all things absolutely clear and I like your positive attitude to your work and to life! Cheers!

Tania •Best Jokes from the Edinburgh Fringe
That’s a pleasure! Thank you, Luke! I’ve got nearly all of the jokes but some after you read them several times. So It’s fun, of course. I know what learners usually say about English humor:)) I myself thought about it that way from the start, but you know, the humor is not just lying on the surface and turns out to be intellectual. Gives work to your brain. And finally you get it! Cool! This is the first audio i’ve listened on your site, downloaded the app and enjoy! English is becoming closer to me!

Vladimir Yermolenko • Best Jokes from the Edinburgh Fringe
Hi Luke! I really enjoyed this new episode on Edinburgh Festival Fringe, thank you so much. The jokes got all clear when you explained some of them. My favorite one was “watch and a log” :)
I also recall some funny jokes in my country, but I don’t know what the style of joke that is. I’ve just translated one from my language.
Dr.Watson asks Sherlock “Can you hear this sinister howl, Mr.Holmes?”
Holmes says “Yes, that’s probably the hound of the Baskervilles”

Then, on another day:
“But what is this sinister silence around us?”
“It’s the fish of Baskervilles, Doctor”

Anya Chu •Best Jokes from the Edinburgh Fringe
Hi Luke,
A little ninja from Taiwan here! I’ve been listening to your podcast for just over 1 year and have been enjoying it sooo much. Really appreciate your work on all the great content!
I’ve just finished the new episode of jokes from Edinburgh Fringe, and I loved it! I was on a bus when I listened to this episode and I kept getting giggles, which I tried very hard to disguise as coughs. British humor is just always on point.
Anyway, thank you again for all the effort on such excellent episodes. Please keep up the great work! :)

Svetlana Mukhamejanova • LEP Premium 06 Part 3
Hi Luke! Re P06[3] please don’t stop making fun, I love your sense of humor)

***TIMESHIFT!***
It’s now the future again. I’m recording this a week after recording the rest of this outtro and there are now more comments on the Alan Partridge episodes, which I’d like to share with you.

Alan (Part 1)

Hiro • 6 days ago
Hello Luke,
I really enjoyed the Knowing Me, Knowing You (aha)show with the child genius. It was so funny I listened to it 3 times! Without your precise explanations, though, I wouldn’t have been able to get all the jokes. Thank you!

Viktoria Luchina • 7 days ago
I adore listening to your episodes about British Comedy! And the way you explain to us some bits of language is perfect. I’ve listened to “Alan Partridge Interviews Child Prodigy Simon Fisher” at least 5 times and I liked it more than the first clip. It’s really interesting that in this case we laugh with Alan and at him. I’m looking forward to next episodes like this one! World needs to explore British Comedy in depth with you!

Alan (Part 2)

Hiro • 6 days ago
Hello Luke!
This second episode is a little more challenging for me than the previous one because the jokes are more subtle. However, the more I listened to your explanatiosn, the clearer the humorous points became to me! Yes, Alan Partridge is an absolute walking disaster! He makes me cringe so much I cannot listen to each one of his episodes in one go.
Again, without your excellent guide, I wouldn’t be able to understand all the nuances and layers of this comedy. Thank you very much, Luke!

Marat • 7 days ago
Hello, Luke! My name is Marat, I am from Russia. I really enjoy listening to your podcast in general and these Alan Partridge episodes in particular! In the first part you have mentioned The Office series as being full of cringey situations. I haven’t seen the British one, but have seen the American one (with Steve Carell). And that was really all about cringey moments). Have you seen the American one? Which one is more cringey in your opinion? (‘cringey’ is a new word to me, so I use it everywhere now :) ).

Alan (Part 3)

Zdenek Lukas • a day ago
Hi Luke, I just want to let you know that I have been thoroughly enjoying the episodes about Alan Partridge (currently in the middle of the 3rd one). I love this character and I actually played the clip from the first episode (the one with the child prodigy) to teach types of questions and the pronoun “whom”. I am a big fan of these episodes and I think you clearly managed to do justice to this character. Thank you for your podcast!

peppe124 • 2 days ago
After you spent several hours on 3 episodes, I think we all should spend a couple of minutes writing a comment. We own [owe] that to you.
You are THE teacher every school of English should have! The method you used on this series was just brilliant.
Giving the introduction and background (with cultural references as well), letting us listen and guess and then going back over the clips was really helpful to test and improves my listening skill!
I also liked the content itself,that is the comedy, although I must say I liked the first 2 more; but that’s because there were more, kind of, jokes.
Thank you very much Luke for all this. Keep up the great job!

Tatiana • 2 days ago
Hi Luke, it’s the first time I’ve come out of the woodwork, really. Just to say a few words about the Alan Partridge episodes. I have enjoyed all of them. They give a little insight into real English, the genuine one, that is what British people really laugh at! That’s amazing. Thank you for that! They are right, the people who say, ‘If you understand comedy, you understand the language’.
Your explanations before listening are so detailed that I find almost no difficulties to understand most of Alan’s words. And it is valuable! I tried to find those clips on YouTube (they’re all embedded on the page), and they are even better with video, I would say, (because) you can watch the facial expressions and body gestures.
But then I watched some more – those that were not scrutinised on the podcast. It was a nightmare – I could understand hardly half of it, and most jokes just flew over my head. I felt so disappointed, I see now that proficiency level is as far from me as the Moon.
Thank you for doing your job for us: your podcast is, at this point, one of the major ways of improving my English. I listen and re-listen, take notes, revise them from time to time and so on.
Please keep going with your comedy episodes, they are great!

Damian • 3 days ago
[The] Episodes about Alan Partridge (generally, all episodes about British comedians) are brilliant! Many thanks!

Nikolay Polanski • 5 days ago
All three episodes are very nice, even though it is sometimes hard to get, why it is funny, to be desperate, stupid, mean and lonely. )))
I mean – you said before “try to watch it as a drama, and you’ll appreciate the comedy” – it seems like drama to me )
It is funny, but also sad.
But the episodes are top notch, thanks for the great work you’ve done

Ilya • 4 days ago
I love it! I want more episodes about British comedy! One of my favourite topics.

Francesca Benzi • 3 days ago
Just a few comments, but all of them are a big thumbs up!
I’d never heard of Alan Partrige before listening to your podcast, so thank you: I had a very good time with each of the three episodes.
Brits behavior can often be weird, from an Italian point of view, and listening to your podcast builds up my knowledge of how different we are.

Yaron • 3 days ago
Coming out of the shadows for a moment to say that I like the Alan Partridge episodes. In a way, it reminds me of the brilliant episode about Ali G that you did few years ago (which I recommend to anyone who hasn’t listened to it yet)
Thank you Luke.

I find your comments very reassuring and I’m very glad to read them. I’ll do more episodes about comedy in the future. In the meantime, check the episode archive for other British Comedy episodes.

In fact, here are the links (11 episodes)

Previous episodes about British Comedy

156. British Comedy: Ali G

172. British Comedy: Peter Cook & Dudley Moore

195. British Comedy: Monty Python’s Flying Circus

202. British Comedy: Monty Python & The Holy Grail

313. British Comedy: Tim Vine

316. British Comedy: Tim Vine (Part 2)

427. British Comedy: Limmy’s Show

428. British Comedy: Limmy’s Show (Part 2)

462. British Comedy: Bill Bailey

469. British Comedy: John Bishop

507. Learning English with UK Comedy TV Shows

I also have episodes about telling jokes and explaining humour in social situations. Get into the archive and find out for yourself.

In the meantime, you should sign up for LEP Premium. Get the episodes on the LEP App, sign up at teacherluke.co.uk/premium for hot English action, helping you deal with vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation and have a bit of fun in the process. :)

Thanks for listening!

550. British Comedy: Alan Partridge (Part 3)

Here’s the final part of this trilogy of British Comedy episodes about Alan Partridge. This time we’re analysing some of the quieter and darker moments in Alan’s life as he rambles about flasks, cars, seat belts, badges and having an air bag go off in your face, and avoids the problems in his life. Expect analysis of both the comedy and the language. Vocabulary lists and transcript available. 

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Transcript

So here we are with part 3 of this British Comedy episode, hot on the heels of part 2. This series is all about this famous British comedy character called Alan Partridge.

If you haven’t heard parts 1 and 2 yet I recommend that you go and listen to those first.

The plan again is to listen to some clips on YouTube and then analyse them for language. Hopefully you’ll get the jokes and will pick up some nice vocabulary on the way.

3 episodes is quite a lot to devote to one thing like this, but I really like Alan Partridge and introducing this comedy to you successfully (so that you enjoy it) is a sort of personal challenge for me and also there’s so much Partridge content that I feel just one episode or maybe just two would only really scratch the surface. To give this a proper chance we need to spend a bit of time on it.

Listener Emails

Hopefully you’re enjoying these episodes. Actually, I don’t really know what most of you think. I’ve had a few messages from people saying they are looking forward to part 3 of this – emails mostly.

For example, here’s part of a message from a listener called Hanna in Germany.

Dear Luke, I just wanted to get in touch to tell you how much i like your podcast. I’ve listened to the newest Partridge episode today and loved it. I think you’ve done a brilliant job in getting across what’s so funny and weirdly likeable about him. I’m really looking forward to a third episode about him. And in fact to all the upcoming episodes. In the meantime I scroll through your fantastic archive and pick out my favourite topics to enjoy in my everyday life.

Thank you Hannah.

But on the website I have had hardly any comments on these episodes, which is making me wonder what you’re all thinking. I have no idea really… So please let me know in the comment section. Are you like Hanna, who thinks I’ve managed to do a good job of getting across to you the ins and outs of Alan Partridge, or does it all seem hard to understand and totally unfunny? Let me know.

I did get an email from a teacher in Japan. I think he’s a native English speaker. I have to share it with you.

Message: Hello Luke,
I teach English in Japan. My students often listen to your podcast. In a recent episode you had a TV show host interviewing a child genius. My students are split on whether this really happened, or whether this was staged. I think it is pretty clear that a real TV show host would not actually physically abuse a child on TV, but my students are not convinced. They think this (smacking children upside the head in public and making them cry) is an example of British humour. (notice I spelt that with a ‘u’). I noted that you said it was ‘a spoof, a parody” at the beginning of the segment, but they are not convinced. Please clarify and explain the meaning of ‘spoof’. Love your show.

This is the sort of thing I’m talking about. There’s always someone who gets the completely wrong end of the stick and misunderstands something quite essential about the comedy, like for example what is the target of the joke and what are the underlying meanings or assumptions.

I actually can’t believe there’s anyone out there who would think that Alan is a real person and that he actually slapped a child, and that’s where the comedy comes from. Slapping a child is an absolutely terrible thing to do and it’s certainly not funny. No, the sketch in part 1 where Alan appears to slap a child, is obviously not real.

It seems I might need to clarify something. I thought it was obvious, but you should remember that Alan is not a real person. He’s a character made up by comedians. The scene in part 1 when he interviews a child genius, the child is not a real child. He’s played by an actress called Doon Mackichan who is changing her voice to sound like a child. And anyway, Alan doesn’t actually slap anyone. It’s just a sound effect for the radio. Nobody got slapped in real life.

And in the sketch, we’re not really laughing at a child being slapped. That’s not the joke. Just slapping a child is clearly not funny. It’s awful. So we’re not laughing at a child being slapped, we’re laughing at the fact that Alan is a fatally flawed character who is so pathetic that he will slap a child in order to come out on top or to save face. It’s ridiculous.

I understand that in Japan social conventions are so different in some cases that it might be hard to notice where the comedy is in slapping a child, but it’s really about the character of Alan and how he reacts to being wrong in a situation.

Anyway, slapping a child isn’t really British humour, but featuring a character who would slap a child is more typical of British comedy. We often feature characters in our sitcoms who will do terrible things in order to get what they want and they often fail. We laugh at these people, not with them. They are the target of the humour. Alan is not a hero who we support, quite the opposite, we observe him doing all sorts of terrible and pathetic things. Another example… Basil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers springs to mind. He does lots of terrible things to make sure his hotel business doesn’t get closed down. We cringe at the things he does, but also are amused by what happens to this person who is essentially not very nice when he is put under tremendous pressure that he’s probably responsible for in the first place.

Anyway, for most of you I probably didn’t need to give that clarification but for the students at school (however old you are, I’m not sure) let me assure you – Alan Partridge is not real and none of it is real. He is a character played by an actor called Steve Coogan. Alan Partridge is a parody or a spoof.

Parody, Spoof & Satire

A parody is a humorous piece of writing, drama, or music which imitates the style of a well-known person or represents a familiar situation in an exaggerated way.

When someone parodies a particular work, thing, or person, they imitate it in an amusing or exaggerated way.

So a parody is an imitation of something, in order to make fun of it. Alan is a parody of TV presenters.

A Spoof is a show or piece of writing that appears to be serious but is actually a joke. It’s also like a “fake” show. The Day Today is a spoof of the news.

We often use spoof and parody in the same or similar ways.

A satire is a piece of comedy designed to criticise something by making fun of it. Satire is like spoof or parody but doesn’t always involve imitations and often has serious targets like politics.

Animal Farm by George Orwell is a satire of communism. It criticises and makes fun of communism with this fictional story about pigs running a farm.

