There are certain places in London that everyone knows, but no one has ever been to. We know the Tube terminates at Upminster… but has anyone actually been there? What about Uxbridge? And does anyone really catch the Tube all the way to Morden? I guess you’d have to, as surely one does not simply walk into Morden. The semi-mythical status of these places is no-doubt cemented in our minds by the fact that they’re announced on the Tube by something akin to the voice of God. The tube announcers' voices are all so familiar to us… but who actually are they?
Curiously, finding the people behind the announcements can be rather tricky. One source tells me that in at least one case, Transport for London (TfL), which runs the Tube, has required its voice artist to sign a non-disclosure agreement about their work, meaning they can’t talk about it. Here, however, are the people we have managed to, ahem, track down.
For 15 years Tim Bentinck was the voice of all of the station announcements on the Piccadilly Line between King's Cross and Earl’s Court, though you might recognise him for some of his other work. As well as a voice-over artist, Tim is an actor, having starred in the likes of The Thick Of It and Twenty Twelve. However, he's perhaps best-known as the voice of David Archer in Radio 4’s The Archers. (He’s a children’s author on the side, too.)
I asked Tim if he ever gets recognised for his Tube announcements work. He told me: “People who knew me sometimes said, ‘Is that your voice on the Tube?’, but I don’t think any Archers listener ever made the connection, it was so out of context. My two sons used to feel comforted growing up and travelling on the Tube to feel that their dad was looking out for them. I sometimes used to hope that loud-mouthed tourists taking the mickey would fall down the gap so I could lean down and say, ‘I warned you!’”
So is Tim a regular Tube user himself? Was it weird when he heard his own voice? “I am, and yes it was. Now I’m very critical of others, particularly the dreadful amateur who is the voice of the lifts at Caledonian Road – wrong on almost every possible front!”
Sadly for Tim, it turns out that being the voice of the Tube isn’t as lucrative as you might think. For his efforts telling passengers which gaps to mind and what bags not to leave unattended, he was paid a measly £200 on a 'buy out' contract, so they could use it as often as they like. That’s barely enough for a Zone 1-4 monthly travelcard.
Perhaps the most famous voice of the Tube, Emma Clarke hit the headlines for the wrong reason back in 2007: she got sacked. The voice of the Victoria, Bakerloo and Central Lines, Emma was told she wouldn’t be offered any more work because she had supposedly criticised the Tube and recorded some spoof Tube announcements:
TfL was apparently unhappy that she called the Tube “dreadful”, though at the time Clarke argued that she was saying that travelling on the Tube would be dreadful for her, because she would have to hear her own voice. According to the contemporary BBC report, she was let go because of the perceived criticism and not the spoofs, which the agency admitted were funny.
In a not-particularly-classy statement, TfL made a joke of its own, saying, “Some of the spoof announcements are very funny. But Emma is a bit silly to go around slagging off her client’s services. London Underground is sorry to have to announce that further contracts for Miss Clarke are experiencing severe delays.”
These days, Clarke is still a voice-over artist. She has written a number of books too, as well as contributed to a bunch of BBC programmes.
Oswald Laurence’s voice was originally heard all over the northbound Northern Line platforms on the Tube network, until his recordings were phased out. Laurence died in 2007, leaving behind his widow, Margaret McCollum, who would regularly visit Embankment -- the last station featuring his voice.
When his “Mind the gap” recording was finally phased out, McCollum wrote to TfL and asked for a recording, which the organisation dutifully provided. TfL followed-up with something extremely kind (and publicity-savvy), restoring Oswald’s voice to the station.
The original voice of “Mind the gap” was Peter Lodge, who first recorded the catchphrase in 1968. According to the Little Book of the London Underground, he was an engineer working for recording studio Redan Recorders near Bayswater, who was working with German company AEG Telefunken to supply the Underground with its first record playback devices.
Originally, it was intended that an actor would be paid to provide the recording, but when said actor insisted on royalties, they instead used the voice of Peter. It would be some years later when the Underground management would figure out how to get around the issue of royalties (more on that later).
Keith Wilson was another person who seemed to get the job accidentally. He worked for Milton Keynes company PA Communications as the industrial sales manager, and in 1990 his dulcet tones were chosen for parts of the Tube network. Apparently his voice can still be heard at Paddington.
Phil Sayer & Elinor Hamilton
Phil Sayer and Elinor Hamilton are a couple who are both voice artists and have both appeared on the London Underground on the Northern, Piccadilly and Jubilee Lines, though they tell me that their voices are licensed for use across the whole Tube network, should TfL want to do so.
Their voices might be familiar to travellers on other trains too, as they also feature on Southern and South Eastern railways. “Stand on Victoria or Waterloo – I never seem to shut up”, Phil quips. The couple joke that they are “Britain’s most apologetic couple”, because of the number of apology messages they have recorded.
Another voice of the Piccadilly Line (and we believe its current voice) is voice artist Julie Berry, who also appears as the voice of C2C, London Midland and South Eastern trains, as well as tonnes of documentaries, adverts and so on. She says she got the gig for the Piccadilly Line because London Underground wanted someone to provide some “classic BBC English”, and she speculates this is because Heathrow airport is at the end of the line (so you'd want visitors to the country to be able to understand announcements).
“I live on the Piccadilly line so I use it regularly. It’s not strange to me hearing my voice because I’ve been doing voiceovers for so long that I’m used to it”, she told me via email. However, sadly, people she meets in real life don’t tend to realise that it's her voice. “People only seem to associate a voice with a person if they either know the person, or if the voice is a distinctive one of someone well-known. I once went into my local greengrocer’s shop and they had the radio on. A commercial I had voiced was playing out as I asked the guy for a pound of sprouts. He didn’t bat an eyelid (like I said, they don’t put the two things together) but I couldn’t help smiling!”
So is the voice we hear telling us that the train will terminate at Cockfosters, or that we’re stuck at a red signal actually her voice? Does she really sound like that? “I don’t do anything special with my voice for announcements -- simply try to make it friendly but with authority”, she told me. However, getting the inflection right is important. “Very often you record the variable things as separate phrases, which are then put together by a computer when an announcement is played out. So the inflections have to be right, to make the whole phrase sound natural and as if it had been recorded as one thing.”
Bonus! Emma Hignett
And finally… while not a voice on the London Underground (as far as we’re aware), one final person that should be innately familiar to Londoners is Emma Hignett, who's the voice of London’s bus network. According to one Freedom of Information request, she appears to have supplied TfL with around 17,000 recordings, which seemingly include every bus stop in the capital.
Perhaps having not learned from the Emma Clarke debacle, in 2014 TfL hosted a big 'Year of the Bus' event which closed off Regent’s Street and filled it with a bunch of classic buses (including, of course, the Routemaster). At the event, TfL got Emma Hignett to record custom messages for visitors… which led to one mischievous bus user getting her to record this barb aimed at Mayor Boris Johnson’s vanity buses, which have a massive problem with air conditioning.
— Paul (@bitoclass) June 22, 2014
On her website, Hignett says, “Being the Voice of London’s buses is quite possibly the best voice-over job ever”, and explains how some bus users have gone as far as contacting her to complain about pronunciation. Though her favourite messages are ones that simply say, “You just told me to sit down on the upper deck!”