The Authentic Voice – Simon Elmes

“Twas terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible.”
The speaker was an elderly Cornish tin-miner recorded 60 or more years ago, and remembering, with enduring pain, the notorious day in October 1919 when 31 workers died at the famous Levant mine. The steam-driven device – a sort of moving ladder – that lifted them in 12-foot sections up and down the mineshaft collapsed when a vital securing bracket shattered. The device was (what poetry in simple words!) known as a ‘man-engine’ and the entire structure of heavy beams and platforms, with 100 men aboard, plunged to the bottom of the shaft…

And the terrible loss of life at Levant was still remembered back in 1980 when I made a programme about tin-mining for Radio 4, called Men of the Granite. It was full of lovely Cornish voices, remembering the riches and the hardship of tinning. But the words that I still recall today were not those of my interviewees, eloquent though they were. It was that fivefold utterance of the word ‘terrible’ by a person still stricken with the horror of the disaster and preserved in an archive recording that I used in the programme. The voice was weary – I can hear it now – a cadence of suffering and disbelief as the man articulated each ‘terrible’ with a different inflexion, the last falling away into almost silence. It was poetic; it was grief-stricken.

It was true.

It’s something you acquire pretty early on as a documentary producer, that ear for the authentic, the true. You know immediately when it’s not there, and you are likewise immediately aware when you hear the true coin of reality. Listen to Wendy, recalling 12 years after, the dreadful night when – in suburban Los Angeles – she was taking a bath, and a man’s hand wielding a pistol came round the corner of the door. And raped her….

I think that he was an extremely… frightened…. desperate…. Kid. Who… I mean, I don’t… I think no-one had ever spoken to him like a human being before. [Sighs] It’s very hard to sort out. Er, it’s hard to sort out because you… you get all these, um, voices of ‘victims always say’… Y…you don’t know whether you’re under the influence of some sort of brainwashing or… [sniffs] But I, I, I think that in his mind we were having… sex.

Wendy had told this story many times before I and my presenter, John Man, sat in her lovely living room, I on the carpet at her feet, John in a chair on the other side of the fireplace. And yet Wendy managed to relive – and bear to relive – the horror of those many hours of torment as if it had only just happened. Somehow, John had through slow, patient questioning achieved that rare state of almost trance-like equilibrium when a speaker forgets the microphone and the mechanics of an ‘interview’ and just speaks directly the events as she knew them and, above all, felt them.

It’s over twenty years now since that moment, part of a series called Survivors from 1994, yet the vividness and honesty of the recollection remains with me still. Pure transparent authenticity.

That authenticity is what, for me, I have always loved about Parker, MacColl and Seeger’s ballads. It’s the raw voice of lived experience, hard won moments of poetry hewn – like the Big Hewer’s coal – from the solid rock of experience. And then hewn again, by Charles and his diligent razor-blade, from the long reels of taped voices.

And it’s this process of selection and refinement, of course, that is the artistry of the documentary maker – you can hear the true note of authenticity; you can capture it on tape, or in digits. But then to select it, and arrange it, and compose it into a piece of radio is pure art – and with a hefty chunk of craft skill on the side.

Back in the early 1950s, a young language research-worker from the University of Leeds was recruited by his head of department to take part in a massive piece of original fieldwork. The professor, Harold Orton, aware of the original work of his Swiss counterpart, Eugen Dieth, in the phonetics of Swiss-German, undertook in 1950 the ground-breaking Survey of English Dialects – yes, the research wasn’t UK-wide – studying in rural communities the way ordinary English men and women talked, about their work, their leisure and their landscape.

When Orton and that most celebrated field worker of his, Stanley Ellis, began their language work, the recording of the daily lives and preoccupations of Britain’s ‘ordinary folk’ was already more than a decade old. Mass Observation, the survey via diaries of working lives begun in 1937 by Tom Harrisson, Charles Madge and Humphrey Spender amongst others, had captured verbal and literal photographic snapshots of working class Bolton (known to Mass Observation as ‘Worktown’). And – as you can read in another article on this site – radio had from roughly the same period similarly been chronicling the lives of what were often still patronisingly referred to as ‘the masses’.

But the magical authenticity of voice didn’t really begin to shine through until the moment when the machinery to record it became sufficiently small and flexible as to catch the unprepared remark, the unrehearsed opinion, the unmediated emotion. Olive Shapley talks about how she took a recording van to her first location documentaries in the 1930s; wartime brought rapid progress with the BBC’s courageous reporters, like Frank Gillard and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas capturing the very smell of fear and danger as they travelled ‘embedded’ as we’d say today with Allied troops during the final phases of the war, confiding their graphic descriptions to the BBC ‘midget’ disc recorder.

