Gobs on Sticks

Thoughts mostly (but not always) about the voice-over business, from London Voiceover Artist, Mike Cooper

  • About the author

    My name is Mike Cooper. I'm a full time Voiceover Artist living and working in London, and this is my blog. Find out more about me on my main website (there's a link further down this column), or if you'd like to hear some of my work, check out the files below.

Accents for sale(s)

Posted by MikeCooper on May 14, 2009

I grew up in Wolverhampton. There, I’ve said it.

If you’re reading this outside the UK, and you don’t know much about the wide variety of accents on offer on this Sceptic Isle, you may not immediately see my point. But anyone from Britain will know that the part of the country where I grew up is famous for its “peculiar” take on the Queen’s English. When it comes to taking liberties, Dick Van Dyke has nothing on the West Midlands. And if you don’t believe me, take a listen to these.

If you’ve heard any of my work, you’ll know that I don’t sound like this anymore. (Actually, my accent was never that strong and my mother, especially, frowned upon use of “dialect words” when I was growing up. Thanks, Mum!) In fact, being one of the lucky few who always knew from a young age that they wanted to be in the media – and realising that that meant using my voice – had an interesting effect on me. No one ever pointed out to me that people who sounded like my Aunty Di (love her to bits) weren’t fronting the local news or extolling the virtues of the local carpet emporia, but I just sort of knew. And over a number of years I just, sort of, trained myself away from the Black Country “twang” that surrounded me at school. I’m sure that if someone were evil enough to conjure up a batch of radio trails I made in Birmingham in 1989 when I started, that we’d all be somewhat amused, but it’s a process, right?

I still have remnants of my Black Country vocal heritage, and these remnants are usually there for all to hear in times of stress or agitation. (By the way, “Black Country” isn’t a racist term, in case you’re wondering. It refers to the thick, black, industrial smog that hung in the air of the region from about the time of the industrial revolution until, well, about half an hour ago, now I come to mention it…) But what that vocal legacy has given me and lent to my delivery is something that makes me sound a bit different: “North of Watford but south of The North”, as one producer described it. I find myself in demand now by those who want a “non-London”, “non-RP” voice which still carries authority but has a bit of warmth. Perhaps the fact that my vowels can’t quite decide which part of the country they prefer, sometimes change mid-sentence and sometimes surprise even me when they come out differently to what I’m expecting, is part of that strange appeal.

The reason I mention all this is that there’s a new bit of research out from the UK’s Central Office of Information. They sound a bit Orwellian, don’t they? But they’re the government’s marketing and communication agency, and they’re the people who made all those nice Public Information Films we used to love to watch before BBC1 closed down. Halcyon days…

This bit of research, which I picked up today from Media Guardian, reveals that “Not all regions like to hear their own accents in ads”. Who’d have thought! Here’s an excerpt from the Media Guardian piece (the full article is here):

“Many people claim to hate the sound of their own voice, but a new government survey suggests the sensation is more unpleasant for some of us than it is for others.

The study… reveals that, while Geordies and Mancunians enjoy listening to their own regional accents in government advertisements, Brummies and Bristolians would rather not be subjected to their own distinctive burr.

The COI, which controls the government’s annual £400m advertising budget, found responses to radio and TV commercials vary widely in different parts of the UK according to the accent they are recorded in.

Residents of some regions, including Tyneside and Manchester, prefer to listen to government warnings about the dangers of drink driving or smoking cigarettes when they feature actors speaking in the local vernacular. Others, including those who live in the West Midlands and Bristol, are more likely to sit up and take notice when they are made using “received pronunciation”, the COI study claims.”

When they mention “Brummies”, they mean people from Birmingham, just down the road from Wolverhampton. To the outsider we’re close enough bedfellows to be confused, though to natives that’s tantamount to confusing a Lancastrian and a Yorkshireman. Brummies actually call people from Wolverhampton “Yam-yams”. This is because the Black Country bastardisation of “You are” becomes “Yow (as in ‘cow’) am”, and thus “yowm” and, conversationally, “yam”. (Yes, it’s that strong a dialect. Can you see why it’s not good for voiceover?)

Then again, in today’s climate it looks like you can go too far. A couple of my voiceover friends, who speak with the kind of beautiful English tones that I can only aspire to, are sometimes finding themselves “too posh” for today’s market. And interestingly, having recently been making calls to commercial producers, I had one producer from the North East say to me that “it’s a good job you don’t sound like you’re from London, even if you live there. Our listeners don’t tend to trust them…” Last year I blogged about a report in the Daily Telegraph that claimed “cockney voices are the UK’s most hated regional accents”. Balance is the key, it seems.

Last year I auditioned for a radio ad which asked for a West Midlands accent. I wrestled with whether to pitch, having wrestled for so long with breaking away from it. I wasn’t sure if I could still carry it off (the last thing I wanted to do was sound like an insulting “fake” – these are troubled waters enough) and in fact, before I submitted the take, I played it down the phone to my parents for a second opinion. To my surprise (and somewhat to my relief) my mother told me it sounded like a “high end” West Midlands accent and both she and my father thought it was close enough to pass muster. To my astonishment, the producer agreed with them, and for a short while I was on the radio in my old stomping ground, reminding the West Midlands that it might be drinking itself to death and that it probably ought to do something about it.

But that’s the only time I’ve been asked to do it, aside from for comic effect, which says a lot. Looks like my eight-year old self was wiser than I’d imagined…

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