Ian McMillan: When the writing really is what you ‘ear

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I’m in a little studio, about to record a test for a voiceover for a TV advert, and because of that I’ve eaten no cheese for 24 hours and no chocolate for 24 hours and I’ve made sure that there’s never any milk in my tea. Chocolate and dairy products can (to use a Barnsley term) play pop with your voice and so it’s best to avoid them if you’ve got to do some spouting for cash. If you do end up accidentally chomping any of the forbidden nosh it can make your vocal chords sound thick and syrupy and you can get a job as captain of the Yorkshire Throat-Clearing Team.

Doing voiceovers is a strange way to pass the day; you have to say each word as clearly as you can, you have to emphasise each word in different ways, you have to really concentrate on the tiny packages of letters and inflections and pauses and shards of empty air that make up a word. And, of course, you say the same sentence dozens of times, like a broken record. (Kids: get your grandparents to explain to you what a broken record is.)

Then I’m out of the recording studio into an autumn evening and I’m on the train home but because I’ve spent ages in that little room with those headphones on I’m still concentrating on words, on fragments of words, on those shards I mentioned earlier. A man on the seat in front of me is on his phone. “I’m trying to catch Richard,” he’s saying in an accent that seems tied to the streets of Leeds.

I examine each of his words carefully, as though I’m about to say them in a voiceover. Why is he trying to catch Richard? Is Richard falling from somewhere? A tree, perhaps? I mutter some words that could be in an advert: “Don’t be like Richard. Don’t fall out of a tree. Get somebody to catch you…”

I notice that people are staring at me. Was I muttering more audibly than I thought? Was I saying the words really loudly? I sit quietly, but I notice that people are really staring at me, as they walk up and down the train and as they sit near me. I smile at a couple of them, thinking that perhaps they’ve recognised me from my many media appearances but they look away, embarrassed. As I scuttle through Doncaster station people gaze at me, laughing and pointing. I check my zip: up. I check my shoes: laced. I get home and sit on the settee with a cuppa.

Now my wife’s staring at me; surely she’s not recognising me from my many media appearances, is she? “You’ve got biro on your ear” she says. I look in the mirror and, by gum, I have. I’ve got Blue Ear, which sounds like a disease of sheep. I go upstairs to wash it off and I notice something amazing: I appear to have big false Elvis sideburns down the side of my face. I look ridiculous, like a grey Teddy Boy whose facial hair is a different colour to that on his head. So where have these lines on my face and my ear come from? Ah, of course: the headphones in the studio! I was wearing them for hours and they must have been a bit dusty and the muck has transferred to my head and my lugs!

Voiceovers: all about choosing the right way to say a few words. Well, I said a few choice words about those headphones, I can tell you!