Tape, however, was the revolution. It was high-quality, cheap, manipulable and pretty reliable. Unlike acetate disks, it didn’t shatter (it could stretch, of course, and often did when tape machine brakes were applied too energetically!) and it allowed long stretches of recording to take place. Now the reporter could sit back and really listen to her or his interviewees. And the interviewees could expatiate freely and relatively uninhibitedly.

That’s what Stanley Ellis for the Survey of English Dialects so brilliantly achieved. You have only to listen to the joyous recording, for example, of 72-year-old Polly from Harwood in Lancashire (available on the British Library website) talking about the ghosts people allege to have seen in the village to realise the authenticity of the recording, of the moment, of the anecdote. Stanley (who till his death in 2009 was a good friend of mine) can be heard uttering the odd ‘yes’ and ‘aye’ in the background as Polly pours her torrent of anecdote virtually unmediated and freshly minted into his microphone – this was no doubt the first time anybody had ever recorded her voice.

Amongst the thousands of recordings made of ordinary, rural and elderly people for the SED, across more than ten years, some of course are rather stilted – they have the veneer of performance, of awkwardness in front of the microphone. The accents are undoubtedly rich and pure – and authentic – but that magical transparent authenticity that allows us the listener to engage directly with the speaker is absent. However many of these recordings do possess that same purity that Charles Parker’s original tapes had, and which he refined into radio poetry.

I think it’s significant that such pioneers of authentic voices – Shapley, Ellis and Parker – were not London-based, but operated out of Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, respectively. They knew about regional voices and – sensitive programme makers and reporters all, who asserted the importance of non-metropolitan values and ways of life – captured them on tape, still full of vigour in the 1950s, yet under threat from an increasingly normative national standard. While in the 1970s and 80s a still surprisingly small percentage of Britons strayed more than a few miles from the place of their birth, increasing physical mobility has been the inevitable concomitant of social mobility. And with the advent, in the 1990s, of the internet the blurring of regionality, of nationality even, has galloped apace.

Another wonderful regional reporter of the Parker era, Harold Williamson, was similarly empowered by the advent of easily portable technology, to capture the authentic voices of children in Newcastle and the North-east of England. Children Talking was an amazing pot-pourri of young voices, captured by Williamson’s mobile microphone and recorder, and compiled by the great Michael Barton (later to be the BBC’s director of Nations and Regions) into beautiful, elegiac and supremely funny truth-telling about life and death. I can still recall the original impact of these delightful programmes, full of simple philosophy, but expressed in the guileless terms of children who, unmediated by self-consciousness and their tongues loosened by Williamson’s brilliantly empathetic and unpatronising questions, told it like it was for them.

“Where’s your cat now?” asked Williamson, innocently, of one young girl whose pet had just died. “Up in heaven,” she replied in an instant, “with Jesus and God!”

Authenticity knows no nationality, class or income-level. I’ve heard the testimony – in a Swedish radio documentary – of a prostitute, gasping at her cigarette as she spoke of her hard life with an unvarnished, close-up frankness that pierced the language barrier. I’ve listened to the elegant tones of the elderly Kensington resident who took producer Piers Plowright on a tour of the family home, bought in the 1930s and staffed, then, with a slew of servants. Posh, undoubtedly, and infused with a reserve that comes with a certain class, but transparently authentic, nonetheless. Nobody Stays in this House Long was what the estate agent told the couple when they moved in, and it’s the title of Plowright’s study of faded gentility, authentic down to the last napkin-ring and tattoo beaten on the dinner-gong. Wandering round the house, they pause at a shelf-ful of books…

The ‘Strand’ Stamp Album – do boys collect stamps still? One never hears of it now. But in those days they were a great thing. [DINNER GONG] Oh, and a very Victorian thing indeed, The Wonder Book of Pets….

It’s to Plowright’s immense credit that he managed to coax these wonderfully redolent musings from his Kensington couple. Hard nuts to crack, we’d say, professionally, because the middle classes, above all, are at one extreme media-savvy, and at the other deeply schooled in evading intimacy, even with familiars and, certainly, with a producer’s microphone. Oddly enough, the true aristocracy, frequently untouched by media exposure, can be disarmingly open. What really dismays a producer, however, intent though she might be on bringing truth into the audible open, is the clammed up, sometimes embarrassed, sometimes wary, denizen of middle Britain. “Oh, you don’t want to talk to me! I’ve got nothing to say, I’m sure.” The words are familiar to every feature producer who’s tried, and so often failed, to ‘remove the varnish’ in order to access that authentic, open, untrammelled voice that is transformatively honest and seat-fixingly direct and truthful.