So Alan Partridge is certainly a spoof or parody of television and radio presenters. Perhaps at it’s best it’s some kind of satire about television and culture in general. In fact he’s become more of a parody of a kind of small-minded English man.

Alan Clips

Let’s listen to some more clips. This is going to be good listening practice and there will be loads of vocab, but also let’s see this as a kind of little adventure where I take you into something new and you have to try and work out what’s going on.

I’ve chosen two more clips, and I’ve chosen these ones because they are slightly quieter moments for Alan, not the big moments with all the catchphrases, but moments when Alan is perhaps at a weak point, which reveal how restless he is and how flawed he is on a basic social level.

We get a bit deeper into his psyche in this episode.

So in these clips I’m asking you not to look out for jokes like in the Edinburgh episode. Alan doesn’t really do jokes although there are very funny lines. So, don’t look for jokes. Instead look for the way this character expresses himself, how he chooses his words, how he can’t really connect with people around him, how he’s isolated, how he’s actually not a very good person.

There’s a bit of tragedy to Alan. It’s just there, under the surface. You have to read between the lines.

8. Alan calls his son and then Curry’s to ask about getting a surround sound speaker system

This is a glimpse into Alan’s family life and his relationship with his son. You could say it is strained. Imagine having Partridge as your father. It would be awful.

It’s a Saturday afternoon and Alan decides to call his son Fernando, who is 22 years old – around the same age I was when I first watched this. Fernando is named after the Abba song of the same name.

Alan calls Fernando to see if he wants to go for a pint. He catches Fernando in bed with his girlfriend and ends up lecturing him about how he’s wasting his time when the weather is so good outside. The key line is “It’s a Saturday afternoon and you’re in bed with a girl, you’re wasting your life!” Alan couldn’t be more wrong of course.

Instead, Alan suggests that Fernando take her out to a local tourist spot, like a local fort or a Victorian folly. These are like the bog-standard local tourist attractions in the UK. You find things like this everywhere and they’re mostly boring. The fort is probably some local old remains of a castle. A Victorian folly is basically a fake medieval building made during the Victorian era to resemble something from the medieval times. In both cases they are very boring and no doubt populated by other such middle-English middle-Educated weekenders with their anoraks and cameras. For Alan this is a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Of course, staying in bed with a girl is a far better way to spend your time.

Alan can’t relate to Fernando and patronises him (talks down to him and lectures him), while also rambling on like a broadcaster.

His rambling goes too far and he ends up talking about how he used to make love to Fernando’s mother Carol in various places, even telling the story of how Fernando was conceived, making it sound like Fernando might have been a mistake, or that perhaps Alan wasn’t happy when Fernando was born.

We never hear Fernando’s voice. It’s just Alan’s half of the conversation, leaving us to work out the other side for ourselves, which is a good comedy technique.

We can see there are serious issues in their relationship. It sounds like Alan was probably a terrible father, making his son feel unloved and unvalued, and just lecturing him rather than relating to him on a normal level. Alan tries to be friends with Fernando, but he’s completely unaware of how much he mistreats Fernando.

Alan then calls Curry’s the electronics store to find out about buying some speakers and typically ends up either arguing with the sales assistant, lecturing him, or letting him into close personal details. Alan also talks about the speaker system in a weird, formal way, perhaps using the technical language you might read in the product manual, and even using some latin words. For some reason he feels this technical and formal register is appropriate when asking about buying some speakers from a hardware shop. You can imagine that there is a generation of people who are old-fashioned enough to do that too. At the end he even attempts to invite the guy from Curry’s to go for a pint with him, because he’s bored. The guy says no.

In the end Alan decides to walk up the motorway to visit the local garage to buy some windscreen washer fluid. It’s funny to see these utterly mundane moments in Alan’s life. He’s a bit lost and is living in isolation and obscurity. Nobody else in the Travel Tavern is there, so he just leaves, shouting slightly desperately in case anyone wants to join him.

What to watch out for

  • How Alan makes his son feel unloved
  • How Alan describes how Fernando was conceived and it sounds like he wasn’t happy when
  • Fernando was born
  • How Alan starts going on about flasks and Fernando just hangs up
  • How Alan talks to the sales assistant at Curry’s and expects him to know latin
  • How he fails to invite the guy for a pint of beer

Language

  • You both sound exhausted, have you been running?
  • We did it everywhere. Behind a large boulder on Helvellyn for my birthday.
  • Actually, that is where you were conceived.
  • We just didn’t take precautions (so Fernando wasn’t planned, maybe an accident)
  • No we were delighted! Well, at first I was mortified but then you were born and we grew to like you.
  • I left a tartan flask up there. One of those very fragile ones with a screw on cup/cap.
  • These days they’re much more resilient. They took the technology from NASA. Modern flasks today are directly linked to the Apollo space mission. Hello?
  • I’d like to make an enquiry about two supplementary auxiliary speakers to go with my MIDI hi-fi system apropos (with reference to) achieving surround sound.
  • What time do you knock off? Do you fancy going for a drink?
  • Breath of fresh air?

9. Extended Car Sequence (no laughter track)

It’s interesting how a laughter track totally changes the tone of what you’re listening to.

Friends with no laughter track makes Ross sound like a psycho.

In this case having no laughter track makes Alan better and it sounds a lot more authentic.

Alan & Lynn in the car

I’ve chosen this because I want to play a clip with no laughter and in which Steve Coogan and Felicity Montagu (Lynn) are clearly improvising a lot of the dialogue. There are no big laughs in there, but instead this is just Alan at a bored moment. It’s also perhaps one of my favourite Alan moments because of the improvisation. The characters are totally believable. It’s like we’re just observing them in a quiet moment during the day. As we listen to their naturalistic dialogue it’s possible to notice that Alan is slowly becoming a bit unhinged – I mean, the doors are starting to fall off. He’s bored. He’s isolated. He’s probably quite sad and perhaps desperate underneath it.

Alan is “at a loose end” and so he’s requested that Lynn come and meet him so he can ask her something that’s been bothering him. It’s a small thing really, but Alan makes Lynn travel quite a long and complicated journey to come out and see him.

They just sit in the car and Alan rambles about nothing in particular. The main thing bothering him is that his car is making a weird beeping noise and he doesn’t know why. But it seems he just needs Lynn to be there so he can lecture her, patronise her, belittle her etc as a way of escaping the dark feelings that are probably gnawing away at him. Lynn is very faithful to Alan, and has strong Baptist religious beliefs, but Alan is very mean to Lynn, making her take a taxi and to walk a long way just so Alan can have someone to talk to.

Alan doesn’t even believe Lynn when she gives her excuse for being late, which shows that she’s clearly had a long journey to get there. He’s very ungrateful towards her.

Lynn knows that Alan might be at a very vulnerable point here – he’s been thrown out by his wife, living in a travel tavern and he punched the BBC director general in the face with a piece of cheese, and it’s not having a good effect on his mental state. So she’s supportive.

Lynn is clearly concerned about Alan and offers to talk to him about his problems.

Instead of talking about his problems, Alan just goes on in great detail about the features of the car, clearly in denial about his situation and his depressed state.

By the way I think Lynn was the one who actually bought the car for Alan. Him criticising parts of it is also a way for him to criticise her. He’s subtly telling her that he’s not happy with the car she bought.

Obviously Alan is unhappy about more than the car, but he never talks about that. The only thing he can do is comment on minor details in the car. The more specific he gets about these trivial details, like the design of the badge on the steering wheel, the more he is essentially trying to escape the reality of his situation, which is that his life and career are a mess.

Alan’s weird broadcasting sensibility comes in as he starts reviewing the car, commenting on the way seat belts work and generally patronising Lynn.

The tension is palpable.

It’s hilarious comedy and is improvised.

But it’s 100% not obvious.

So I would say, don’t imagine this is comedy. Imagine you’re just listening in on someone’s conversation. Let’s imagine we’re spying on them, just overhearing two people chatting aimlessly.

Coogan’s ability to stay in character is incredible.
The absence of laughter track makes it 100x better.

I wonder what you will think but this is one of my favourite Alan moments. It’s so natural and the character’s avoidance of talking about his problems while focusing on meaningless details of the car, is very interesting from a character point of view, and shows there is real depth and pathos to the character.

What to look out for

  • How difficult it was for Lynn to come and meet him, and how Alan suspects this is a lie
  • The reason Alan asked Lynn to come out
  • Lynn’s suggestion about why the car is making a noise (the clock is wrong)
  • Alan’s reaction to Lynn’s suggestion that it’s because the clock is wrong
  • What Alan thinks of the car, particularly his disappointment about the badge on the steering wheel.
  • Listen to how Alan loves the sound of the electric sun roof
  • What Alan says about the seat belts

Language

  • I got caught in a taxi that broke down
  • Do you know what that noise is?
  • It wouldn’t be “engine faulty” would it?
  • It’s been irritating me all morning
  • Is it the handbrake?
  • Don’t touch the handbrake. We’ll roll back.
  • Just make sure it’s in neutral there.
  • If you ever learn to drive Lynn, when you stop the car, just give it a bit of a wiggle. Make sure it’s in neutral.
  • My mum always puts it in first (gear)
  • Some people do that to stop it rolling back when you park on a hill but it’s unorthodox. It’s a stop gap for a faulty handbrake, but I personally frown on it.
  • I’ve locked the doors there. That’s a design fault. Design flaw. Just pop your elbow on there, you’ve locked the doors. Sometimes you don’t want to.
  • I thought you’d like this.
  • It’s wood laminate.
  • Pop your seatbelt on.
  • These are inertia real seatbelts.
  • Suddenly a lorry rears in front of you. Impact! LOCK!
  • I’d rather have a few superficial bruises than a massively lacerated face. Ooh, awful.
  • I’d love to feel an airbag go off in my face.
  • What I like about this material is, just to get a little bit of extra purchase, it’s pricked vinyl.
  • Pricked vinyl will allow a certain amount of drainage of hand sweat.
  • The Rover badge on the old car was a lovely enamel beautiful crested thing on the steering wheel boss, whereas this one is just moulded into the vinyl.
  • All I do is sit here looking at this moulded badge where once there was an enamel one and I can’t pretend that doesn’t hurt.
  • The sun roof is a wonderful feat of engineering. Just listen to all these servo motors.
  • Precision engineering.
  • Whirring away.
  • And of course you’ve got the manual flap.
  • You go through a bad patch and you can smile at the end of it, probably.
  • I didn’t say I was going through a bad patch, I said I was at a loose end.
  • [Lynn suggests that Alan takes the car for a drive, but Alan beeps the horn while she’s talking, interrupting her. She tries to continue, talking about how there’s an arcade – games centre – up the road where there’s a fun camel race]
  • Do you want to know the quickest way to drain a battery?
  • [Alan tries to open the glove compartment and accidentally touches Lynn’s leg – plenty of apologising and it’s awkward. There’s no affection in the relationship, from Alan anyway]
  • Alan says the best way to drain a car battery is to leave the glove compartment open.
  • Lynn says you shouldn’t leave your sweeties in there on long journeys because it might pop open and you wouldn’t notice and the battery would get drained. [Alan has no idea what she’s talking about.]
  • You’ve lost me. Boiled sweets, you sound like a lunatic.
  • It isn’t the inticator is it?
  • Inticator? Indicator.
  • Actually, I am low on windscreen washer fluid.
  • They wouldn’t set off an alarm if you’re low on windscreen washer fluid. It’s far too alarmist.
  • Just a light would come on to say, you know, you’re a bit low. But not a big alarm like that, it’s just a panic measure, you know like someone going “Oh my god you’re low on windscreen washer fluid!” You don’t need to say that. Just say, you need a nudge. The car needs to effectively say, “excuse me, I don’t want to distract you from your driving, but you might like to know the windscreen washer fluid is getting low” and they do that with a little light, which has come on – you can see it there.
  • Well the clock’s not right is it. That’s a possible.
  • I’m sorry Lynn. I’m normally patient but the idea that an alarm would be triggered because the clock isn’t right is cloud cuckoo land. Alice in Wonderland.
  • Could you cool me down with the hand fan.
  • [Lynn holds the hand fan too close and Alan turns and hurts his lip on it]
  • Come on I’ll drop you at a cab rank.

Ending

There is a massive amount more of Partridge and almost all if it is excellent – great performance, great writing, great characters. Perhaps I’ll revisit Alan one day on the podcast.

I wonder how you feel about this. My aim has been just to introduce you to some stuff you didn’t know about before, and teach you some English in the process. If you’ve enjoyed it and want to check out more Alan stuff, great. If you didn’t really get it, well – so be it. At least I tried.

Some Alan recommendations.

TV series: I’m Alan Partridge Series 1 & 2
TV specials: Welcome to the places of my life, Scissored Isle.
Web-series: Mid-Morning Matters with Alan Partridge
Audiobooks: I, Partridge, Nomad
Film: Alpha Papa (not exactly the same as normal Partridge, but still good)

Do let me know everything you think in the comment section. It’s impossible for me to predict how episodes like this will be received by my audience – I really do scratch my head and wonder what the hell people in China, Russia, Japan or closer to home in France or any other place will think about some of the content I share with you. The only way I can know is if you write to me and tell me what you think. I’m certain some of you completely won’t get it, but some of you might get it and for me it’s worth doing these episodes even if only some of you get it.

