How Sweet the Sound
As someone who has Radio 4 on indiscriminately for large parts of the day I’m used to an endless procession of voices. Those from the regular programmes are instantly recognisable if, in the main, fairly unremarkable. But there are certain voices that come on from time to time that provoke extreme reactions, good and bad.
For most of the past ten years, it’s clear from their voices that the politicians in power have been condescending to us from a great height, deigning to reach down and give us a pat on the head from somewhere up in the stratosphere (in fact it was only a matter of time until someone, as it turned out, the then PM, actually said ‘Calm down, dear’ in the House – to Angela Eagle).
I suppose it was only to be expected from those in control; the worrying thing about the current crop is that they can’t even claim that, nor have they even reached even the most modest heights from which they could patronise us with any conviction. Never have the ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ been so prominent, as they try to remember what the hell their latest ‘lines to take’ said, or the steadfast refusals to answer the simplest question been so blatant. (And have you noticed their pathetic ‘Our NHS’ trope? We haven’t forgotten that just a few months ago they were willing to run it into the ground and flog it off to the highest bidder.)
But for a bit of balm for the soul and the ears, let’s turn to a trio of wise Irishwomen who combine unusually deep voices with messages of real substance, making their presence on the airwaves thrilling. Who could fail to notice former President Mary Robinson’s resonant voice, purveying stirring good sense? Likewise Baroness Onora O’Neil, a philosopher of great distinction who is able to convey concepts of great complexity in plain language and sonorous tones. I heard her speak in the Lords on the subject of trust in the police, and had I been a bent copper I would have wept. Finally, there’s Edna O’Brien, who has faithfully chronicled the lives of woman for decades. Rich and reflective, her voice commands the ether with grave authority.
How do they all manage to sound like this, and why can’t I?
But I’m not biased. There are plenty of blokes I like to hear on the radio – some sadly no longer with us, like Kenneth Williams (a passion Dame B and I share), Rabbi Lionel Blue and Alan Rickman.
But there is one man whose voice resonates with me like no other: Simon Russell Beale. As an actor of immense range, he makes his beautiful voice (and he can sing!) serve whatever the context, but always with his unmistakeable timbre. The melancholy with which he suffused his reading of The Great Meaulnes left a deep ache of regret in the listener, whereas as Sir Harcourt Courtly in London Assurance his voice sparkled with wit.
I switched on the radio a few months ago, and there he was! I was instantly beguiled and began to listen. It wasn’t until the name ‘Lyra’ pierced my consciousness that I realised that this was The Secret Commonwealth, which I hadn’t yet read. Potential spoiler alert! I had to stick my fingers in my ears and go ‘la-la-la’ as I raced to turn him off.
I once saw Simon Russell Beale in a pub in Pimlico but was too awestruck to approach him – just as well really, for at least he was spared the embarrassment of my gushing fan-dom.