Heard and not seen

When Radio 4's Charlotte Green got the giggles last week, listeners caught a rare glimpse of the personality behind the voice. Meg Carter on broadcasting's hidden talents
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The Independent Online
You may not recognise the face but, if you're a Radio 4 listener, you'll almost certainly be familiar with the voice. And, since hitting the headlines in her own right last week, probably her name, too: Charlotte Green. Green is one of a band of typically faceless broadcast professionals whose calm, carefully modulated tones convey the authority, respectability and neutrality of Britain's broadcasting establishment. Well, usually.

In case you missed it, on last Monday's Today programme Green suffered an uncharacteristic lapse in decorum. The trouble began with an item on the 8am news bulletin concerning the appointment of Jack Tuat (pronounced "twat") by the Papua New Guinea government as chief of staff. This segued into a report about Moby, the sperm whale stuck in the Firth of Forth. The coincidence of the two items proved too much to bear and, after a few words about Moby, Green collapsed into giggles.

"I really had no idea Jack Tuat was coming up," Green says in her defence. "I do have a Rabelaisian sense of humour and must confess the name appealed to me immensely." It was "a particular set of circumstances", she hastily adds, although, like all professional broadcasters, she has other tales to tell: "It's often really bizarre things that set you off - odd names, or names that rhyme, for example. One I remember was really quite innocuous: Phyllis Willis." Or the time she announced the Pope's "condomnation" of birth control.

Green is one of a peculiar breed of broadcaster, better known for the familiarity of her voice than her appearance. She joined the BBC 12 years ago. "I was involved in university radio, but primarily wanted to be an actress," she explains. "When I realised I'd never be another Juliet Stevenson, I joined the BBC as a studio manager." After being invited to read letters out on air for Radio 4 programmes PM and You and Yours, she moved to the continuity department.

"I love the combination of continuity and newsreading - being in a busy newsroom as the big stories break is totally exhilarating," she says. As one of a 12-strong team of Radio 4 announcers, Green works shifts throughout the day and night and has established a dedicated following amongst devotees of the Shipping Forecast. However, life in presentation is not all plain sailing. There are particular challenges. Like sight- reading an unprepared script: "You just dread the day the Japanese cabinet is reshuffled just as you go on air. Sounding authoritative and in control is essential."

Authoritative and controlled is, to be fair, exactly what she is 99.9 per cent of the time. And this, along with her mellifluous vocal technique, accounts for her solid fan base which unites members of the public and industry professionals who make regular pilgrimages to see her take part in recordings of Radio 4's News Quiz. "I receive letters from listeners regularly," she confides. "For the most part, they're quite delightful."

Although she has no formal news training (she studied English), journalism appeals as a possible future option, as does a closer involvement in programming. She still finds continuity and newsreading "challenging and fun", but says that she has found recent opportunities to diversify. "I reviewed an exhibition of photographs of shipping forecast areas for Kaleidoscope and thoroughly enjoyed it." A handful of TV appearances include joining Clive Anderson on Notes & Queries.

And yet Green also confesses to a degree of shyness: "It's nice to walk down the street unnoticed." Until she opens her mouth, that is. "When I took my watch to be repaired, the man in the shop was an avid Radio 4 listener and, even before looking at my cheque said: 'Aren't you Charlotte Green?'"

It's the sense of intrigue that does it - the fantasy surrounding the identity of the speaker: the face behind the voice. Which is one reason for the mixed reaction to Channel 4's recent decision to break with terrestrial TV ranks to feature its continuity announcers on camera.

Channel 4 viewers are now privy to the peculiar spectacle of casually clad presenters hunched over a microphone in what looks remarkably like a broom cupboard. It's a warts 'n' all approach that others disdain.

"We're all trying to 'get closer' to our audiences," says one. "But the art of professional continuity presentation is not about becoming a celebrity. It's about encapsulating the voice, style and tone of the broadcaster you represent"n

Peter Donaldson, Radio 4's chief announcer

The best announcers are clear and precise but also warm and friendly, according to Peter Donaldson. As well as an outgoing personality, you need a sense of humour and a cool head.

"You have to cope with quite stressful situations while, at the same time, being entertaining even if you are doing a quite serious job," he explains. "Actors sometimes don't make good announcers because they prefer to play a part rather than be themselves."

An announcer for 30 years, Donaldson worked for British forces radio before joining BBC Radio 2 in 1970. Small wonder, then, that he disagrees with the Radio 4 controller who observed that an announcer should announce for no more than five years. "I believe it takes that much time just to build up a rapport with the listener"n

David Mcleod Continuity announcer, Channel 4

Mcleod joined Channel 4 in 1993 after being a local radio DJ in Aberdeen. "It's something I'd always wanted to do," he vaguely responds in answer to the obvious question: Why?

An ability to talk naturally, be informative and yet succinct, plus writing skills, are prerequisite, he says. "It's an ability to perfect a sound bite." The announcer's role at Channel 4 is both to encapsulate the channel's brand, and to maintain the tone and momentum of the programming output. The 10-strong team, which includes former presenters, journalists, actors and DJs, are given a relatively free rein to compose their own programme plugs.

Mcleod admits he was uneasy when the channel decided to put its announcers on camera last October. "I rather relished the anonymity," he says. But it's turned out fine so far: "I'm yet to get mobbed in the street by hordes of fans"n

Manju Malhi Continuity announcer, BBC 2

"Research shows without the announcer, viewers feel lost. It's an essential ingredient," says Manju Mahli, who joined BBC 2 five years ago from BBC local radio where she presented her own show. "You have to fit the particular vision for a station at a particular time," she says. "You might sound too old, too young, too regional."

It's all about selling, you see. "You have just 10 seconds to outline a programme and make it sound enticing." But this must be balanced against the BBC's requirement not to be too personal. "You don't want to upstage Harry Enfield by trying a joke to introduce his show."

Malhi is eager to work in other areas of production and has already hosted a Radio 2 show. The continuity department enjoys a steady flow of people, although some stick with it, and she can see why. "It's a young, dynamic atmosphere. And we're all in jeans, not bow ties any more"n