At the least, if you didn’t get into the comedy, I think we can agree that there’s been a lot of language to be learned in these episodes. Check the page for this episode to see all the notes and transcripts. I should do a premium episode covering it all, just to make sure it really goes into your head properly! For example, what’s the phrase Alan uses to describe how he’s bored and has nothing to do?

He’s at a loose end, right?

That’s the sort of stuff I do in the Premium episodes. To sign up for the price of 1 coffee per month, go to www.teacherluke.co.uk/premium

BONUS CONTENT: Talking to Raph about Partridge (Part 1)

More videos

Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle (one of the most recent TV specials)

Alan Partridge: Nomad (Audiobook)

 

549. British Comedy: Alan Partridge (Part 2)

Building on the previous episode, this time we’re looking at how Alan Partridge interacts with people in his every day life and how this results in some classic moments of British TV comedy. All the material is explained with plenty of vocabulary to learn.

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Transcript, Notes & Videos

His chat show series ended in disaster when he accidentally shot a man to death during an interview.

3. Alan interviews Tony Hayers (Knowing Me, Knowing Yule – the Christmas special 1995)

There was a Christmas special of Knowing Me Knowing You, which was made as part of a contractual obligation in his BBC deal.

He featured Tony Hayers on the chat show. He was the chief commissioning editor of the BBC – the man who decides which programmes are on the telly. Inviting him is a terrible decision because Alan is hoping to get a 2nd series of his chat show from Hayers, but Hayers hasn’t made his decision yet and is probably not going to give it to him anyway because Alan’s TV show was a disaster.

Alan interviews Tony and it is very awkward. Alan is mainly concerned about whether he has got a second series of his chat show. He is assuming that he has got it – because of his inflated sense of self-worth, which might be him subconsciously compensating for some deep issues he has. Alan is incredibly unaware of himself, which is somehow a social crime in the UK. I think we’re very self-aware.

The interview comes off the rails as Alan gets caught up in attempting to work out if he’s going to get a second series of the chat show.

What to look out for:

  • The awkwardness of Alan having his boss on his chat show
  • How Tony talks about having to cut jobs at the BBC
  • How Alan’s metaphor about Tony “ringing the changes” doesn’t work
  • How Alan keeps pressing for confirmation of a second series
  • How he assumes he has one although it’s obvious to us that he hasn’t
  • How Alan ultimately ruins it for himself
  • How he attempts to appear politically correct but he’s very awkward about certain issues

Later, Alan sort of has a breakdown live on air and ends up punching his boss in the face accidentally, with a turkey stuck on his hand.

I’m Alan Partridge

A year or two later a new series about Partridge arrived. It was called “I’m Alan Partridge”.

For me, this is when Alan really became a brilliant character. In I’m Alan Partridge we follow Alan in his normal life.

Previously we saw his awkward encounters with guests and a lot of very cringe-worthy moments. It worked as a parody and satire of television chat shows and the general clichés of broadcasting.

Now we see Alan in his everyday life and he has similarly awkward encounters. We see behind the curtain. Alan struggles to be normal. He’s always in “TV chat” mode, and it’s awful. He has no social skills, even though he thinks he’s a great conversationalist. He tries to be charming and normal, it all goes wrong, but he doesn’t realise it. He’s completely unaware of himself. In fact, his life is nosediving. It’s all falling apart around him, but he blindly assumes that he’s destined to be a prime time BBC1 TV presenter.

This is really hard to explain. We just have to hear it and find out.

Alan’s career is on the rocks. He’s now hosting a show on local radio – in Norwich. It’s the pre-breakfast show – a very obscure slot, something like 4:30-6:30AM, local radio. He’s drifted into obscurity. Also, his personal life is in disarray. His wife has left him for her fitness instructor. We gradually learn more and more about this and essentially it’s largely his fault because he’s Alan Partridge!

He’s petty, domineering, arrogant, unromantic, selfish, careless, career oriented. Why is this character so fascinating for the viewer? I’m not sure.

Now he’s living in a travel tavern – a kind of roadside motel, but he’s convinced that things will get better because he’s certain that the BBC will give him a second series of his chat show. He’s even about to buy a 5 bedroom house. He’s utterly deluded about himself. It’s sad. There’s darkness lurking just under the surface. In fact, Alan later does have a nervous breakdown and ends up bingeing on Toblerone chocolate bars and driving to Dundee in Scotland in bare feet (with no shoes on) but that’s later on.

I’m Alan Partridge – Series 1 Episode 1 1997

4. Alan meets Michael the Geordie and talks about his accent
Michael works as a caretaker at the travel tavern. He’s from Newcastle and he used to be in the army.

Alan strikes up a sort of friendship with him, but at first Michael is hard to understand because of his accent.

What to look out for:

  • The way the girl Sophie on reception is subtly insulting Alan while remaining professional
  • Alan’s prejudice against people from the north
  • How Alan is fascinated by Michael’s horrible experiences in the army

5. Alan’s pretend meeting with Tony Hayers

Alan’s Personal Assistant, Lynn helps Alan prepare for his meeting with Tony Hayers. Alan grossly overestimates his chances of a second series, and even the pretend meeting goes wrong, with Alan demanding to have a second series from Lynn, and putting Lynn down at the same time. This is how Alan imagines his negotiating style to be, and even in his fantasised versions, he fails.

What to watch out for:

  • How Alan imagines his meeting with Tony Hayers will go, including the locker room banter he expects to have with Tony about smoking cuban cigars
  • How even the fantasy goes completely wrong

I’m Alan Partridge Series 1 Episode 1 09:25

6. Alan’s real meeting with Tony Hayers
Alan is meeting Tony Hayers at the BBC and expects to be told he’s getting a 2nd series. We all suspect that he won’t get it, even though he’s certain he will and has just bought a 5 bedroom house.

Alan is clearly out of his depth in this BBC restaurant where everyone is an executive in a suit.

Alan attempts to appear sophisticated but gets everything wrong.
It becomes clear that Alan doesn’t have a second series and he loses it.
He then attempts to pitch a number of other shows he has in mind, but they’re all terrible.
You see something kind of click and he ends up punching Tony Hayers with a piece of cheese.

“Smell my cheese you mother!”

What to watch out for

  • How Alan attempts to appear classy with talk of wine and other things, and how he reveals that he has no class
    Alan’s ridiculous ideas for TV shows, very similar to stupid TV shows that exist in the real world

I’m Alan Partridge Series 1 Episode 1 16:36

7. Alan and Lynn in the car

“That was a negative and right now I need two positives.”

“Come on I’ll drop you at a cab rank.”

Alan fantasises about calling Chris Rea, the pop star who lives in the area. In his imagined conversation he invites Chris to a barbecue but the invitation ends in an argument. Again, even his imaginary exchanges go all wrong.

What to watch out for:

  • How Alan somehow imagines his life like a hollywood thriller (that was a negative…)
  • The imagined conversation with Chris Rea that goes wrong
  • “Come on, I’ll drop you at a cab rank”

I’m Alan Partridge Series 1 Episode 1 25:00

Thanks for listening!

Alan Partridge TV shows are available on iTunes and other platforms. Also, check out the Alan Partridge audiobooks on Audible.

There should be a part 3 coming soon. Tell me what you think in the comment section!

526. Being a Tourist (with Paul Taylor) + video

Catching up with Paul Taylor and talking about his recent trips to Japan & Barcelona, the pros and cons of being a tourist and some recommendations for people visiting London and Paris as tourists. Video available on the website and in the LEP app. 

Video Version

Audio Version


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Paul’s Vlog #12

Last chance to vote for LEP in the British Podcast Awards before Thursday 17 May

Introduction

This is a rambling chat that I recorded with friend of the podcast and one of the original POD PALS) Paul Taylor on the rooftop of my flat on a nice sunny day recently. I filmed this one too and the video version is available on the website and in the LEP app. So, if you’d like to watch us in conversation on a nice sunny day, check the Videos category in the app, or the page for this episode on my website.

This conversation covers a few things, including what Paul has been up to recently, his new vlog which you can find on YouTube (search for Paul Taylor on YouTube), his recent holidays in Japan and Barcelona, and then we go on to focus on travel and tourism, including the good and bad points about being a tourist and a few of our recommendations if you’re thinking of travelling to Paris and/or London as a tourist.

Questions

  • What do you think about being a tourist?
  • When you visit a new place, do you always see the typical tourist spots?
  • What are the good and bad points about being visiting another country and wanting to have a special experience there?
  • How can you make sure you have a good tourist experience when you visit a new city or country?

Have a think about those things, and listen to hear what Paul and I have to say on the topic.

Enjoy!

Another episode with Paul will be arriving soon…

Luke

523. Tips for Learning English with Films & TV Shows (with Cara Leopold)

Talking to a fellow English teacher about advice for using TV shows and films to learn English, both with and without subtitles.

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Intro Transcript

Today on the podcast I’m talking to Cara Leopold who is an English teacher from the UK, living in France – like me.

Cara is an online teacher, who has her own podcast and other resources for learners of English on her website leo-listening.com.

One of the main things she focuses on is learning English through listening – especially using TV and films as a resource.

She’s got some tips to share on that subject – many of which come from her personal experiences of learning French, and so I’d like to talk to her about that,

But first I’d like to just get to know Cara a bit because we’ve never actually spoken before. So listeners, instead of hearing me talking to someone I already know (which is the way it normally goes on this podcast) you can now hear me having a conversation with someone I haven’t met before – so you can hear how that might happen in English.


Cara’s Website

www.leo-listening.com

Films and TV shows mentioned

Red Dwarf
BBC TV Comedy

The Orville
Seth MacFarlane
Based on Star Trek

Thor: Ragnarok
Directed by Taika Waititi, who also directed Flight of the Conchords.


Learning English with Films & TV – Summary of Advice Given

Here’s a summary of the main points made about using TV and films for learning English, with and without subtitles.

  • There are no hard and fast rules about using subtitles.
  • Using subtitles can help you understand what you’re hearing, especially when you realise that spoken English and written English can be very different. Subtitles can help bridge the gap between how words and sentences sound, and how they are written.
  • But be aware that only watching with subtitles might not help you develop real listening skills, because you’re basically just reading while you watch. Experiment with switching the subtitles on and off.
  • You can watch a film several times, especially if you enjoy it or already know it. Some films improve with multiple viewings. So, try watching certain films several times, perhaps first with subtitles in your language, then in English and then with no subtitles at all.
  • You can alternate between watching episodes of your TV show with and without subtitles.
  • Using TV and films for learning English is not just a simple or easy way to learn. In your first language you might just switch on a film or show and then kind of veg out while watching it – without really concentrating. This won’t work in English. Be prepared to focus and perhaps be more active while watching.
  • Watch certain scenes several times, with and without the subtitles.
  • Test yourself on what you heard and check with the subtitles.
  • Search for certain new bits of vocabulary when they come up.
  • Don’t worry too much about certain specific cultural details.
  • Try transcribing certain scenes – especially if you thought it contained really cool dialogue.
  • Then watch again with the subtitles to check your transcription.
  • Before you watch a film or TV show, check online reviews or summaries to help prepare yourself.
  • Be a little selective in your choice – pick stuff that you’d normally enjoy, and remember that films and TV shows can contain very “mumbly” dialogue, and even just “grunting” during long fight scenes. Try to pick films that are pretty simple and perhaps comedies that focus on the dialogue.
  • Don’t worry too much if you don’t understand 100%. Even in our first languages we don’t always understand what’s going on in films. So, don’t beat yourself up if you’re not able to understand it all.

516. Paul McCartney’s Spider Story

Learn English from an anecdote told by Sir Paul McCartney. Let’s listen to Paul telling a sweet story about something funny that happened to him and George Harrison when they were teenagers, before they became world famous musicians in The Beatles. Let’s listen to his story , do some intensive listening practice and then I’ll help you understand everything. Also, let’s have a laugh with some funny Paul McCartney impressions. Video and notes available below.

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Pre-Jingle Vocabulary

This episdoe is called Paul McCartney’s Spider Story and if you keep listening you’ll hear what happens when a couple of Beatles meet a couple of spiders.

You can also do some intensive listening practice focusing on every single word, and then later there are some bits focusing on Paul McCartney’s voice – including a few fun Paul McCartney impressions.

But right here at the beginning, before the jingle even, I just want to give you a heads up about some bits of vocab that appear in the episode. I’ll tell you the vocab now and while you’re listening and hopefully enjoying the episode, just try to spot these words and phrases as they come up, and when you do spot them you can just go – oh, there’s that word, there’s that phrase.

