A beautiful speaking voice is a window to the soul

The best voices draw attention to the words spoken, not the speaker

6 December 2014

9:00 AM

6 December 2014

9:00 AM

Recent text from a female friend. ‘I’m in love with Neil MacGregor.’ To which I reply, ‘But of course! Up there with the Dean of Westminster and Frank Gardner.’ The same day, walking in Kensington Gardens, another friend admits, ‘I think I’m in love with Neil MacGregor.’ We mourn the fact that MacGregor’s Wikipedia entry tells us he’s ‘listed in the Independent’s 2007 list of most influential gay people’, so the director of the British Museum is, sadly, out of reach to womankind. It’s his beautiful speaking voice that does the trick.

I like the way, in his Radio 4 series Germany: Memories of a Nation, MacGregor pronounces ‘Germany’, with a sounded ‘r’. I relish the erudition and the intimacy in his voice when he says, ‘If I could choose one object to sum up the Bauhaus, it would be this cradle.’ You can tell, from the way he pronounces ‘Jedem das Seine’ (the words on the gates of Buchenwald) that he speaks fluent German — ‘Gerrrman’ — and my Wiki researches confirm that after being educated at the Glasgow Academy (the son of two doctors), he read Modern Languages at New College, Oxford, so is probably multilingual as well as a polymath. The precise way he speaks seems to me a mirror of his clear thinking.

Tastes differ. Two friends I subsequently asked said that they couldn’t stand MacGregor’s voice. One said, ‘I have to turn the radio off. He’s so camp.’ The other said, ‘I agree that the construction of his sentences is perfect. But his articulation is strangulated. You can’t tell exactly what accent he’s got. And he says “rin-oceros” rather than “rye-nocerous”. That’s plain wrong.’ I checked. It’s true: in minute 11 of the porcelain episode, MacGregor does indeed say ‘rin-oceros’, not once but twice. What is that all about? And it’s true, those ‘r’s of his are hard to place: not rolled in a normal Scottish James Naughtie way, but soft. But I’m not cooling my crush yet.

I’m not the kind of person who goes for mere sexy huskiness in a voice. Magnum ice-cream advertisement voiceovers do nothing for me. The Classic FM smooth ‘relaxing classics’ announcer gives me the creeps. Anonymous, spitty sat-nav voices (‘Acrosss the roundabout, ssecond exxittt’) might be some people’s erotic fantasies but they are not mine. Of course, timbre (the musical instrument of the voice, which is a gift of birth) does matter; but it is not enough on its own. What I love is a voice that also exudes knowledge, wisdom and experience: it is these that give a voice its depth and beauty. As Amazon says, ‘If you liked this you might also like…’. This is perhaps true of voices. If you like Neil MacGregor’s voice, you might also like the BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner’s. Gardner will be the one who tells us on the Six O’Clock News that Islamic State are now sweeping through the Home Counties, beheading as they go. Paralysed himself by al-Qa’eda terrorists, he really knows what he’s talking about, and his quietly deadpan voice is (to me, at least) deliciously thoughtful and disturbingly truth-confronting.

People who like Anna Ford’s voice (and there are still many after all these years) also like Francine Stock’s, formerly of Newsnight, now of The Film Programme on Radio 4. Both have a well-brought-up throatiness (you sometimes have to clear your own throat while listening to them) which draws you to them, reminding us that some of the most beautiful voices are imperfect ones. Father George Bowen of the London Oratory has a slight lisp. This enhances the beauty and spirituality of his meditations: it seems an emblem of his humility. Neil MacGregor sounds as if he has a mildly blocked nose, as does Canon Angela Tilby on Thought for the Day — by far my favourite voice in that three-minute slot when one dreads the speaker being (as Charles Moore has noted in these pages) John Bell of the Iona Community. When Tilby rounds off, quietly and calmly, with, ‘We’re not as helpless in the face of evil as we sometimes feel,’ you feel able to climb out of the bath and face the day.

‘S’-sounds vary widely from hideously sibilant to vibratingly resonant. Rowan Williams’s ‘s’-sounds fall into the second category. They would form a series of Matterhorn-shaped peaks on a sound-cloud graph: ‘Dostoevsky’s sense of the tragic; his sense of the extreme…’ You can imagine the needle going up on those ‘s’s. Williams’s voice demonstrates just how much of a musical instrument the spoken voice can be. He has a wonderful sonority. I hear the same sonority in the voices of the cricket commentators John Arlott (deep Hampshire accent), and Michael Holding (even deeper Jamaican).

