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Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

29 December 2009

Modern voices of authority

IN ALDOUS HUXLEY’S Brave New World, controlling unrest is very different to the ‘With a loud voice command’ of the 1714 Riot Act:

Suddenly, from out of the Synthetic Music Box a Voice began to speak. The Voice of Reason, the Voice of Good Feeling. The sound-track roll was unwinding itself in Synthetic Anti-Riot Speech Number Two (Medium Strength). Straight from the depths of a non-existent heart, “My friends, my friends!” said the Voice so pathetically, with a note of such infinitely tender reproach that, behind their gas masks, even the policemen’s eyes were momentarily dimmed with tears, “what is the meaning of this? Why aren’t you all being happy and good together? Happy and good,” the Voice repeated. “At peace, at peace.” It trembled, sank into a whisper and momentarily expired. “Oh, I do want you to be happy,” it began, with a yearning earnestness. “I do so want you to be good! Please, please be good …”

The Voice is a sexless ‘it’ but in the 1930s when Brave New World was first published, nearly all voices ordering or informing adults were those of men. As described in Anne Karpf’s book The Human Voice: The Story of a Remarkable Talent, women’s voices were judged to be too ‘shrill’ and lacking in gravitas for public announcement.

By the 1970s, however, women announcers had become common in supermarkets and department stores. Actress Stephanie Gathercole provided the brisk and efficient lift voice for the opening credits of the BBC sitcom Are You Being Served?:

Ground floor perfumery, stationery and leather goods, wigs and haberdashery, kitchenware and food. Going up. First floor telephones, gents’ ready-made suits, shirts, socks, ties, hats, underwear and shoes. Going up. Second floor carpets, travel goods and bedding, material, soft furnishings, restaurant and teas. Going down.

Lift voices are one of those helpful features which now no longer seem to exist in any London department store, although one survives in the British Library:


Elsewhere in settings as diverse as buses, train stations and chain stores of every description, women’s voices are now the preferred option for recorded announcements. It’s a significant change in the public sound environment compared to just thirty years ago. Even the Eurofighter’s ‘voice command feature’ is described by a test pilot thus:

“She’s got a very strong English accent that is very good. There is also a male voice for easy things like non-flight safety critical aspects, but Nagging Nora kicks in when there is something really important.”

The nickname suggests that the tones are those of a woman older than the average fighter pilot. It might also be an ambivalent acknowledgement that critical alerts delivered in a woman’s voice get better compliance.

So too for recorded announcements in general. Chauvinism has given way to the realisation that using women’s voices is now effective in telling people what to do.

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