  • a bed and breakfast (a B&B) = a simple guesthouse where you pay for a bed for the night and breakfast in the morning, a bit like a basic hotel which is just someone’s home. (e.g. We hitch-hiked around Cornwall and stayed in a few little B&Bs along the way)
  • to turn out (phrasal verb) = when you discover a fact or when something is later revealed to be true or to be the case ,turn out + infinitive (e.g. we got talking to this guy and made friends with him and it turned out that his mum owned a B&B up the road or I was standing in a shop and I overheard someone talking about recording music and a concert and it turned out to be Paul McCartney!)
  • menace (noun) = something dangerous that can cause you harm (e.g. next door’s dog is a real menace to my chickens, or he has an air of menace about him, or there was a hint of menace in his voice)
  • as blind as a bat = totally blind, e.g. I’m as blind as a bat without my glasses! (Bats are often thought to be blind, but in fact their eyes are as good as ours – but they use their ears more at night than their eyes)
  • a nativity scene = a set of models or statues depicting the birth of the baby Jesus Christ, with Mary & Joseph often sitting over the baby Jesus. Every Christmas my school used to display a nativity scene in the school’s entrance. Sometimes people display nativity scenes in their homes or even outside the house if they’re particularly religious at Christmas.
  • to bury the hatchet = to stop a long running argument and become friends again. E.g. I wish you two would just bury the hatchet so we can get the band back together. (bury the weapon you might use to fight with someone)
  • to bury the hatchet in someone’s head = a joke! If you bury a knife, sword or hatchet in this case in someone’s head – it means you stick it deep in their head – to kill them. E.g. I’m ready to bury the hatchet – in your head! – Makes it sound like you’re ready to stop fighting, but actually you still want to kill the other person!
  • showing off = behaving in a way to attract attention and show people how great you are, but in a way that’s annoying. E.g. Dave is really good at the guitar but he’s always showing off doing these ridiculous guitar solos. He just wants to impress everyone. or Stop showing off in front of all the guests!

OK – so, no information yet about the context that those words come up in, but I just wanted to give you a heads up about some bits of vocab that definitely do come up at various points during the episode. See if you can spot them all as they naturally come up. Now, on with the episode!

Introduction

What are we doing in this episode? Listen to an anecdote – a real one, told by none other than Paul McCartney.

This is a video I found on YouTube (see below). Listen to the story, and just work out what’s going on. I’ll give you a few questions to guide you. Then I’ll go through the recording again and explain it, clarify, highlight any features of language and generally help you to understand it as well as I do. So, this is a great chance to learn some English from a real anecdote – a personal little story, in this case told by Sir Paul McCartney.

I love The Beatles. I love listening to Paul talking about, well, anything really, and I love this particular video and this little anecdote.

It’s not a story about how he conquered the world in The Beatles, or how they played Shea Stadium or how they sold millions of records or whatever.

It’s just a sweet and funny little story about something that happened to him and his mate George Harrison when they went hitchhiking in Wales – before they were even famous or in The Beatles.

I think the video originally appears as an outtake from the George Harrison documentary “Living in the Material World”, which was directed by Martin Scorsese. Highly recommended.

He was just asked if he could tell a story about a good memory of George. Of all the things they must have been through together, this is the one he picked.

Who’s Paul McCartney? (as if you don’t know…)

He’s got to be one of the most successful musicians to have ever lived.
He was in The Beatles – you must have heard of them!
I don’t know if you like their music, but you can’t deny that they’re one of the most significant bands ever and also one of the most significant moments in cultural history. I have no doubt that their music and their story will forever be remembered, studied and considered ultimately to be like classical music.

But I don’t mean to build it up too much. For me, I’m a fan of the Beatles not just because of their place in cultural history, but because of the fascinating story of these apparently ordinary guys from Liverpool, their lives, their friendship and the amazing pool of creativity that seemed to open up between them once various factors were in place and the career of the Beatles happened.

Comprehension Questions

Watch the video of “Paul McCartney talking about his best times with George Harrison” (below)

Try to answer these questions. Listen to find out the answers.

  1. Why did they hitch hike to this place called Harloch in Wales?
  2. Where did they end up? Why did they spend their time there?
  3. Where did they stay?
  4. What did he realise later on?
  5. Who did they hang out with? What did they do?
  6. What was their reaction to the spiders in their room? How did they deal with the spiders?
  7. Who were Jimmy & Jemimah?

Paul McCartney talking about his best times with George Harrison – “The Menace! The Spiders!”

The second anecdote – Buddy Holly and John Lennon’s poor eyesight

What’s the funny thing Paul says about John’s eyesight?

Answer: John Lennon famously wore glasses because he was very short sighted. He used to take the glasses off if girls were around. Later, Buddy Holly became a famous pop/rock star and suddenly it was quite cool to wear horn-rimmed glasses. Anyway, one night after writing songs at Paul’s house one dark evening at Christmas time, John walked past a house and thought he saw some neighbours still sitting outside in the freezing cold playing cards. Paul later realised that it was just a nativity scene, and John was so blind that he’d thought the statues of Mary & Joseph bending over the baby Jesus were a couple of people playing cards outside their house.

Rob Brydon & Steve Coogan do Beatle Impressions in The Trip to Spain

Rob and Steve do their Paul McCartney impressions. Rob talks about how Paul’s voice has been affected by the fact that his mouth has lost some mobility now that he’s quite old. Steve disagrees and says that he thought Paul was quite articulate. They then start doing John Lennon impressions.

Peter Serafinowicz Show – The Beatles go for a poo

A parody of the Beatles in their Let It Be period, when there was lots of friction in the band and they couldn’t agree on the musical direction for the group. British comedian Peter Serafinowicz does impressions of all the Beatles.

Listen to Episode 414 – “My Uncle Met A Rock Star” – My uncle’s account of how he once met Paul McCartney in a shop

414. With the Family (Part 2) My Uncle Met a Rock Star

507. Learning English with UK Comedy TV Shows

Recommendations and descriptions of British comedy TV shows with some comments about how to use comedy TV shows to learn English. Transcript available below.

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Transcript (95% complete)

Hello, etc! (some rambling here at the beginning!)

British TV Comedy

I often get requests from listeners asking me to recommend some good British TV comedy shows. So, that’s what you’re going to get in this episode – comments about using comedy TV to improve your English and then some recommendations of TV shows that you can watch.

I love comedy and I think we have a lot of great comedy in the UK.

The USA is also known for its comedy of course, and I’m sure almost all of you are aware of American shows like Friends, The Simpsons, Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother and so on.

But Britain also has a long tradition of comedy shows on TV – sitcoms, sketch shows and character-based comedy dramas. There are so many TV comedies from the UK and many of them are truly loved by the British public. Comedy is one of the things about the UK that I am most proud of.

It’s not just Mr Bean, by the way.

British and American comedy shows are different, in the same ways that British and American culture is different. Generally speaking, I find American shows to be slightly more positive in tone, the characters slightly more attractive and successful – and perhaps because of the commercial nature of a lot of American TV channels their comedy can be a bit more conventional and safe. I mean, I get the feeling that the producers of the shows are very conscious that they have to make their advertisers happy and as a result the shows end up having to appeal to a broader audience and this means that the shows are slightly less risky, slightly less edgy and slightly less weird than British comedy shows.

British comedy can be complicated for non-Brits to get and it can be an acquired taste. People sometimes say “British humour” or “British comedy” as a synonym of “weird, dark, surreal, complex, cerebral” and sometimes “unfunny”. I would agree with most of that, except the “unfunny” part of course. I am very glad that British comedy shows are a bit darker, weirder, more surreal, more complex (sometimes) and dare I say it – more intelligent.

Let’s not get snobbish here… British people have a tendency to become a bit snobbish when talking about American things, and that’s not very attractive. Ultimately, it’s a matter of context, taste and point of view and I really don’t want to get into the British comedy vs American comedy debate here.

My main point is: American TV comedy is generally more well-known than British TV comedy – and so my job here is to bring to your attention some of the really great programmes that have been made in the UK so you can enjoy them like I do and use them to learn English.

I think if you’re into British things and that includes our humour and our outlook on life in general, I think I might be able to introduce you to some programmes that you will really enjoy and that will be great content for you to consume as learners of British English.

I grew up watching British comedy on TV. For a while it was the highlight of my week. I used to plan my entire life around the comedy shows that were on TV in the evenings. That was my life. Playing football and watching comedy on TV.

Using TV Comedy in Class

I have always been really keen to introduce my students to British comedy and time and time again I have chosen to play clips of shows or whole episodes of shows in my classes.

This is actually a less effective and worthwhile than you might expect, unless as a teacher you do certain things.

The less successful thing to do is to just play an episode of a show without any preparation. E.g. “OK, it’s Friday afternoon, let’s watch a DVD. Turn out the lights, get comfortable, here we go.”

Expectation = we will laugh, everyone will enjoy it and learning English will be fun and relaxing on a Friday afternoon.

Reality = you don’t understand it, you don’t laugh, don’t have fun and just come away thinking British comedy is “weird and unfunny”.

This is because understanding and enjoying comedy is one of the more difficult things to do in another language. There are so many things that go into your enjoyment of a bit of TV comedy. Linguistically – you need to understand every detail and understand it fast. Often, jokes are very subtle and understated – especially if it is a good comedy. I think good comedies are often quite clever and not totally obvious. Some really great comedy is very obvious of course – like Charlie Chaplin or Laurel & Hardy – physical humour, or the humour of slapstick. But I really love comedy which is quite subtle, and I think a lot of British shows rely on this sort of thing. So, your English has to be really sharp to pick up on the particular use of language, or the way things are suggested rather than obviously stated. Also, you need to understand the cultural context too – like the fact that some British comedy shows present characters and situations that are familiar to most Brits, but which people who aren’t familiar with the culture wouldn’t really understand.

So, if your English isn’t quite sharp enough and you’re not familiar with the cultural context, a comedy show might appear to be unfunny and just weird.

So as a teacher I actually find it to be very hard work to use comedy TV shows in class successfully. It often takes a lot of pre-teaching of vocabulary, lots of preparation in terms of getting the students to discuss and consider the ideas, characters or situations in the show, and the chance to see scenes several times, perhaps with a script to help. In the end, the laughter might get lost, and unless the students are particularly motivated by the idea of enjoying a comedy TV show, it might just be a better idea to do something more conventional and learner-oriented in a classroom.

I have to admit that I’ve had some very frustrating experiences in class, when I’ve presented something to a group of students – perhaps an episode of a TV programme that I really love, and it hasn’t gone down very well. I just end up feeling a bit hurt. Imagine sharing something you really love with a group of people, and to have them just look at you blankly, or yawn, or say “it’s not funny” or “I am boring”.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some classes that adored the comedy I’ve shown them and asked for more, but not always.

Of course it’s all a question of taste and perhaps my expectations are the problem. I expect/hope that every single person in the class will get it. In reality, only some will get it. Perhaps it’s hard to enjoy it in a classroom context and really these things take time.

You need to watch again and again, to get to know the characters and so on. It takes time to really get into a show, to find it funny and to develop a love for it. Repeated viewings and a love for a show are great conditions for learning English from it. Also, I get downhearted when just one person isn’t into it. I might not notice the students who loved it just because Juan Pedro seemed bored.

So, perhaps the classroom isn’t the best environment for using TV comedy, but I am still convinced that there is a lot of value in using comedy shows to learn English.

My students who tell me they watch TV shows in English are always the better learners in class

One thing I do know for sure – the best learners of English in my experience are the types of people who take the time to get into TV shows and who don’t expect simple laughs at the start. Often the outstanding learners of English I’ve met are the ones who’ve told me that they’ve watched entire seasons of Black Books, or that they really loved watching Red Dwarf or The Mighty Boosh. It does happen sometimes.

Here are some facts: All the learners of English who have told me that they regularly watched a British comedy TV show have been good learners of English – communicative, good vocabulary, better understanding and pronunciation than their classmates and showing good potential for making progress through their English course, and I’ve never met a terrible learner who told me they watched comedy shows in English.

The ones who tell me they watch comedy shows in English are always the better students. Is there a connection? There must be something. Maybe the ones who enjoy watching comedy in English are the ones who are just more motivated, less willing to give up, more curious. THese are probably the successful traits – motivation, curiosity, patience, a desire to discover the deeper meaning beyond just learning the language as quickly as possible. If you have those traits I’m sure you’re more likely to be a better learner of English and you’re probably more likely to enjoy watching comedy programmes in English.

So I do encourage you to try and get into British comedy, even if it’s tricky at the start. Also, realise that there might be more to British comedy than meets the eye. It’s not like a lot of American comedy shows which are a bit superficial, to be honest – I mean, there’s never a lot of tragedy, pain, or harsh reality in those shows. Friends, for example – it’s all too colourful. The characters don’t seem to ever really suffer. Their lives are amazing. Where is the existential suffering? Their apartment is too nice. Their lives are too rich. They’re ultimately too happy and successful. I find that harder to relate to and therefore harder to get into. I need more depth than that. I don’t just want my comedy to be escapism. I want it to allow me to explore more complicated feelings and ideas. Comedy can be challenging, complex and fascinating.

Again, I should point out that it’s not a simple case of – American comedy = superficial, British comedy = deep. There are plenty of deep, dark and complex American shows. The Simpsons, for example – at it’s best it’s extremely nuanced and reflects such a multifaceted view of life, including not just Homer falling over, but the highs and lows, pain and joy of family life in all its richness, even if the characters are all presented in bright yellow colours.

What I want to do in this episode is sell the idea of using comedy for learning English, manage your expectations about British comedy in order to help you learn from it more effectively, and also recommend some shows.

I think from the outset this might be an impossible mission – to explain British comedy to an international audience of learners of English, and then have them actually go and watch it and also enjoy it as much as me – this may be an impossible mission, but I feel compelled to do it, and really – it’s up to you to make the mission a success isn’t it? There’s only so much I can do. The rest is your responsibility.

