This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
What makes an ideal radio voice? The golden rule, to borrow from Bernard Shaw, witty chap, is there are no golden rules. Voices are as individual as thumbprints. A distinctive quality that pleases some listeners may irritate others. Some voices make us bristle; others we receive naturally, like an old friend.
Benny Green, that master of jazz and the popular song, spoke in the unvarnished tones of the Londoner he was, without trying to lay it on, as so many “mockney” characters do today.
Anthony Clare (above), the psychiatrist who persuaded guests to reveal more about themselves than they might have intended to say, had the pleasing cadences of an educated Irishman; one of the most agreeable sounds to a British ear.
Green and Clare, and others too numerous to list, engaged the listener (singular: they spoke to each person directly) because they had expertise in their fields, and a sympathetic manner. They could write a script, and read it confidently, without sounding ingratiating.
Sue Lawley had that gift, and Jenni Murray. David Jacobs, that most gentle of souls, brightened lives for half a century. They were reassuring presences, for whom clarity, rhythm and precision were essential qualities. Lawley’s successor but one in the Desert Island Discs slot is Lauren Laverne. She does not, to put it politely, raise the tone of the show.
Lawley and Murray, Jacobs and, to pluck a name from the recent past, Ed Stourton, spoke in Received Pronunciation, which is deeply unfashionable in our demotic age. Yet, in a country like ours, where accents change every 30 or so miles (Liverpool and Manchester; Manchester and Sheffield), RP has obvious advantages. It speaks to us all. “Inclusion” here actually has some meaning.
Stourton, a stalwart of the Today programme, was eased out 13 years ago because, it was alleged, he was posh. Tosh. To most reasonable people he spoke clearly, which goes a long way when you are presenting a news programme that goes out between 6am and 9am.
In the modern dispensation, clarity counts for less than it once did. How many times do you hear presenters and reporters corrupt basic words, inflect upwardly, stress falsely, stop glotally, confuse tenses, or abandon articles altogether?
In a country like ours, where accents change every 30 or so miles RP has obvious advantages
In any given week it is possible to hear words such as research, vulnerable, government, harass, police, ceremony, mayor, marathon and even monarch pronounced incorrectly. Producers cannot be listening closely because the offenders go about their exercise without let or hindrance. Why does Carolyn Quinn find it so difficult to pronounce the letter “t”?
So who speaks well? John Murray, the Five Live sports reporter, certainly does. He’s from Northumberland, and it’s never a hardship to hear a well-modulated voice from the north east. His reports are crisp, clear and utterly authentic. Apparently he was considered for a commentator’s role on Test Match Special, but he felt it wasn’t him. A pity.
Michael Buerk, obviously. He’s a bottle-aged BBC trouper, whose civility is tempered with a touch of asperity. He is wise to the ways of the world, not world-weary; a consummate professional. In the old days, before water coolers, such men could be found in every nook and cranny of Broadcasting House.
On Radio 3 Petroc Trelawny and Donald Macleod shine like the Rhinegold. Macleod’s presentation of Composer of the Week, which goes out every weekday at noon, is a masterclass in how to shape a script. Some of his younger colleagues would do well to listen, though in the case of Elizabeth Alker, who sounds like an adolescent on work experience, it would not be wise to hold out much hope.
Let’s raise a cheer, too, for Zeb Soanes, who reads the news, and Neil Nunes, the sonorous Jamaican. Newsreading, which was once done so precisely, really has gone to the dogs. You wonder at times whether the people doing it could spell their own names. So full marks to Soanes and Nunes, who sound fully human. Nunes, who clearly enjoys his work, brings a smile to the longest face.
As for the best voices, how about Justin Webb and Mishal Husain? The Today programme should be much better;
everybody can agree on that. There are too many feeble features, and Nick Robinson’s narcissism is insufferable, but Webb and Husain have wonderful voices: “how clear, how lovely bright”, as Housman, that stickler for language, wrote of the rising sun. Robinson, to be fair, also has a good wireless voice. But we are not obliged to be fair.
And the worst voices? Let’s wait for a rainy day. Don Black is another man with a lovely manner. The famous lyricist, banished from Radio 2 as part of its quest to turn Sunday nights into a valley of ashes, popped up on BBC Radio London for six programmes devoted to the popular song.
We heard some crackers, sung by the usual gang, and for his final show Black chose selections from his own catalogue, performed by the likes of Frank Sinatra. It was great to hear him again, though his departure from a station that refuses to honour the American Songbook is a cause for anger.
What does Radio 2 now run in his old slot each Sunday night? Dr Ranjan Chatterjee, no less, “prioritising pleasure”, and “finding contentment”.
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