World Cup whinges or one-vowel wonders - it's all in the voices that no one really uses

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The Independent Online
ONE of the changes that James Boyle has wrought at Radio 4 is to get rid of one of its very best programmes, Medium Wave. There weren't any other programmes which looked at the media intelligently, and very few which ever questioned the BBC's wisdom. But with Medium Wave's departure we also say good-bye - on radio at least - to the voice of the Sun reader.

By voice, I mean voice, literally. Has anyone else noticed that when extracts from the Sun are read out on programmes such as Medium Wave or What The Papers Say, they are always read in the same voice? It's a sort of angry snarl with lewd overtones, a kind of parody of the middle-aged yob. The voice is more angry when it's reading a headline like "Give Us Our Tickets, You Froggy Swine!" and more suggestive when it's a headline like "New Labour Get Their Kit Off", but what's interesting is that, although nobody ever really talks like that, it has become an accepted voice.

Actually, we are surrounded by such voices all the time. Actors have a Shakespeare voice. Clergymen have a pulpit voice. Politicians have a conference- haranguing voice. When they are off-stage, actors, clergymen and politicians do not talk iambic, preach or harangue - they mostly sound like you or me. But as soon as they get on that stage, they change. The actor of the Bard sounds as if he is a kind of museum curator showing off the precious, ancient relics of the English language. The clergyman adopts a semi- monotone, slightly chanting voice as if he is half-singing, half-praying out loud. The politician starts shouting very slowly, with hammy, leaden gestures - indeed, it is one of the marks of the politician that when he is given a microphone, which was invented to save people raising their voices, he immediately raises his voice.

You don't even have to hear what the person is saying to know what kind of voice it is. You can always recognise the poetry voice, for instance, even if you can't hear the poetic words. You all know what I mean by a "poetry voice". It's that Radio 3, wrapped-in-cotton-wool, don't-drop- that-sonnet-or-it-will-break voice which people feel they have to adopt when approaching the hallowed pages of poetry, even though it sounds ghastly and stuns the verse with verbal chloroform. You'd think the arrival of fresh regional poetry voices such as those of Roger McGough, John Hegley or Ian McMillan would have driven out the posh poetry voice, but it hasn't.

For better or worse the Queen has developed a voice over the years which seems to want to remove all feeling or expression from the way she speaks. I don't know how she sounds when at breakfast or while planning the shopping, but the voice she has chosen to communicate with her subjects, especially at Christmas, might have been expressly chosen to cut them off. Still, you have to admit that it is distinctive and that if you heard her behind you in a pub saying "So this is what a pub looks like! How ghastly!" you would know immediately who it was. It's also vaguely reassuring to know that Prince Charles is following down the same path.

It would take all day to go through the various voices. There is the football result-reading voice, careful to rise for an away win, but never sounding surprised or involved. There is the Thought For The Day voice, sounding like a sanctimonious doctor explaining to you that you are going to die of lack of faith unless you do something quickly. There is the telling-a- funny-story voice, along with its peculiar grammar and its strange mixture of tenses ("So anyway there was this bloke and he goes into a shop..."). There is the children's television presenter voice, hysterical and bubbling, like a pan of milk perpetually about to boil over. There is the today's special appeal voice, the From Our Own Correspondent voice, the telling- a- story-about-Noel-Coward voice, the toastmaster's voice (and its close cousin, the boxing compere's voice).

Actually, I think the cleverest voice of all is Ted Heath's, or at least the most economic. He had the brilliant idea of developing a voice based entirely on one vowel, the one contained in the word "house". The rest of his voice is an ordinary fruity-pompous kind of voice, but the way he said and says "house" was and is wonderfully excruciating. If you hear someone say "house" in that particular way, you always know it is Ted Heath standing behind you or someone imitating Ted Heath. No other vowel will do. It is a one-vowel voice, much in the same way as Private Eye developed the brilliant idea of the one-remark editor, as in (That's Enough Voices - Ed).

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