One advantage that we have is that you, my audience, aren’t just ordinary learners of English because I suppose you are already into British things, you probably like comedy and you must have a sense of humour if you either a) enjoy this podcast or b) have listened to it for a long time (this is a no ‘no sense of humour’ zone as far as I’m concerned) So I’m assuming that you’re already curious about British comedy, or you already appreciate it, or you are keen to get some recommendations from me about shows that I like.

I have one recommendation for you to consider…

Do not consume British comedy as comedy. Do not think of it as comedy.

This is reverse psychology, but it might just work.

Don’t think of it as comedy – because if you sit down to it expecting to laugh all the time, you might just be disappointed. Instead, think of these shows as tragedy, or a study in character.

By removing the emphasis on comedy, you should be able to focus instead on simply understanding the motivations of the characters, the situations they find themselves in and how this is all expressed by the things they say and the ways they interact. If you understand all these things, you might find it funnier or more moving as a result.

Think of them as pathos. (Pathos is like comedy, but instead of creating laughter, it creates sadness or a feeling of sympathy)

Think of each show as a study of some individuals and their lives filled with quiet desperation, or hope, or frustration, or ambition, or failure or contradiction.

Think of each show as a personality study or a soap opera.

But don’t think of it as a comedy.

This doesn’t mean that you should expect these shows to be rubbish and boring.

No, on the contrary – the shows are not rubbish, they’re often very good and really carefully created, even if they are filmed in TV studios with some cheap special effects or bland-looking lighting or set design and possibly with actors that don’t look like glamorous movie stars.

You might not get all the bright colours, white teeth and good hair that you might see in an American show.

But you will see really interesting people, very witty bits of dialogue, unexpected moments, awkward social situations with hilarious consequences. Some really complex and satisfying characters, and some genuinely classic moments of British TV culture, which have captured our imaginations and entered the popular consciousness.

But don’t consume these shows as comedy, but rather as drama.

Understanding British Comedy TV

Often in British TV shows the comedy comes from the frustration, the embarrassment, the flaws and the failures or the fears of the characters, or the ways that the characters argue and the funny moments of friction between them.

British TV comedy characters are like characters in Shakespearean tragedies. I know that sounds like I’m over egging the pudding a bit, but really I do believe that. The best TV comedy characters have fatal flaws. They have specific problems in their personalities that send them on a narrative arc which aims at success but usually ends in tragedy. Just like in a good Shakespeare play.

I’ll go into more detail in a moment.

But now, here are some specific tips for …

How to use shows to improve your English

  • Watch with and without subtitles
  • Use a notepad to make a note of what the characters are saying – especially when you notice specific phrases or other features of language.
  • If there are bits that make you laugh, note them down! Note down the phrasing, the intonation, the specific words, reactions and the lines that lead up to the funny moment. If it made you laugh it obviously meant something to you, so you’ll probably remember it better.
  • Repeat the funny lines to yourself a few times and try to copy the timing and emphasis.
  • Be aware of where the characters come from and how they speak with an accent.
  • Turn the spoken word into the written word and then back to the spoken word again.
  • Record yourself saying some bits.
  • Go the extra mile.
  • Maintain your curiosity. Give the shows a chance. It might take a while before you really get it and start finding it funny. But hang in there, it will come. Don’t expect too much, even though I’m telling you that these shows are wonderful. But trust me when I say that they are good.
  • When you find a show that you just like, watch it again and again! You can learn more from watching one show you like lots of times than from watching lots of shows you don’t like a lot.
  • Consider recording the audio from shows and listening to them without the visuals. It’s not a crazy thing to do. I did it at university with 2 episodes of I’m Alan Partidge. They used to entertain me so much that I recorded the audio onto my walkman and listened to them when I was on the bus. I learned a lot of the lines and I still really appreciate those episodes today.
  • Or if you have space on your phone, download the shows and watch when you’re on the bus or whatever – but obviously be careful of the NSFW content.
  • Read about the shows online. Often there are summaries of each episode on Wikipedia or on IMDB. Use those websites to find discussions of the episodes too, and also lists of quotes from the episodes.

Here are some specific shows that I can recommend.

Themes in UK TV Comedy

Almost all of these shows feature these themes:

  • The character is stuck in a situation in his/her life.
  • But the characters dream big – they have high hopes and big ambitions – they think they are better than the situation they’re in.
  • In every episode they try to achieve something, attempting to rise above their every day life.
  • But frustrating events work against them and they stay stuck in the same situation.
  • They’re thwarted by the situation around them but the biggest cause of their failure is themselves. Perhaps the character’s ambition, lack of self awareness or the fact that the character thinks they are better than their situation – these things cause the character to fail.
  • The main problem – the character doesn’t accept his/her situation and is not self aware and therefore always ends up frustrated, despite trying to achieve something bigger.

So, what about this list of shows?

I’ll explain the basic synopsis of the show and will also try to tell you what kind of English you might hear in the show as well as any other details I think you should know.

I’m not sure how you are going to actually find or get hold of these shows. I know some of you out there in internetland have access to anything through torrenting sites and stuff, or on those websites where shows are uploaded for streaming.

I recommend that you find the shows online, get them on DVD or however you normally watch programmes.

You also might think to yourselves, “Do I have to watch any of these shows…? Is this compulsory homework?” Well, no of course you can do whatever you want and if you’d rather just not bother, like I’m sure a great many of you will do, then go ahead. Carry on living your lives exactly like before, listen to the podcast on your way to work or whatever and that’s fine. But I know that quite a lot of you are interested in finding some British TV shows to watch – so here’s a list of personal recommendations from me to you.

These are all shows I have watched and enjoyed. In no particular order.

By the way, all of these could and should be individual episodes of the podcast in their own right, in which we listen to some clips and all that stuff, and I might do that in the future.

Some British TV Comedy Show Recommendations (in no particular order)

The Office

Reality-style sitcom (or “mockumentary”) Early 2000s.

Basic description?

This is a tragedy set in an office. It’s also a romance, of sorts.

There are two types of character – the ones who are trapped in hell and the ones who don’t realise that they’re trapped in hell. The hell in this case is an office in Slough. Perhaps hell within hell, because it’s bad enough being in Slough but working in an office in Slough is even worse.

Type of English

It’s very “realistic” – it’s a fly on the wall drama. The camera men are trying not to be intrusive. It’s like we’re just observing life in this office. As a result it’s not always clear what’s being said. Characters might mumble sometimes, and their sentences aren’t always complete – it’s the style, but this is good because this is how people actually speak. The laughs are not signalled, and there’s no laughter track. It might look like just a depressing office and this is the point.

That’s what this is about. Remember – tragedy! Most of the characters are from the south and don’t have really strong accents except a couple of them who have accents from the South West (Gareth for example).

I’m Alan Partridge

Mid 1990s – now

A man who thinks he is an A-grade broadcaster is actually a D-grade broadcaster – but it’s so much more than that. It started as a parody of the way TV broadcasters speak, but it’s become a parody of a certain type of middle aged British Man – the kind of man who reads the Daily Express and votes for Brexit.

I need to do a whole episode about this. You need to understand that Alan is someone who speaks like a local radio presenter in ordinary life and it shows how alienated he is from normal people. He talks to the public on the radio, but in real life he’s hopeless, but he doesn’t realise. His accent is a bit like a parody of a sports reporter or a radio presenter. This is a complex character and he doesn’t realise how ridiculous he is. We’re laughing at him, not with him.

Father Ted

Actually Irish not British.

Sitcom – 1990s

The pathos: a man who is stuck in the priesthood with a drunkard and an idiot on an island off Ireland and he dreams of having a more glamourous life.

It’s not a British show, it’s Irish. The accents are from the Republic of Ireland.

Blackadder

Historical sitcom or satire – 1980s – 1990s

Edmund is essentially a modern-minded man stuck in the idiocy of British history.

This features some of the UK’s most favourite actors and comedians including Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Usually the English you’ll hear is quite old-fashioned. You’ll hear parodies of old English styles, and plenty of sarcasm. Although the style is old fashioned (it’s set in the Tudor period, Regency period or WW1 period) the characters should speak clearly and in RP.

Don’t watch series 1 of Blackadder! Avoid series 1. Only series 2-4 are good.

Bottom

Sitcom – 1990s

Two complete cretins live a miserable unemployed existence in Hammersmith – it’s basically Samuel Beckett.

They speak with a bit of RP and a bit of London. Often the characters adopt high-class English in contrast to the low-class situation they live in.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus

Sketch show from the 1960s and 1970s.

A group of highly educated Oxbridge graduates make fun of absolutely everything, including history, comedy clichés and existence itself.

George Harrison once said that when The Beatles split up at the end of the sixties that The Beatles spirit passed into Monty Python. There’s something in that, because the pythons had something special about them. Not every sketch is great, but a lot of them are brilliant. It’s probably best to just watch the films – Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Spaced

Sitcom – Late 1990s early 2000s.

Two twenty-somethings who live in a fantasy world of their own creation struggle to exist in the real world – everything they do becomes a scene from a famous film.

The Day Today

News parody and satire. Mid 1990s.

The news is pompous and self-important to the point of being surreal.

Brass Eye

The same concept as The Day Today but a lot more controversial.

Only Fools and Horses

Sitcom – 1980s – 1990s.

Two orphaned brothers from a working class background just try to make ends meet. One of them ends up becoming middle class when he falls in love with a middle-class girl, but he’s working class at heart.


Shows I talk about in the Bonus Audio – in the LEP App.

Black Books

Sitcom – Late 1990s – early 2000s.

Bernard works in a bookshop selling books to the public. He loves books but the problem is he hates people. He also loves wine and smoking. It’s a bit like Withnail &I.

Absolutely Fabulous

Sitcom – 1990s.

Two posh middle aged women who work (in the vaguest possible sense) in the fashion industry in London try to live like they are still teenagers in swinging London in the late 1960s.

The Thick of It

Political satire and sitcom – Late 2000s.

Politics is a dog-eat-dog world in which serving the public is the lowest priority.

Yes Minister

Political satire and sitcom – 1970s – 1980s.

Politics is a dog-eat-dog world in which serving the public is the lowest priority – but with less swearing and more charming old fashioned upper-class sophistication.

Dad’s Army

Sitcom – 1960s – 1970s

Britain’s last line of defence against the Nazis is a group of incompetent old grandads.

Red Dwarf

Sci-Fi Sitcom – 1990s.

The last human being alive is stuck on a spaceship with a hologram of the person he hates the most, a senile super-computer, a robot butler and a man who evolved from cats – full of sarcasm, put downs and cheap science fiction special effects.

Gavin & Stacey

Sitcom – Late 2000s

A genuinely sweet and heartwarming comedy about two people from two different British communities (Essex in England and Barry Island in South Wales) who fall in love with each other.

Outnumbered

Sitcom – late 2000s – now.

Two exhausted parents attempt to bring up 3 children, and lose the battle.


Other shows (I didn’t get time to mention them at all)

One Foot in the Grave

Sitcom – 1990s.

A man in his 70s just wants to enjoy his retirement but he is constantly frustrated but life’s little irritations.

Little Britain

Sketch show – 2000s.

A sketch show in which a range of eccentric and grotesque British characters talk in catchphrases.

The Fast Show

Sketch show – 1990s.

The same as Little Britain, but with a bit more pathos. This came before Little Britain.

Extras

Sitcom/drama – 2000s.

A man struggles to become famous as an actor and writer, and then when he does become famous he realises how empty it is – all the celebrities he meets are total weirdos – and they are played by themselves.

The Royle Family

Sitcom/drama – 1990s/2000s.

A northern working class family live their lives sitting in front of the TV. The twist is – we are watching them from the TV’s point of view.

The Trip

Drama? 2010s – now.

Two middle aged men go on a road trip and bicker with each other, while competing to see who can do the best impressions of famous actors – we also realise that their lives are a struggle between ambition, the emptiness, self-fulfilment and a life in show business. Stars award-winning comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon and directed by filmmaker Michael Winterbottom.

All these shows sound like dramas or tragedies, but they are really funny and charming and I recommend you check them out!

The League of Gentlemen

Sketch show – 1990s – 2000s.

The Mighty Boosh

Surreal sitcom – Late 2000s.

They’re both losers in their own way and they live in a dream world of their own creation – and that dream world is populated by all kinds of wonderful, colourful characters, music, and magic, but it’s all about this funny relationship between two mis-matched friends.

This show is bonkers but really sweet at the same time. The two main characters speak in modern London accents. Vince has an estuary English accent – sort of like cockney – typical London accent. Howard is similar but probably closer to RP.

Peep Show

Sitcom – 2000s.

A terribly dark tragedy about the struggle of two cynical guys in their 30s attempting to live in modern London. The horror comes from the fact that we can hear their thoughts and see the world from their point of view, and they’re awful people.

They’re both quite well-spoken, particularly David Mitchell’s character who is very uncool and his slightly posh RP is evidence of that.

Fawlty Towers

Sitcom – 1970s.

An utterly fed up man is stuck in the wrong job – welcoming people into his hotel on ‘the English rivera’.

