Ready to go on

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Wednesday - speak up!

I'm not sure if I like Southampton as a city? I probably haven't seen enough of it to judge as I went home last night, a 2 hour drive, but worth it to wake up in my own bed and see my wife, briefly.

That was a hectic day. Home late from London on Monday, back up to London for nine o'clock, record an episode of a radio comedy drama for Women's Hour written by Jeremy and Rebecca Front; very funny script and a lovely part; drive down to Southampton for mic checks, do a show and then home. I slept well.

We needed to do a mic check as the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton is vast. Of course, in the 'old days', whenever they were, we would all have just projected more but it seems that audiences are so used to theatre shows being amplified that they find it strange and difficult to listen to a show without it. Naturally, acting is easier as a result. You don't have to do all that quick, deep breathing and diaphragm bursting, but it's a bit of a shame. It's like putting mics on opera singers. It seems wrong. One of the main skills of theatre acting is having the ability to make yourself heard in a large arena and that's probably fading away as it becomes less and less necessary.

I didn't go to drama school so I didn't learn to 'project' properly. I always had quite a loud voice, you'll be amazed to hear, but I was often guilty of shouting on stage rather than just speaking loudly. I was taught to project and use my diaphragm to push the air out through my voice box by Tony Britton, Jasper and Fern's dad. He was a classy actor and, although mostly famous for his television comedy work, did loads of theatre, including Shakespeare at Stratford. He told me that his diaphragm had really developed when he toured in My Fair Lady playing Professor Higgins. He toured for several years and  never once used a microphone, so he had to be able to make himself heard above a full orchestra! As a result, he had a chest the size of a the Isle of Wight and could knock you over with the volume of his voice.

He pointed out that I had a tendency to shout and that it would eventually damage my voice if I didn't rectify the fault. I explained that I hadn't been trained and, despite watching other actors work and trying to mimic them, I could only really get the volume if I 'sang' the words. Tony offered to give me lessons and each day we would do voice and breathing exercises. The results were fairly instant. 

I've kept up that work in private ever since as I'm loathed to lose the ability and, like any physical skill, it has to be used or you do lose it. Occasionally I get caught by someone, the postman usually, knocking at the door. If I am in mid voice exercise inside my house he will have heard it and he does sometimes give me a very strange look. Then again, perhaps that's because I often answer the door in my dressing gown and sometimes just a towel. What? I thought that was normal?

My most memorable lesson with Tony was in the middle of a field at four in the morning in the countryside just outside Bath, where we were, on tour, a few weeks ago. I and several other members of the cast were staying with Tony in a beautiful Mill House in the countryside. He had rented it and then asked us if we would like to stay as the place was far too big for him alone. It was massive and beautiful and he charged us a very small rent for what must have been a very expensive holiday let. He was always generous like that.One of those actors who always entered a bar with the phrase, "Now I'm sure it's my round?" even when you knew that it certainly wasn't his round. If you argued with him he would say, "Well, I've just got a large repeat fee so I think I should spread it about a bit.". In return for his generosity we would try to make sure that we did the cooking and bought the wine for the meal we had each evening when we got back from the theatre. 

You can imagine; five actors, gathered around a table for a meal that started at midnight. We would still be anecdoting when the sun came up. Copious amounts of wine were drunk and Tony often produced a bottle of single malt whisky. Not a good idea, but fun. One evening (well night) I was telling the others about the lessons that Tony was giving me and they all began to chip in with exercises that they used and pretty soon we were all standing around the Mill House bellowing at each other. Thank goodness we were in the middle of nowhere. Someone suggested that we welcome the sun and so we all traipsed out in to the middle of a field and, as the first light of morning peaked over the horizon, we hollered our welcomes. I remember getting soaking wet, rolling around in the dewy grass, crying with laughter. Luckily it was only dew. It could have been worse. As the sun lit the field we noticed a herd of cattle cowering (a good word for cows) in the corner of the field. I think they must have thought my voice projection had improved because I could see that each of them would have liked to have given me a pat on the head.
Richard Bremmer, John Sharp, Robert Eddison, Tony and a skinny bloke

Stock photo - actors always look very serious. Tony was, and I'm sure still is, always laughing.



  1. Reminds me that a man round here practises his bagpipes in a field by the A14. Perhaps you might like to see if you could out-diaphragm him?? :-)

  2. Really? I find amplified performances difficult to listen to.

    It sounds weird when someone's lips are moving but their voice is coming out of the side of the room somewhere.

    I saw that Rory Kinnear Hamlet a few weeks ago, and it was un-amplified. First thing I've seen in ages that was. A welcome bit of nostalgia!