I recall a particular interview carried out by one of the masters of the medium with one such character. She was a pillar of her local Midlands community, Town Crier, no less, for the small village she inhabited with her husband, who himself was a nude art-model. We knew she also posed naked, yet was bashful about talking. The interviewer, Alan Dein, circled for many minutes, discussing her role in the community, gaining her confidence. After some 30 minutes or so, the conversation turned to her husband’s love of working naked; and then skittered away to other trifles. But some ten minutes later, the ambling conversation reverted to the pleasures of nakedness. At this point, reassured, confident, the woman opened her heart. She had been a naturist for many years in a previous marriage and was passionate about the naturalness of it all. Suddenly, the authentic, honest – and genuinely beautiful – voice of truth shone through.

When the brilliant BBC features producer Sara-Jane Hall set out to tell the story of three women in a wealthy south London suburb just before the financial crash, she was concerned they would present the ultimate tough target. Would she be able to get these professional wives and mothers to speak with authentic openness about their lives? No worries, as it turned out. On the school run, one confides…

You know, there’s all flats and things round here and um… you know… big houses in… in my road. No it’s completely mixed. And that’s what, that’s what I really like about it. I love the sort of diversity of it all and the fact… I don’t want to sound horribly snobby about it… but my children could have a very, very… er narrow life, you know, just meeting people like them all the time. And as it is they’ve got friends from all walks of life, and as a result I meet people from all walks of life rather than… – dare I say it, you know? – nasty middle class people…. Nice middle class people…!

Unguarded, the woman worried aloud into Sara-Jane’s microphone about the fact she drove a gas-guzzling 4×4, about her piano lessons, about the local fete of which she was the prime mover… It was funny, it was true. And the wonder was, after broadcast, she was delighted with the programme. Some class!

Perhaps the most patient and sophisticated ear for the authentic belongs –unsurprisingly maybe – to Charles’s daughter, Sara, who gathered much of the material for that remarkable document from pre-Crash London. Sara and I have collaborated on many projects in which she gathered pure authentic audio gold from speakers as diverse as road-menders, prostitutes, engineers, customs officials, park-keepers and phonebox cleaners. But one voice for me stands out above all. She was Lin Morley who had, with her husband Keith, spent many happy hours in Taylor Park, St Helens in Lancashire, walking the dog, feeding the geese and, in their first encounters as youngsters, carving their interlinked names in traditional fashion on one of the park’s many trees. But, tragically, Lin’s husband contracted cancer and finally succumbed to it. Lin’s limpid storytelling lay at the heart of our two-part 2002 evocation of the seasonal year in Britain’s green spaces, The Park. (In the extract below, I’ve made a feeble attempt to reproduce in the spelling Lin’s glorious Lancashire accent.)

In Januerry, bitter cawld deh, boot we went anyway because Ah felt Keith… loooking back, Ah felt Keith knew that… the end was cooming. And, um… there’s these four geese which have a real personality of their awn, and they’ve been ther for yeears and yeears. Boot they were about 500 yards from the caah paak and ’e… to this day Ah do not knaw ’ow that man made it round to them geese. Boot ’e did. And if you can imagine soombody who’s had a strawk – ’cos that’s what the paralysis was like by now – strooggling to get round. To think about visitin’ the paak is to do something naamal. And, um. Ah still don’t knaw… to this day… Ah dawn’t knaw ’ow ’e made it. ’E made it to where the geese were nesting. And, on the weh back, we ’ad to stop about four or five times, and that was the last time we went. And ’e loooked back… [sobbing] from the Bawt’ouse. ’E stopped and loooked back. And you dawn’t nawtice when it’s happening. Boot affterwds, when Ah think about it now, Ah’m sure ’e was teikin’ it in, and loookin’. ’Aving a goood loook.

When authenticity is lacking, the good producer can spot it easily: it stands out like a stain under a detective’s revealing ultraviolet beam: I recently heard a programme that contained a harrowing account of solitary confinement. The speaker had been sentenced to death and was held in a tiny cell for many months. However, she had told her story too many times to be able to be ‘truthful’ about it. I don’t doubt that the facts were exactly as she recounted them, but the essence of the story – the thing that makes you sit up and concentrate – had been abraded by familiarity. Phrases had been repeated until they were routine; the pauses had become those of the practised speaker, not someone recalling horror with all the faltering immediacy of pin-sharp recall. The effect was dull and – yes – inauthentic.