The IT Crowd

Limmy’s Show

The Inbetweeners

Keeping Up Appearances

One Foot in the Grave

Porridge

The Young Ones

Steptoe & Son

Allo Allo

Panel Shows

Have I Got News for You?

Mock The Week

Never Mind The Buzzcocks

8 out of 10 Cats

QI

Would I Lie to You?

And plenty plenty more!

If you like a British comedy TV show and I didn’t mention it. Add it in the comment section. :)

497. Film Club: Withnail & I (with James and Will)

Talking about a classic British film which not many learners of English know about. Listen for explanations of the film, its appeal, descriptions of the characters and events, the type of people who like the film and a few bits of dialogue too. Notes available.

[DOWNLOAD]

Introduction Transcript

Today on the podcast I am going to be talking about a cult classic of British cinema – a film called Withnail & I.

This is a slightly ambitious episode because in my experience this film is usually very difficult for learners of English to fully appreciate. Even the title of the film somehow fails to register with many people when I tell them.

“Can you recommend British films?” one of my students might say.
And I say “Yes, definitely. You should watch Withnail & I”
And the person’s face creases into an expression of “what was that you just said?”
“Withnail and I” I repeat.
But still, this clearly just seems like a noise to this person.
He doesn’t know what to write. He doesn’t know how many words that is. He doesn’t know how to spell “Withnail and I”. He’s lost for a moment.
So I write it on the board “Withnail and I”.
Still, this doesn’t help much. The person doesn’t even recognise the word “Withnail”. It’s difficult to spell, it’s difficult to pronounce, it doesn’t seem to mean anything.

Then I think – “There’s no way this guy is going to enjoy this film, he can’t even get past the title.”

But something inside me says – “Luke, Luke… I am your father…” No, it says “Luke, you need to make these people watch this film. It is your duty as a British person teaching people your language and culture. These people need to see this film. They need to know what a Camberwell Carrot is, they need to know about cake and fine wine, they need to know why all hairdressers are under the employment of the government. It is your duty Luke, to teach these people about the wonderful world of Withnail and I – even if they don’t want it!”

So now I feel duty bound to tell you all about this cult British film. By the way, the title of the film “Withnail and I” – these are just the two characters in the film. Withnail and another guy whose name we don’t know. He’s simply “I”.

If you’re interested in British films, if you like slightly dark comedies with good acting, interesting characters, an excellent script and some top level swearing – this is a film for you.

You might never have heard of it, I realise, and that’s partly why I’m doing this episode. I like to recommend things that you might not know.

Withnail and I is a cult film which means it’s very very popular with a certain group of people. It’s not a mass-appeal sort of film. It might not be the film you think of when you consider typical “British films” – you might think of something like Love Actually or a Jane Austen adaptation, but Withnail & I is a film that you will definitely know if you a proper lover of British films. It is a cult classic and those who love it – really love it with a passion as if they’ve lived the film themselves in their own lives.

But not everybody gets it. Certainly, in the UK it is very highly regarded by people who have a special love for films, but it’s not a film like Four Weddings or James Bond which seem to appeal to everybody. Plenty of Brits don’t get it. Also learners of English hardly ever know about it (because in my experience most learners of English understand British cinema as things like Hugh Grant, Harry Potter and even Mr Bean). It can be a difficult film to understand if you’re not a native speaker from the UK. It’s not well known in the USA even.

But as I said, it’s a cult success in the UK.

Cult has two meanings. A cult can be a sort of small religious group devoted to a particular person, but when cult is used as an adjective with something like “film” then it means that this film is extremely popular with certain people.

  • What kinds of people like this film?
  • Why do people love this film so much?
  • What is the appeal?
  • What can this film tell us about British culture?
  • Why should you as a learner of English take any interest in this film at all?
  • How can you learn some real British English from this?

Let’s find out in this episode of Luke’s Film Club on Luke’s English Podcast all about Withnail & I.

I’m a huge Withnail & I fan but in this episode I’m also joined by several other Withnail fans who are very keen to talk to you about one of their favourite films.

Those two fans are my brother James and his mate Will.

I just sincerely hope that we can somehow explain this film and its appeal, and make this interesting for you to listen to (that’ll be hard considering it’s three blokes with similar voices talking about an obscure film that you’ve probably never seen).

***

Links & Videos

The Wall of Withnail – superfan Heidi’s collection of objects seen in the background of Withnail & I. wall-o-withnail.blogspot.fr/

Withnail and Us – a great documentary about the making of the film, by the people who made the film.

Bruce Robinson interview

Bruce Robinson & Richard E Grant at the London BFI

The Hamlet Monologue (Act 2, Scene 2, Page 13)

“I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither.”

In plain English:

“Recently, though I don’t know why, I’ve lost all sense of fun —the whole world feels sterile and empty. This beautiful canopy we call the sky—this majestic roof decorated with golden sunlight—why, it’s nothing more to me than disease-filled air. What a perfect invention a human is, how noble in his capacity to reason, how unlimited in thinking, how admirable in his shape and movement, how angelic in action, how godlike in understanding! There’s nothing more beautiful. We surpass all other animals. And yet to me, what are we but dust? Men don’t interest me. No—women neither.”

Outtro

What you just heard there is the final scene of the film in which Withnail repeats lines from Hamlet by Shakespeare and it’s quite a tragic ending, but you’ll have to watch the film to find out what happens.

So that was an ambitious episode! I honestly think this one is as ambitious as the one about the rules of cricket. All the way through that conversation alarm bells were ringing in my head.

Sometimes I get alarm bells when I’m teaching. From experience I know what my learners of English will and won’t understand. For example, if there’s a listening that we’re doing and it contains a few phrasal verbs or connected speech or a specific accent, the alarm bells ring in my head and sure enough none of my students have understood it.

So for this episode alarm bells are ringing like mad. First of all the film is like kryptonite to students of English (which is a pity because there’s a lot to enjoy), but also because you were listening to three guys talking with fairly similar voices in a comfortable way – meaning, not graded for learners of English to make it easier, and also we’re talking about a film that you’ve probably never seen. Also the little clips in particular were, I’m sure, rather difficult to follow.

So a big well done if you made it this far. I promise you that this film is an absolute gem and if you give it a chance it will actually improve your life.

I have talked about this film on the podcast before and in fact I do remember getting a message from a listener who said that she had watched the film on my recommendation with her boyfriend and that now they enjoy repeating lines from the script when they are about the house.

So if they can get into it then you can too, although of course this film is not for everyone, that’s why it’s a cult film.

I’ve just remembered, I promised to play the Withnail & I swear-a-thon. That’s like a marathon isn’t it, but with swearing.

Withnail and I is celebrated for its swearing and there is a lot of colourful rude language in the film. For the 20th anniversary DVD box set someone edited together all the swearwords from the film in order. This is the Withnail and I swear-a-thon. Now, as you would expect the next minute or so is going to be absolutely filled with swearing so brace yourselves. YOu’re going to hear all sorts of rude words like bastard, shit, fuck and also cunt. Here we go.

I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to this episode of Luke’s Film Club on Luke’s English Podcast.

Check out the page for the episode for some notes, transcriptions and also a bunch of video documentaries, clips and interviews that are definitely worth watching if you’d like to know more.

Have a great morning, evening, breakfast, lunch, dinner, sleep, commute or run!

485. & 486. Difficult Words to Pronounce in English (with Paul Taylor) (Parts 1 & 2) + video

This is a double episode with two audio episodes on one page, and it’s going to be really useful for you because it’s all about difficult pronunciation in English. Listen to Paul Taylor and me discussing the tricky relationship between spelling and pronunciation. There are lots of jokes, impressions, funny accents and useful comments about this important area of the English language. Use this episode to avoid some very common mistakes in English pronunciation, and try not to laugh on the bus while you’re listening! Check this episode page for word lists, transcriptions and my video of 40+ difficult words to pronounce in English.

Part 1

Part 2

[DOWNLOAD PART 1] [DOWNLOAD PART 2]


british humour posterLuke’s British Council Teacher Talk – “What is this, British Humour?”

I’m doing another talk on the topic of humour at the British Council in Paris on 19 October. It is also being live-streamed on Facebook. Details below.

Click here to reserve (free) tickets if you’re in Paris.

Click here for the British Council France Facebook Page for the live stream – Thursday 19 October at 19:00 Paris time (CET).


Difficult Words to Pronounce in English: Notes, Word Lists and That Useful Video (below)

  • Focus /fəʊkəs/
  • Fuck us /fʌkʌs/
  • Sting /stɪŋ/
  • Boy George /bɔɪ ʤɔːʤ/
  • Spandau Ballet /spændɑː bæleɪ/

What problems do French people have with pronunciation in English?

  • /h/ sounds
  • /th/ sounds

Part 1 ends here… Part 2 continues below!


  • /r/ sounds
  • Some vowel sounds, particularly certain ‘long’ and ‘short’ sounds, such as…
  • bitch” /i/ and “beach” /i:/
  • shit” /i/  and “sheet” /i:/
  • voiced and unvoiced sounds
  • Paul’s “how to beatbox” with boots and cats

The words & phrases from the TOPITO article – “The Most Difficult Words to Pronounce in English – the hell of /th/ sounds

1. I have a sore throat
2. Squirrel
3. Throughout
4. Bewildered
5. Hierarchy
6. Anaesthetize
7. Threshold
8. Worthlessly
9. Worcestershire
10. William Wordsworth

The TOPITO article (it’s in French by the way) www.topito.com/top-trucs-durs-dire-anglais

An academic “focus” on French people speaking English, from Frankfurt University

Phonology
There are some differences in the sound systems of the two languages that can cause French learners problems of comprehension and speech production. Spelling errors may result from the frequent lack of correspondence between the pronunciation of English words and their spelling.

A typical pronunciation problem is the inability to correctly articulate the vowel sounds in minimal pairs such as ship / sheep, live / leave, full / fool. Because the tip of the tongue is not used in speaking French, learners often have problems with words containing the letters th (/θ/ /ð/), such as then, think and clothes.

Another common feature of English spoken by French learners is the omission of the /h/ sound at the beginning of words. This sound does not exist in French and leads to problems such as ‘Ave you ‘eard about ‘arry?, or overcompensation by pronouncing the /h/ in words like hour, honour.
French learners typically have problems with the unpredictable stress patterns of English words, particularly of cognates. (Word stress in French is regular.) Learners may also be unwilling to engage in the prevalent vowel reduction of unstressed syllables in English. Consider, for example, the way that English native speakers swallow the first syllable of the word tomorrow (t’morrow). These problems result in the stereotypical staccato French accent of beginning learners.

From Frankfurt International School Website esl.fis.edu/grammar/langdiff/french.htm

TH sounds

/th/ can be voiced [ð] or unvoiced [θ]

A quick guide to producing TH sounds:

  • Stick tongue out slightly
  • Let air pass under/through teeth and over the tongue
  • You don’t need your lips!
  • It’s not /f/ /s/ /d/ /v/ or /z/
  • It’s [ð] (voiced) or [θ] (unvoiced)

Watch my video (below) for more help with /th/ sounds.

More words which learners often find difficult to pronounce

  • Architecture /ˈɑː.kɪ.tek.tʃər/
  • architectural /ˌɑː.kɪˈtek.tʃər.əl/
  • Drawer /drɔː/
  • Colonel /ˈkəːn(ə)l/
  • Comfortable /ˈkʌmftəbəl/
  • Pronunciation /prənʌnsɪˈeɪʃən/
  • Recipe /ˈresɪpi:/
  • Scissors /ˈsɪzəz/
  • Strengths /streŋkθs/
  • Clothes /kləʊðz/
  • Eighth /eɪtθs/
  • Queue /kjuː/
  • Fruit /fruːt/
  • Sixteenth /sɪkˈstiːnθ/
  • Eighteenth /eɪˈtiːnθ/

“Ghoti” is pronounced “fish” (is it?)

This is an old attempt to prove that English spelling makes no sense. Note: David Crystal doesn’t agree.

ghoti

www.neatorama.com/trivia/2012/09/09/Ghoti-is-Pronounced-Fish-in-the-English-Language/

David Crystal disagrees with this “ghoti” (See below)

Some Words with Silent Letters

  • bomb
  • climb
  • comb
  • crumb
  • debt
  • doubt
  • government (ok, so the ‘n’ isn’t really silent, but this word has 3 syllables, not 4)

More here: mywords.cle.ust.hk/sir/silent_words.php

Also

  • Business /ˈbɪznɪs/ or /ˈbɪznəs/
  • Busy /ˈbɪzi:/
  • Derby (place and a horse race) /ˈdɑːbi:/

L/R (Often difficult for Japanese speakers, or people from East Asia in general)

  • Roller coaster
  • Rarely
  • Red lorry, yellow lorry, red lorry, yellow lorry

My name

  • Luke (correct) /lu:k/
  • not:
  • Look
  • Luck
  • Mr Luck (the most common wrong version, especially in writing)
  • Teacher luck pot cat? (teacher luke podcast)
  • Ruke
  • Ruku
  • Rook
  • Duck??
  • Mr Luke (still not correct – it’s just “Luke” or “Mr Thompson”, although Moz called me Mr Luke as a sort of joke)

Thompson /tɒmpsən/

  • Often pronounced “Tom-sun” in France
  • and pronounced “Tom-pu-son” in Japan

Some rude or funny tongue twisters read by Paul and me

She sells sea shells on the sea shore.
(not rude)

Red lorry yellow lorry red lorry yellow lorry…
(not rude)

I am not the pheasant plucker,
I’m the pheasant plucker’s mate.
I am only plucking pheasants
Because the pheasant plucker’s late.
(don’t say “fucker“)
I slit the sheet, the sheet I slit;
and on the slitted sheet I sit.
(don’t say “shit“)
One smart fellow; he felt smart.
Two smart fellows; they felt smart.
Three smart fellows; they all felt smart.
(don’t say “fart”)
I’m not the fig plucker,
Nor the fig pluckers’ son,
But I’ll pluck figs
Till the fig plucker comes.
(don’t say “pig fucker“)
Fire truck tyres
(repeat it – don’t say “I fuck tyres”)
Mrs Puggy Wuggy has a square cut punt.
Not a punt cut square,
Just a square cut punt.
It’s round in the stern and blunt in the front.
Mrs Puggy Wuggy has a square cut punt.
Six stick shifts stuck shut.
Rubber Baby Buggy Bumpers.

