Flights of Precious Angels
When my mumbelievable mum died if felt fitting to remember her with a golden plaque on a wall of remembrance, as she was a woman who spent her life breaking them down. She didn’t give a hoot about protocol, socially acceptable behaviour or speaking her mind. The process of dealing with “stuff” after a death is often a helpful distraction to the grief we feel. What must it have felt like for King Charles III to cope with his precious mother’s passing while being hurled into a world of Royal tradition, protocol and onto the worldwide lens? I was honoured to be asked yesterday by the Press Association to comment for various newspapers and magazines on whether his voice might bring us the same comfort and reassurance of that of our dear departed Queen. It was an interesting thing to be asked about, because I’ve always believed that the voice is more the window into our souls than our eyes. It’s why I started my career in radio at the BBC. I fell in love with the voices of the announcers who made me feel safe and secure, not only in what they said, but how they said it. The choreography of speaking, use of tone, volume and the variations in enunciation and articulation fascinated me. I built up pictures of what these people looked like and created their worlds in my imagination. I can remember telling my mum that I loved the sound of Brian Matthew’s voice and thought no more of it. A few weeks later my mum burst into my bedroom flourishing a letter with a stamp franked by the BBC in bright red. It was a letter from Brian Matthew to me saying thank you for my kind comments and invitation to meet, but he was married and had a very busy schedule. I was 6 or 7 and I was puzzled. Why had this gorgeous, lovely, reliable man written me such a strange letter out of the blue? Mum!
King Charles III’s first speech was interesting to watch, especially as I’d spent the afternoon analysing his voice and comparing it to that of Queen Elizabeth II’s. I found it fascinating to listen to as he had obviously thought a lot about pace and had slowed down his normal run-together speaking style. I talked to the journalist about the origin of a plummy accent and explained that it is most likely to have originated from times when a shrill, high voice was encouraged to deepen by placing a soft plum in the mouth so that the articulation moved from the front of the mouth to the back. Throat-based articulation is more resonant and closer to the chest, so you get a deeper effect. That deeper, resonance is more associated with authority and control. And of course, the deeper sound waves have a physical effect on us in our core bodies, compared to the lighter, more shrill voice patterns. Interesting to note that the Queen’s voice dropped about a semi-tone per decade which is why we felt more connected and reassured by her when she spoke in later life. And we all remember how Margaret thatcher was encouraged to deepen her voice to command respect and inspire authority.
My mum used to change her voice a lot, depending on the situation she was in. When trying to sound clever or commanding with a policeman or my teacher, she’d adopt this crazy deep voice as she squashed her chin into her neck and peered through her eyebrows. It wasn’t her voice itself that terrified people, it was the sudden change and strange look in her eyes. It always made me laugh, because I thought she was doing it as one of her silly voices she used for storytelling. She’d then spin round, stare at me, look cross at me giggling, put her chin down again and continue to berate whoever had annoyed her. The effect was complete confusion on the poor faces of those she was talking to. If that voice didn’t work, she’d go within a split second into flirty high girlie voice. This was the devastating voice for me as she would “quote” me and put ridiculous words into my mouth that I had never said. Brian Matthew talked sense. Brian Matthew spoke in the same gorgeous, deep voice all the time and he didn’t break into flirty girlie voice. Ever. I probably did want to marry Brian Matthew when I was 7. Can you imagine when in the 1990s I was given the job as a BBC Radio 2 producer and I was allocated a role on Round Midnight, presented by … yes, you’ve guessed it … Brian Matthew. I could hardly contain myself. MY Brian Matthew, the voice that kept me sane when my parents were hurling plates at each other and stomping off down the street. MY Brian Matthew who emanated calm, compassion, knowledge and had a great taste in music? WOW. We were to meet in the BBC canteen, and I was a bit tongue-tied at the beginning and managed not to say that he wrote to me when I was a little girl telling me he was married. Brian was seated when we got there. MY Brian Matthew was at least six foot tall, had flowing dark hair, deep brown flashing eyes, a broad chest and (for some strange reason), dark tan riding boots. THIS Brian Matthew was shorter than me, had thinning white hair and a tendency to avoid eye contact. But the voice, oh that voice. Magical. My love affair with voices and how they made people feel started there. How amazing that voice itself can conjure up a story. I can also remember having visceral reactions to the wrong voices. One poor chap was lovely, handsome, clever, witty and interested in taking me out, however his voice!!!! Oh, his voice! So deep and gravelly it made me feel nauseous when he spoke, as it had a visceral effect on me which I couldn’t overcome. And as for the high-voiced, squeaky men, they didn’t get a look-in either and my theory for that isn’t something I’d talk about here. (Email me and I’ll explain). Having left Radio 2, I worked in TV and then started a coaching business, helping people find their voice, project their voice and have confidence in themselves through their voices. And a lot of public speaking confidence comes from taming your inner voice – the loudest one in the room that can trip you up with its constant nagging.
I’m looking forward to listening to the voices of King Charles III and Camilla, Queen Consort as they take on their new roles, no doubt with Queen Elizabeth’s voice in their memories, encouraging and reminding them of how to engage and reassure people. And now I’ve got the voice of my precious mum in my mind, reassuring me that life can be sad, hilarious, and adventurous if you break down those walls. “Come along, Sonia darling, you won’t know until you try it.”