On the other hand, take Geoff (not his real name), ex-miner from Barnsley and a bit of a rogue, who was the star-turn in a documentary made by the brilliant Laurence Grissell in 2005. Geoff had trotted out his classic-Yorkshire gags many times. But hadn’t before delivered them to a microphone. So when he told Laurence that…

Ah were born int’ ’owse where I am nah. Were an only child. Mi real name’s Friday…. Because mi dad said ‘we’ll call it a day when we’ve ’ad ’im..’ [laughs]. Mi dad worked at’pit; mi mother allus, you know, were a ’ousewife. Nivver worked…

…one detected the true sound of a man looking back on his life. Geoff displayed a not a little misogyny and, for all his Yorkshire bluffness and humour, I can’t say one entirely liked him. Yet he was revealed, at the end of the programme, to be a man of deep concern for and knowledge of the environment, as he showed off his breathtaking collection of butterflies, carefully displayed and catalogued. And in the unexpected and unlikely combinations of tone, delivery and subject matter, there were, in this feature, levels of truth that shone through like a beacon. Indeed, even the ‘varnish’ of the oft-told gag about his name itself held a truth, self-mockingly voiced – in inverted commas, as it were – and conveyed by the fractional pause before the knowing laugh.

Another of Laurence’s remarkable truth-tellers was the late Pat Mallon. Pat was until his death a couple of years ago a pub-singer in Bath. He’d lived hard and the listener could hear the cigarettes and late-night boozing in his scratchy, west-country voice. He, like Geoff, was full of jokes – both as a professional performer, but also when simply talking with his beloved Hayley, also a singer. Here was the authentic sound of a not-the-top-of-the-tree performer, who was having a hard time with his health. And the glaze of performance again held its own truth.

Pat:            She’s a hogger! A mic-hogger! [Hayley giggles] And what a voice!
Hayley:      There’s 23 years between me and Pat…
Pat:            Hayley’s me fourth wife…
Hayley:      But it’s never been…
Pat:            …an issue.
Hayley:      …an issue at all.
Pat:            She’s kept me young; I’ve made her old. She’s holdin’ the act together at the moment. In fact when I go into hospital, she’s gonna have to. Cos, if you start cancelling gigs, ‘No-Show Mallon’, they’ll call you.

There was, in the rough, unironed voices and accent of this endearing couple, a great warmth, a purity that connects directly from them to the listener. But it’s not an accident. Because their words are articulated through the producer’s skill in selecting and deploying the segments that best tell that truth. In Pat – and Geoff – Grissell is doing exactly what Charles Parker did: first, in finding and probing those who spoke their lives with true authenticity. And then, through painstaking selection and assembly, delivering the words’ emotional punch with the force of carefully distilled energy.

To end with, a little anecdote of my own. Back in 1985, working with another rich west-country voice, that of novelist and broadcaster Derek Robinson, we charted the experiences of British squaddies who ‘witnessed’ (the technical term) the UK’s H-bomb tests in the Pacific on, for instance, Christmas Island thirty years earlier. Robinson had compiled the (audio) interviews for a book, and I was working from transcripts. There was one interview he’d marked as not worth transcribing. I was naturally curious. When I put the tape on the machine, I could see why Derek had felt it added nothing of detail to his book material. But I also realised that, as radio, it was pure, authentic gold. Here was a broad Bristolian speaker (and as a Bristolian myself, I confess I was particularly susceptible) who, through his very inarticulacy, managed to convey the ineffable truth of his own horror. Listen to this:

Well, it was a lovely sight, mind. I’m not saying it wa’n’t. But. I don’t wan’ see ano’er bomb, mind. I wun’t see ano’er one. ‘Cos I think this was s’posed to be a li’l one, ’cording to ’em. This is a li’l bomb….Mind, I was frightened at first. Because you’re facin’ opp’site an’ you see the sky light up red… go past you, you know. And you felt this… this pressure at back o’ you. Ah wondered what it wuz. You know, I mean you… you know: “you felt that?” you know, sorta thing, like. You know. [laughs] “My God, there’s a bomb”, like. You know.

Even now, 31 years on, I can sense the terror tinged with humour of that man’s visceral response to something he couldn’t really understand. These squaddies were led into extreme peril by commanding officers and Westminster directives with no real notion of what it was like, or of the risks they were putting the men through. And here was one man, an ordinary soldier, doing what he was ordered, who responded with clarity, and some sensitivity but, above all, with unvarnished honesty to a situation that no young lad from Bedminster could have expected to find himself in.

Authentic, and how!

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