(don’t say “cunt” – really, don’t say that word, it is extremely rude)

She sells seashells by the seashore.
The shells she sells are surely seashells.
So if she sells shells on the seashore,
I’m sure she sells seashore shells.
(not rude)
How much wood would a woodchuck chuck
If a woodchuck could chuck wood?
He would chuck, he would, as much as he could,
And chuck as much as a woodchuck would
If a woodchuck could chuck wood.
(not rude)
Rubber Baby Buggy Bumpers
(not rude)
 

Betty Botta bought some butter;
“But,” said she, “this butter’s bitter!
If I put it in my batter
It will make my batter bitter.
But a bit o’ better butter
Will make my batter better.”
Then she bought a bit o’ butter
Better than the bitter butter,
Made her bitter batter better.
So it was better Betty Botta
Bought a bit o’ better butter.

(not rude)

www.fun-with-words.com/tong_rude.html


Pronunciation practice – repeat after me!

There’s no quiz for this episode – instead I thought I’d make a video so you can practise your pronunciation by repeating after me. Word list with definitions below.

Word List + examples [The definitions are in brackets]

  1. Sore throat – I’ve got a sore throat today [a painful throat, because you have a cold]
  2. Squirrel – I saw three squirrels in the park [cute little animals with bushy tails that live in the park]
  3. Throughout – Squirrels live in this park throughout the year [all the way through]
  4. Bewildered – I was bewildered by all the options [confused]
  5. Hierarchy – There’s a flat hierarchy in our company [a system of levels]
  6. Anaesthetist/Anaesthetise – It’s the job of the anaesthetist  to anaesthetise the patients with an anaesthetic [to give someone an anaesthetic – something which stops you feeling pain]
  7. Threshold – If you earn more than £70,000 you enter the next tax threshold [a level or point where something ends and something else begins]
  8. Worthlessly – I was worthlessly trying to impress her by showing off [in a worthless way – with no worth or no point]
  9. Pass the Worcestershire sauce, would you? [a kind of brown sauce for giving flavour to food]
  10. William Wordsworth was a wonderful writer
  11. live / leave – You have to live a little before you leave this world
  12. ship / sheep – we put all the sheep onto the ship, so the ship was full of sheep
  13. full / fool – The room is full you fool!
  14. Architecture – I love the architecture
  15. Architectural – The architectural style is fascinating
  16. Drawer – The knives and forks are in the top drawer on the left [for example, where you keep the knives and forks in the kitchen]
  17. Colonel – Colonel Sanders founded Kentucky Fried Chicken [a senior officer in the army]
  18. Kernel – Pine kernels can be a delicious addition to a salad [a nut]
  19. Comfortable – Are you comfortable? Would you like a pillow?
  20. Pronunciation is important. You have to pronounce words properly.
  21. Recipe – Can you give me that delicious cake recipe? /  This is a recipe for disaster! [the instructions for how to make certain food]
  22. Scissors – Do you know where the scissors are? [a tool for cutting paper or fabric]
  23. Strengths – What are your strengths and weaknesses? [strong points]
  24. Clothes – I bought some new clothes today.
  25. Months – She’s 18 months old now.
  26. Eighth – Henry the Eighth was a Tudor king of England
  27. Queue – Sorry, are you in the queue? Are you skipping the queue? Sorry, the end of the queue is back there. Yes, we’re all queueing up, we’re not just standing here. Unbelievable. [a line of people waiting for something]
  28. Fruit – Do you have any fresh fruit?
  29. Sixteenth – It’s the sixteenth of October
  30. Eighteenth – It’s the eighteenth of November
  31. Thirteenth – it’s Friday the thirteenth
  32. Thirtieth – it’s the thirtieth of December
  33. Bomb – There was a bomb scare in the station. People were talking about a bombing. I remember when the IRA bombed Oxford Street. [an explosive device]
  34. Climb – Do you want to go climbing with me next weekend? I’m going to climb that mountain on Saturday. You climbed it last year didn’t you? [to go up something steep like a ladder,  a hill or a mountain]
  35. Comb – I’m just combing my hair with a comb. [something that you use to make your hair straight]
  36. Crumb – Why are there lots of bread crumbs on the table? Have you been cutting bread here? There are lots of crumbs everywhere. Can you clean them up please? [little bits of bread or other food]
  37. Debt – (Many students leave university with) thousands of pounds of debt. [money which you have to pay back to someone after you borrow it]
  38. Doubt – There’s no doubt about it. It’s a brilliant film. [something you’re unsure about]
  39. Government (ok, so the ‘n’ isn’t really silent, but this word has 3 syllables, not 4) The government is yet to make a statement.
  40. My name is Luke  (not Mr Luck) Thompson
  41. This is a podcast – not a postcard, or potcard, or pot cast or pot cat. It’s podcast.

 See Paul’s One Man Show #Franglais – http://paultaylorcomedy.com/

By the way, if you’re in France, you really should see Paul’s one man show called #Franglais because it is back in theatres for another run. A lot of the comedy in his show is based around pronunciation differences, including the way people say his name, the way French people say funny things without realising it and more. Check out paultaylorcomedy.com for more information.

Here’s David Crystal’s response to “GHOTI” = FISH

Remember that thing that goes around the internet about how “Fish” should be spelled GHOTI?

Basically David Crystal believes that English spelling is not actually senseless, chaotic or mad. It is complex but it’s not completely random. In fact it is the end result of a fascinating process of development that can tell us a lot about the rich history of the English language.

From a Guardian review of his book “Spell It Out”

‘Crystal shows a brisk impatience with the tradition that likes to pretend that English spelling is senseless. The famous suggestion that you could spell “fish” “ghoti” (gh as in “rough”, o as in “women” and ti as in “motion”) is a witticism often ascribed to George Bernard Shaw but, Crystal says witheringly, has been doing the rounds since the middle of the 19th century. It is, he argues “complete naughtiness. The spelling ti is NEVER used with this sound at the end of a word in English, and the spelling gh is NEVER used with this sound at the beginning of a word.” It doesn’t do, then, to simply throw your hands up and say: “Isn’t our language mad?” The real story is much more interesting than that.’ www.theguardian.com/books/2012/sep/14/spell-it-out-david-crystal-review

You can read more about the interesting story of English spelling and what it can teach us about the history of the English language by reading David Crystal’s book “Spell It Out”, which I expect is available from any half-decent book shop.

454. David Crystal Interview (Part 1) Professor of Linguistics

455. David Crystal Interview (Part 2) Questions from Listeners

So, that’s it for this double episode then, thanks for listening!

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  • Be excellent to each other and party on!

Luke

Why does the UK have so many accents? (Recorded February 2017)

This episode was originally recorded in February 2017 and is being uploaded in August 2017. In this episode I’m going to answer several questions from listeners about accents, including how regional accents occur in the UK and why there are so many accents there. Video available.

[DOWNLOAD]

Video – I’m not sick, I’m English, and it was winter. ;)

uk accents

There is a very wide variety of accents in the UK (not to mention the accents you find in other English-speaking countries like Ireland, Canada, the USA, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and more. English is a hugely diverse language and in my experience foreign learners of English don’t usually know a lot about the different accents – particularly all the regional varieties in the UK, and they often just find it difficult to understand them, and as a result learners of English can’t enjoy the great variety of sounds in English and the sheer diversity of character and personality you get from the different varieties of English, and therefore it’s worth talking about on the podcast.

This is such a big subject that to do it justice would require me to write a whole book about it. Instead I just do episodes about accents fairly regularly in an effort to cover as much of the topic as possible. For example, I recently did some episodes about British accents that you hear in the Lord of the Rings films, which gave me a chance to talk about the different associations we have with different accents in the UK and how those associations were used to provide some colour and character to the movie versions of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings stories. I also did episodes about the accents you might hear in Glasgow and I spoke to Korean Billy about regional dialects and accents too.

Since uploading those episodes I’ve noticed a few comments from listeners wondering why there are so many accents in the UK, so I’ve prepared this episode which I hope will help you understand that a bit more.

The plan, in this episode (or episodes) is to talk about these things:

  • Why there are so many accents in the UK
  • How our accents develop as part of a natural psychological process
  • What this means for learners of English and teachers of English

Also, we’ll listen to someone speaking in a Liverpool accent and I’ll help you understand it

So, this episode is about the way people speak, but it’s also about history, psychology, how to learn English, what my friends sound like, and how to understand a football player from Liverpool.

How are all those things connected? Listen on and you’ll find out!

Why do we have so many accents in the UK? (Communication Accommodation Theory)

One of the things I said in those episodes about LOTR was that there is a really wide variety of accents in the UK, and that your accent reveals lots of things about you such as where in the country you’re from and what social background you come from.

Remember, when I say “Accent” this means simply the way that you pronounce the words you’re using.

If you remember, one of the things I mentioned in one of those episodes was a quote from George Bernard Shaw, which said “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”, George Bernard Shaw.

This gives the impression that we all hate each other of course, and I don’t agree. The point which is made by this quote is that we all have prejudices about each other’s accent and this is an expression of the class system probably. That middle class people probably look down on people with strong regional accents and resent people who speak with very posh accents and so on…

Here’s a comment from Nick in response to those episodes.

Nick 2 hours ago – [These bits in brackets are Luke’s comments]
What a complicated life there in the UK… Everybody resents each other because of their accents… [we don’t resent each other really, but we do judge each other a bit – we also love each others accents too] Wow I never thought that accents in the UK had such an important role in people’s lives. [Yes, they’re very important indicators of our identity – but they’re also a source of great fun, joy, amusement and celebration] Luke, thanks for this episode. You opened up the UK in a new way for me. Even though I knew about different accents in the UK (and from your podcast too) I somehow didn’t realize the deep meaning of accents in English life.
But I don’t really understand how it happened that you have so many accents in quite a small area. I can understand that different levels of society may have different words in their vocabulary, but why they should have SUCH different accents especially when they live in one city or region… maybe it was people’s desire to make something with the language, or at least with pronunciation in order to be somehow unique from others. Like different groups of people or subcultures dress in different clothes or different nations have their own folk costumes.

This is a really good question and there are so many interesting aspects to the answer. I’m now going to try and deal with that question.

Why do we have so many accents in the UK?

It could be explained by “Communication Accommodation Theory” or CAT for short.

Collins dictionary: “Accommodation” 3. countable noun
Accommodation is a kind of agreement between different people which enables them to exist together without trouble. (not a written agreement, but a social or psychological tendency to come closer to each other and form communities based on shared behaviour)

Communication Accommodation Theory suggests that the way we communicate is an expression of our desire or natural tendency to become part of a social group.
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communication_accommodation_theory (Wikipedia)

E.g. When I was living in Japan I picked up a lot of the body language because I wanted to fit in, basically. I didn’t even realise I was doing it.

That’s non-verbal communication, but we’re talking about verbal communication.

Also, it’s not just limited to individuals. Imagine whole communities of people, over many many generations being affected by this process.

scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2013/01/06/a-is-for-accommodation/ (Thornbury)

This could explain:

  • Why there are so many different accents associated with different regions in the UK
    For example, why people in Liverpool speak differently to people in Manchester, or why the ‘cockney’ dialect came about (more on this kind of thing in a bit)
  • Why we naturally change the way we speak depending on the people around us
  • Why speaking to a diverse range of people is very good for your accent
  • Why native English speakers sometimes change the way they speak when talking to foreigners – e.g. when travelling or meeting a foreign person.

The tendency is to unconsciously adapt.

I’m going to try and deal with all these things, but not quite in that order!

Why native speakers sometimes adapt their language when talking to foreigners
According to Scott Thornbury (a well-known teacher and author of teaching materials and a bit of a legend in the world of English teaching) there are two versions – ‘caretaker talk’ and ‘foreigner talk’.

“This is especially obvious in the way we talk to children and non-native speakers, [using] forms of talk called ‘caretaker talk’ and ‘foreigner talk’, respectively. Both varieties are characterized by considerable simplification, although there are significant differences. Caretaker talk is often pitched higher and is slower than talk used with adults, but, while simpler, is nearly always grammatically well-formed. Foreigner talk, on the other hand, tolerates greater use of non-grammatical, pidgin-like forms, as in ‘me wait you here’, or ‘you like drink much, no?’”
I’ve seen this happening to some English teachers. They adapt their speech to the students, speaking this weird form of English that’s easy for foreigners to understand but might not be helping them learn.

