“It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth
without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW
Shaw's play Pygmalion was based on the transformation of a screechy cockney flower seller, Eliza Doolittle, into sounding like a duchess.
I can understand exactly where Shaw is coming from when I hear Peter York, with his utterly irritatingly affected voice and his strange little grunts at the end of each sentence. And those of two more, Stephen Bailey and William Rees-Mogg, with their condescending air of superiority via their supercilious accents. At the other end, I have the same feeling about Billy Bragg and Adele both wearing their origins on their sleeves. But, oddly, like most singers, they use American accents when performing.
This a very rare 'non-visual' post from me. It is about the sound of one of the most important aspects of communication, the voice. It is punctuated throughout with some of the many voices I have loved and admired over the years. Just click on their names to hear them speak.
I have always been fascinated by the sound of the human voice. I can plot it back to my childhood. My mother was born in the East End of London with an accent to go with it (think Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse doing one of their 1950s cockneys). Conversely, my dad came from County Cork in Ireland and retained his Irish brogue until the day he died. Consequently, as a kid, I could switch from one to the other with ease. As a nine-year-old at my primary school in the early 1950s, we were taken on an outing to the cinema to see Laurence Olivier's film Henry V. Although at that age I found Shakespeare difficult to grasp, I was very taken by Olivier’s beautiful speaking voice. That is when my fascination with the voice started. That and the fact that I was a child of the radio era of the 1950s then and still find it the most intimate medium for the voice. I spent a great deal of my time glued to our Bakelite set listening to plays and comedy shows. I locked into Peter Sellers in The Goon Show, with his brilliant ability to conjure up a myriad of accents. When we finally got a television set in 1954, I would watch the Sunday afternoon films, mostly from the 1940s. I'd zero into the voices of actors I liked: Robert Donat, Ronald Colman, Charles Laughton, David Niven, Ingrid Bergman, James Stewart, Raymond Massey, Orson Welles, Lauren Bacall, Claude Rains... I could go on, as I was fast becoming a voice geek.
From aged 11 at my secondary school, our form teacher, Mr Brown, would read to us in his slow, warm Yorkshire brogue, I would gaze out of the classroom window and imagine the images, comforted by the mellifluous tone of his voice. Along with all of the boys attending our terrible school, l spoke with a broad cockney accent. The school itself was a ‘secondary modern’ – we received training in a wide range of simple, practical skills, and this is where you were sent if you failed the 11+ exams, thus excluding you from a grammar school and a superior education. In retrospect, the secondary modern kept us in a state of ignorance and was no more than a clearing house for the many industrial factories in the area, the Ford Motor Company being the principle employer where most boys would end up. It was the very place where my dad worked until he retired. My elder brother and I vowed that we would not be lured through those ominous factory gates.
The 1950s were a time when what you sounded like would exclude you from opportunities. Class distinction was rampant in the workplace; consequently, everyone knew their place. I picked up on this very early and became very keen to know more about the voice and what it was capable of. I was pretty good at mimicking teachers and most of the characters on The Goon Show. And I was very aware of the boxes that people were destined to be allocated to because of what they sounded like. At the age of around 14, I set about expanding my vocabulary and changing my accent.
My favourite place was the local library. It was not only a warm place to go in winter but it also had a heavenly bookish smell and was very quiet – it was rather like being embraced by a cosy duvet. I still have enormous affection for libraries. It was in there that I picked up a book called Speak Better English. It basically promised that you could improve your lot in life by changing a limiting accent. I doubt that anyone would dare publish such a book these days, as it promoted walking away from all your friends. I read it from cover to cover and rigorously practised the breathing exercises, tongue twisters and recitations for weeks on end until slowly but surely my voice began to change. I ended up with one accent when with friends (I couldn’t escape from them) and another when I ventured off to pastures new. It was a very difficult transition at first, but, eventually, it bedded itself in.
Just a few streets from my house in Dagenham lived Dudley Moore. He set off with a music scholarship to Oxford and resurfaced without his cockney accent. But, years later, in collaboration with comedy partner Peter Cook, he would revive his childhood accent as Dud, a rather simple laughable character in their many Pete & Dud sketches. Although funny, it unfortunately, perpetuated the notion that the cockney accent represented inarticulacy and stupidity.
The voice, like handwriting, is simply a means of communicating with others. If your handwriting is an incomprehensible scrawl, the reader will have a hard time comprehending it. It is exactly the same with speech.
Jenni Murray, the long-term presenter of Woman’s Hour, always begins her broadcasts with “good morning”. She delivers those two words with a smile on her face. She believes that the smile comes through her voice when received by the listener. And it is true. The voice is the barometer of one’s mood, and often you can tell if a parent, friend or lover is in a good mood just by the first few words they utter over a phone line.
Conversely, here is an example of where the internal emotion is clearly not expressed through the voice, as with the reaction of tennis champion Andy Murray on winning Wimbledon in 2016 with a flat monotone response. HERE.
And another example of two guys plucked out of a small southern Irish town and asked to express their feelings to a global audience, on their winning of an Olympic silver medal for rowing. The rapier speed of delivery and difficult local accent make them almost incomprehensible to anyone outside of Skibbereen. HERE.
In the 1950s, the middle classes put a great deal of emphasis on what their children sounded like, and many underwent elocution lessons. The class structure was very embedded. The radio was little more than three BBC stations: the Light, Home and Third programme services. All news and continuity announcers spoke in what was called ‘received pronunciation’ (RP), delivered in a very precise and emotionless way. As there were few BBC regional stations, RP represented the default accent of the UK to the rest of the world, and it was this RP form of speech that most middle-class parents wanted their children to adopt. One of my old business partners had elocution lessons as a boy and still, now in his 70s, has the most amazing 1950s BBC voice.