Another clergyman whose voice I love is that of Dr John Hall, the Dean of Westminster. Go to evensong at Westminster Abbey and listen to him reading the Second Lesson: especially the epistles of St Paul. It’s as if you are hearing St Paul himself speak. It always moves me deeply. Dr Hall reads the epistle not in a declamatory, Biblical way, but simply as a letter. He has the confidence — and the relaxedness that comes from deep knowledge and scholarship — to read it in an unhurried way, allowing just the right pauses for the words to be absorbed. He draws all the attention to St Paul and none to himself.

For me that is the essential attribute of a beautiful speaking voice: it draws attention not to the speaker but to the words spoken. When Tony Blair read Corinthians 1:13 at Princess Diana’s funeral, it was nearly very good: he tried to bring each word alive. But he introduced an over-emotional brokenness into his voice: ‘When I became — a man — I put away childish things —’, which drew attention to how moved he was. Suddenly we were concentrating on him rather than on St Paul, or the Princess of Wales. Fakery in a voice is instantly recognised. It’s not only Ed Miliband’s adenoidal lisp — ‘What doethn’t kill you makth you thtronger’ – that gets on the nerves of swaths of the electorate, although that, and the nasal twang, do make you think, ‘Never, surely, could this man be Prime Minister.’ It’s also that you can tell that he’s dumbing down his voice with glottal stops to be more approachable. So, both ugly and unnatural.

Actors, of course, have beautiful voices: they’re coached in ‘received pronunciation’, pacing and projection. It’s a joy to hear an actor reading well (I love Jeremy Irons as much as the next person), but I’m affected even more by a non-actor with a beautiful speaking voice. The voice seems to be a window to their soul. Now, back to episode 29 of Germany: Memories of a Nation.

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  • Richard

    One of the most noticeable changes at the BBC since Blair’s reign has been the brutalisation of the voices. They no longer present any sort of back-story. They are whining and nasal, and many rather hysterical. The BBC used to be reassuring. That is long-gone.

  • Peter Crossley

    I agree that Neil McGregor has a fine speaking voice, but only on the radio. On radio he has the benefit of excellent microphones and is reading his material. Ms Graham must attend one of his lectures in the BP Lecture Theatre in the British Museum hall to hear someone who does not rise to the challenge of addressing large audiences. On the last occasion I heard him his delivery was muted and occasionally slurred so one could not make out his meaning. He is in good company. Many television and radio actors are also hopeless at making themselves heard clearly in public venues. They have either never had proper training for the stage or have simply become lazy and have lost respect for their audience.

  • polistra24

    Denis Norden. Top of the pile.

    More obscure: James Shimanyula of the South African broadcasting system. Possibly the only true bass voice heard in public today. Has the resonance of a 16-foot organ pedal register.

  • Chris Morriss

    I fear that Ed M’s glo’al stops are the real thing.

  • John Andrews

    Don’t forget Eddie Mair – a wonderful turn of phrase to go with a great voice.

  • Agrippina

    I still miss Charlotte Green’s beautiful clear voice. She paused and allowed the words to be clearly heard, pitch perfect, great rhythm.

  • Zanderz

    Mariella Frostrup, all day, every day.

  • It was proved scientifically some time ago that some senses dominate other. If you’re talking and eating – taste is lost. So it makes sense that in order to be most affected by a beautiful speaking voice it is better not to have the distraction of the visual – therefore radio is clearly the best forum. My two personal favourites are: Michael Gambon for the male fraternity and it just has to be Honor Blackman for the female.

  • mikewaller

    I would view it as my duty to “defriend” any associate who declined to listen to MacGregor on grounds of some trivial complaint about his speaking voice. To reject such scholarship on such grounds can only be the reaction of a barbarian. That said, I do have the utmost difficulty in taking an academic seriously who speaks with an uncultured voice. There are a few exceptions such as the guy whose name I have forgotten whose facial hair and gruff voice seemed to aid his presentation of biological science; but for the most part, seriously unattractive speech, particularly if coupled with, say, the odd “somethink” instead of “something”, and I am done-fore.

  • sebastian2

    San Chang Fang from Liaoning Province, China, broadcast the most compelling stories, on local radio, about ancient Chinese life. Absolutely absorbing – even to those who can’t understand a word. Why? His voice. Mesmerising.

  • David Aspden

    Lyse Doucet: talking axe.

  • a girl

    You’re much too glib about the nightmare you imagine Gardner speaking. I know this is magazine writing. But the horror you racily imagine is … sickening. And it won’t happen.