It’s really difficult to judge it correctly as a teacher. How much do you grade your language, and how do you do it? It’s important to speak correctly – meaning in the sort of full English that you normally would use and in the same way that most native speakers talk to each other, while making sure it’s comprehensible. If you’re too ‘natural’ your students won’t understand you. But if you simplify your English too much, you end up doing this ‘foreigner talk’ which is just not a good model of the language.

I guess this is part of being a good teacher; knowing how to strike the balance between being comprehensible and yet also realistic and natural.

I always try to keep these things in mind when I speak. It’s probably why my voice becomes more and more like standard RP, which I think is just generally accepted to be clearest version of the language, and that’s how I was brought up to speak by my parents. That’s not to say other versions of the language aren’t correct of course, and as I’ve said many times before I love the different accents.

Do I accommodate when I talk to native speakers with different accents?

Yes I do – a bit – I mean, only to accents that are a part of me. I have a few slightly different accents in me and my speech slides in slightly different directions depending on who I am with. They’re not radical changes because I’m still being myself, but my speech does change a little bit. When I’m back in Birmingham my speech becomes a bit more Brummie. When I’m in London it does the same. Only a little bit of course. This is totally normal.

It’s also why it’s important to speak to other people on this podcast because it’s in the interaction with others that language really becomes most alive and natural. When I’m talking to you on my own I speak in my neutral voice, but when I’m in conversation with others you might hear my voice changing slightly. You might not notice to be honest because it’s a pretty mild change. Perhaps it doesn’t happen that much because I am still aware that I’m being listened to by my audience.

For example, when I spoke to Rob Ager from Liverpool about movies last year, my accent didn’t change that much. But maybe if I’d spent the weekend in Liverpool, just hanging out and talking, my accent might have changed a little bit.

When I lived in Japan I spent a lot of time working with people from Australia and apparently I picked up some of accent – particularly the rising intonation pattern. So, the conclusion – I do accommodate a bit, but usually to an accent that I have personal history with, and only if I’m exposed to it for fairly long periods of time and when I’m feeling self-conscious it happens less.
Certainly when I’m back in Birmingham my accent changes a bit, because that’s where I spent a lot time when I was younger.

Cat’s question: What are Paul and Amber’s accents?
Amber & I are pretty similar. It’s just RP. Paul speaks RP too but with a bit more local influence. He’s from Kent so he speaks with some traces of a Kentish accent – e.g. glottal stops. “Native speaker” “Excited” Maybe some “th” sounds sound a bit like “d” or “v” sounds.

Some people seem to think that his voice is influenced by French. It’s isn’t.

That kind of influence would only happen if French was Paul’s first language, and he’d learned English as a second language in adulthood. That’s not the case – in fact to an extent he learned both languages while growing up. He’s certainly native level in English, and he probably is native level in French too. He certainly sounds it. So, because he’s got, basically, two native level languages, they exist independently in his head and therefore don’t influence each other much in terms of accent. Every now and then it influences his vocabulary but he instantly recognises it and self-corrects. You might have heard him do it on the podcast sometimes.

Paul speaks very clearly, which is evident in the way people always tell him that they can understand what he’s saying. His English accent is influenced more by where he grew up in the south-east of England and by the wide variety of people he’s spoken to in his life. He spent many years travelling with Apple, studying and living in different parts of the UK. RP again is probably the default setting for someone like Paul, when trying to speak clearly, but those glottal stops and some dropped consonant sounds reveal that his most formative time for English was in Canterbury, and he is also not the sort of person to listen to a lot of BBC Radio 4.
Paul is also a natural mimic. He’s able to hold different accents in his head at the same time and switch between them. He’s something of a chameleon in that way. Put him in with a bunch of Scottish people for a long time and he’d probably emerge with traces of that accent I expect. Anyway, when he’s with Amber and me his accent is pretty much like ours but with traces of his Kentish background, which is why he says “Native speaker” like that.

So, that’s a bit about ‘accommodation theory’ in relation to my friends and me.
What about Nick’s original question about the diversity of accents in the UK. I’m going to talk more specifically about that in a moment.

But first let’s check out a funny example of a professional footballer from Liverpool who moved to France to play for Olympique de Marseille football club.

Now this is an example of an English person accommodating to French people around him, and we see that this is certainly not happening to Paul Taylor

Joey Barton’s weird French accent

Who is Joey Barton? What was the situation?

Joey Barton speaking with this weird French voice

He was heavily criticised for this – a lot of people mocked him and called him stupid.
He’s definitely not stupid. Maybe he wasn’t aware of the different ways he could have changed his voice – e.g. speaking with RP probably just wasn’t something that would occur to him. This lad is a scouser through and through. He’s not going to start speaking RP – he’s going to accommodate to the French instead.

The reason he’s doing it, as explained by accommodation theory is to make it easier for the French journalists to understand him. His scouse accent is difficult for the French to understand. He was just trying to be intelligible and he ended up accommodating to their speech.

Also he did it to win social approval. I imagine being the only English guy there, in front of all those French journalists, with the pressure of playing for this big club and not speaking French, he wanted to win their approval. This probably happens in Football quite a lot because of the emphasis on teamwork. I expect during training and while bantering with other players and staff, Barton had to very quickly adapt his speech to be part of the team. I imagine speaking Scouse English more clearly wouldn’t help the French.

(Joey Barton talks about the French accent incident)

It’s not just speech – it’s also non-verbal communication. Barton does a couple of typically French things, including the kind of ‘sigh’ or blowing of air through the lips which is really common.

According to research we are naturally wired to copy the speech and behavioural patterns of the people we’re talking to. It’s a natural, neurological process that humans engage in when they want to communicate, be understood and be accepted by others.

Significance for Learning English
For learning English this suggests some of the most important ways to improve your English pronunciation and your English in general are to a) actually communicate with people in real conversations about real things b) have the desire to understand others and really be understood by others c) have the desire to share things (info) with the people you’re communicating with d) have the desire to be socially accepted by the people you’re talking to.

So, spend time talking naturally with English speakers because you want to! Or at least, practise communicating in English not just because you think it’s important for your career or for your English, but because you are genuinely interested in sharing ideas, finding out about people and the world, and broadening the scope of your identity. The more motivated you are by these things, the more you’re opening yourself up to the natural neurological conditions for language learning.

Got it? Talking to different people with good English and who come from diverse origins about things you are interested in, really helps your English and your accent in particular!
Being engaged in genuine communication because you care about sharing ideas is going to help your brain in a natural process of language learning.

Other work helps too – like studying the phonemic chart, analysing the physical ways we pronounce different sounds, how speech is connected and all that stuff, and doing plenty and plenty of mechanical, physical practice – it’s important too, but certainly this theory suggests that our brains are wired to adapt our speech patterns in the right conditions as part of a social process.

But also, it may be vital for you to learn how to accommodate yourself to the English of the people you’re talking to. This from Scott Thornbury:

So, what are the implications for language teaching? In the interests both of intelligibility and establishing ‘comity’, Joey Barton’s adaptive accent strategy may be the way to go. For learners of English, whose interlocutors may not themselves be native speakers, this may mean learning to adapt to other non-native speaker accents. As Jenkins (2007: 238) argues, ‘in international communication, the ability to accommodate to interlocutors with other first languages than one’s own… is a far more important skill than the ability to imitate the English of a native speaker.’

So, when you’re chatting to other non native speakers in English, how should you make yourself more intelligible in order to establish good relations? Do you suddenly start sounding like Luke Thompson, or do you accommodate to their way of speaking, following the rule of accommodation theory?

What do you think? Feel free to either agree with accommodation theory here, or disagree with it, but do give a good reason why.

But why are there so many accents in the UK?

It’s a really complex question which probably needs to be answered by someone with a PhD on the subject, but here’s my answer!

It’s probably a big mix of geography, culture, politics, history and human nature.
Tribalism.

Perhaps it’s because we’re a small nation with quite a high population.

Geography. We’re an island (group of islands actually) so that creates a clear land border – meaning that we’re a bit more ‘penned in’ than some other cultures.

The class system. RP was the standardised version, but ordinary folk spoke in their own way and weren’t expected to speak RP because they knew their place. They could never break away from that. We never had a revolution proclaiming everyone as equal, so working people didn’t take on the standard form of English.

Irregular relationship between the written word (spelling) and the spoken version mean that the spoken version is perhaps more open to interpretation than others. Our written language is not phonetic, therefore the pronunciation is not tied down. There’s no solid rule book on how to pronounce English – there’s the phonetic chart, but that is based on RP and that’s where the class system comes into it. RP is associated with a certain class of people and then identity politics come into play.

Perhaps the multicultural ‘mongrel’ nature of the Brits has something to do with it. We’re a mongrel nation. Maybe the diversity of accents is the result of this patchwork or melting pot of different people and languages. E.g. celtic, nordic, germanic, norman French, gallic French, latin, Irish celtic, Scots celtic, commonwealth nations like Jamaica, India & Pakistan – especially Jamaica which has had a massive influence the way young people in London speak, and now media, like American and Australian English that we hear on a daily basis.

Our islands have been visited, invaded, populated and influenced by migrating people and their voices for many many years. This goes deep into the past and continues to this day, even though the official version of history will suggest that we have one unbroken family line (The Royal Family that we all learn about in school). There’s a lot more diversity than this narrative would suggest. This could result in a wide variety of influences, creating diversity which is not obvious just by looking at people. It’s also interesting to me that the narrative of the ‘unbroken line of history’ which we get from the monarchy, is also aligned with a certain way of speaking – this old-fashioned RP which is the standard form. Underneath that standard form, or next to it, there is a lot more variety and diversity.

There was a long period before the emergence of the single unifying monarchy in which the country was essentially split up into different, independent areas, ruled by competing monarchs. Tribalism was seriously important. Think: Game of Thrones. Community, loyalty, rejection of others – these were vitally important principles. It was the breeding ground for different local versions of a language. It must be the same in many other countries.

This relates to aspects of the accommodation theory. Convergence is when people pull together in a community and naturally speak in the same way to express this shared identity. At the same time there is divergence – pulling away from other communities which could be rivals or whatever. If you’re part of one community you’ll speak like them and you won’t speak like the others. Either you’re in one or the other. This could account for why people in Liverpool and Manchester speak differently even though the two cities are pretty close. Just look at the football fans to see how much of a rivalry there is between the two cities.

I expect a number of other factors have come together to cause the UK to have this wide diversity. But perhaps we’re just a lot more aware of the diversity because the place is really connected – it’s a pretty small island and we’re all squeezed in together with a clear natural border of the sea, and the industrial revolution happened there bringing the train – mass transport which suddenly brought everyone much closer together, making us a lot more aware of our different versions of English. I imagine if you examined other countries you would find similar differences in Accent. The USA for example has definite differences, and it’s quite a young country in comparison. So, I expect many countries have similar diversity in accent and dialect, perhaps we’re just a lot more aware of it in the UK.

We also have the class system which has added another dividing line – another factor which pushes communities together (convergence) or pushes them apart (divergence). Perhaps working class communities held onto their accents as a way of expressing their sense of local identity as a contrast to the less region specific upper classes, who seemed to be less fixed geographically. E.g. The Royal Family has it’s own geography, which moves between international borders and not just across domestic community borders. I mean, Prince Phillip for example was born in Greece. The QUeen’s ancestors were German. Despite the fact that they are the figureheads for the UK, they are not really fixed to local areas within the country.

This also would apply to the nobility – the proper upper classes, who probably owned land that perhaps their families hadn’t lived on for centuries. I expect one area of England for example was ruled by one family for a period, then another family became the rulers – either by conquest, trade, marriage etc. The ruling class probably were quite mobile. The people who lived and worked on the land, were of that land for generations. So, working class people have stronger regional accents than upper class people. It’s absolutely nothing to do with so-called “lazy pronunciation”, it’s more to do with identity – strengthening local communities by having their own version of the language. Power, identity and economics.

No governing body to standardise English. Just powerful people through their influence have guided the narrative that RP is the standard form – this also happens to be the English that the educated, wealthy class use.

So, that’s my fairly long and rambling answer Nick.

We’re not finished with accents though. I’ve just talked about how C.A.T. might explain why we have so many accents in the UK, and also what the theory can tell us about things like my accent, the accents of my friends and also how you can work on your accent too. I still plan to spend some more time focusing on specific accents and playing around.

Now, I would like to ask all of you a few questions

  • How many different accents can you identify in your country?
  • Are accents in your country related to geography?
  • Is there a standard accent? Is that accent associated with a particular region?
  • What attitudes to people have about accents where you come from?
  • In English, which accent do you prefer? If you don’t know a region, can you think of an individual person whose accent you like? Feel free to say Amber Minogue of course.
  • If you’ve been shipwrecked and you get washed up on a remote island populated by a local tribe of native people who seem to use English as their main language and yet look like they might be hostile, or hungry, or both, what’s the best way to get into their good books? Speak like me, or speak like them? Or get back in the sea and swim?