But all of that is a thing of the past. Many private schools still have LAMDA teachers available to instruct in the speaking of prose and verse with a series of medal stages. I recall watching the BBC production of Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means back in the early ’70s, in which a young Miriam Margolyes as Jane Wright endlessly recited poetry. It was so beautifully read that I have never forgotten it.
The ’60s opened the floodgate to a far wider range of accents. They became intermingled with the generic BBC RP accents. These new voices came mostly from the creative world. When The Beatles were first interviewed on the radio in 1962, many people were amazed by their Liverpudlian accents, as most pop singers of the period had London middle-class accents, like Cliff Richard, Billy Fury and Marty Wild, all manufactured and groomed by their respected managers.
But if you listen to The Beatles interview, none of them actually spoke in a broad Mersey, Liverpudlian accent. It is a more middle-class, refined version.
The period also saw the arrival of David Bailey, Terrence Stamp, David Hockney, Alan Bennett and Michael Caine on the scene, the latter always being referred to as having a cockney accent, but not as I knew it. Caine was actually trained at RADA, where his voice was pushed to the limits of possibility. He has retained the very minimum of his South London accent. Melvyn Bragg – a man who has campaigned to protect and cherish regional accents, especially that of his beloved Cumbria – is far removed from the origins of his childhood Wigton accent. Click below and you can hear the BBC programme How Richard Burton Got His Voice.
In his autobiography, Richard Burton went into fascinating detail about the creation of his beautiful speaking voice. This involved years of practical training with his dedicated teacher, the ex-BBC producer Philip Burton, who became his voice teacher, producer, mentor and ultimately guardian.
Even today, the main BBC national stations ensure that all of their continuity and news announcers have very precise diction, regardless of their origins. The two most popular accents with audiences are Scottish and Irish. If you are a fan of the shipping forecast, then you will know just how precise and beautiful-sounding these announcers are. Switch over to Radio One or any of the commercial pop stations and you will be subjected to a myriad of accents. If you tune into the illegal stations that still pop up in urban centres, you’ll hear accents that are very ‘street’ and often totally incomprehensible outside of their core audiences.
Many think that how you sound these days is unimportant, but I would disagree. If two young people attend an interview and one speaks clearly and articulately alongside another who punctuates ever sentences with ‘like’, ‘know wot I mean’, ‘you get my meanin'’, etc., I think it is pretty clear who would be favoured. Some things never change, especially in England. This is a funny moment in a Graham Norton show when Miriam Margolyes could not hold herself back from criticising a guest for using 'like' all the time. HERE.
It is sad that state schools rarely, if ever, concentrate on the importance of the voice and its potential for the benefit of their pupils’ futures. Sporting activity is always high on the agenda, but never the voice. Thank goodness that there are still a few dedicated drama teachers who care about and understand how clear, pleasant, precise communication can not only open doors but also, on a very basic level, be so pleasant to listen to.
Consider for a moment poets. They agonise over every word when constructing the thoughts and rhythms of their work. But I think very few poets consider the effect of their own voices when reciting aloud.
Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Andrew Motion, John Betjeman, Simon Armitage and Roger McGough are exceptions. But listening to poets, including the current laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, many are so disappointing, as is the famously am-dram performance of Under Milk Wood by its author, Dylan Thomas, delivered not in an expected Welsh accent but by a slightly hysterical plummy posh vibrato. But when read by Richard Burton, every word is imbued with such delicacy, such grace and power that that dark little town comes alive in your head. This is simply because actors have put hours, weeks, months and years into perfecting and sharpening every nuance in their vocal box of tools in order to deliver words from the page precisely, with clarity and emotion. That is why programmes like Poetry Please mostly use actors to read.
In his life, that supreme master of the spoken word, Orson Welles, was forced to take on commercial voiceover jobs in order to earn money to fund his many film projects, many of which remain unfinished. On one such voiceover excursion, to advertise Findus frozen food, instead of just reading what he was given and taking the money, he objected to the script structure and vehemently argued with the ad agency director. It is funny and sad in equal measures but demonstrates his care over delivering a story.
There is a rather beautiful moment in the Kubrick/Spielberg film AI where David the robotic boy is visited by an alien from the future to talk about a secret wish. The voice of the spindly alien was delivered in voiceover by Ben Kingsley and is utterly mesmerising in its beautiful delivery.
What has any of this diatribe got to do with design, I hear you say?
Well, a lot, I happen to think. As designers, we are communicators and, to my mind, not to use all the communication armoury we are blessed with is a mistake. This may sound terribly old-fashioned and, yes, okay, I am in my 70s. But, when I see people all around me increasingly communicating via social media on their iPhones, rather than physically being in the moment, even when sitting together in restaurants or coffee shops, something is seriously wrong. Attention spans are getting increasingly shorter, and no one seems to be even looking around themselves anymore – people walk straight onto zebra crossings while texting. I find it astonishing. Cursive handwriting is another casualty of the digital age and is slowly degenerating. When did you last get a handwritten letter or a postcard?
Next time you open your mouth, no matter what accent you have, take a moment. It is a wonderful instrument you have at your command. Don’t waste it. It is never too late to care for it.
I'll end with one of my favourite pieces of writing from James Joyce's The Dead. It is spoken by the late wonderful Irish actor Donal McCann.