I commissioned Rosie to produce a surprise Spoken Portrait for my mum’s 80th birthday. I was quite nervous about the process and Rosie guided me through with reassuring professionalism and sensitivity. She expertly broke down this big undertaking into manageable stages and I knew I was in good hands all the way through.
Rosie has a way of setting people at ease with her warmth and genuine interest. She managed to collect some moving and priceless memories that will be treasured forever. It was a huge success – a very highly recommended gift and altogether rewarding experience!
— Naomi, London
In these strange Covid times where parties are out of the question, I am increasingly being commissioned to make tribute-style Spoken Portraits as a surprise birthday or wedding gift. To produce them I interview and gather messages from friends and relatives over the phone or internet. I then weave together their stories and well-wishes into a seamless affectionate entertaining piece about the ‘sitter’ and what’s great about them.
I love hearing about how surprised, touched and delighted people are when they get to listen to their Spoken Portrait on the big day. I like to imagine the recipient sitting with a few close family members out in a garden, yet feeling the warm glow of friendship from perhaps 20 loved ones as their voices come in, one after another. It’s wonderful to be able to create such a meaningful, memorable centrepiece for a celebration that might otherwise feel rather low-key.
I’m always excited to get these kinds of commissions. The process is a journey of discovery as I gradually form a picture of someone I don’t know by speaking to people I’ve never met before. On the way, I’ll hear hilarious and unlikely stories and discover fascinating details of social history.
Sometimes people really surprise me. One man began his message for an 80th birthday girl with a spirited rendition of Happy Birthday. Another gave two readings from Saint Augustin, one in English and the other in Hebrew!
It can be a challenge to find ways to incorporate these marvellously left-field contributions. But they always make the feature richer and more colourful. As one recipient put it, what’s so lovely about a tribute-style Spoken Portrait is that it is as much about the person’s friends as it is about they themselves. And in these days of lockdowns and social isolation, how much more we crave their company and love.
You can find out more about our Spoken Portraits and listen to clips here.
It was such a delight to produce this surprise Spoken Portrait of a very special 50th birthday boy. As he’s a keen historian, I came up with the idea of an affectionate, humorous audio portrait of ‘Adam Through The Ages’. I divided it into tracks called ‘Adam at 10’, ‘Adam at 15’ and so on, and asked friends from different stages of his life to paint a picture of what he was like. As it was lockdown, I couldn’t visit any of them for face-to-face ‘real-life’ interviews. So instead I interviewed most of the contributors over the internet and gathered voice messages from the rest. I heard from 22 people in all, from San Francisco to India. After some very careful editing (657 cuts!) and sound engineering, the final feature came to 50 minutes.
Here’s a 3 minute taster.
And here’s what the birthday boy had to say after his family played it to him on the big day.
What a wonderful surprise! I love it. It’s so nice to listen to as it is as much about my friends as it is about me. You have done a fabulous job weaving all the voices together to deliver great material, and the shape and tone of the editing is brilliant. It’s the gift I never knew I wanted, but will always treasure.
You can find out more about our Spoken Portraits and audio tributes here.
Some personal reflections on the wedding tributes we are producing for couples who have had to cancel their big day because of Coronavirus lockdown
I’ve been to some fabulous weddings of very dear friends and family over the years. But, if I’m completely honest, I didn’t really ‘get’ the whole marriage thing until recently. I think it had a lot to do with being gay and that quite painful sense that this was an institution from which my partner and I were excluded. Then, a couple of years after the laws were changed, we got married ourselves (that’s us in the photo!) and the penny dropped. The big revelation for me was the amount of love we felt on our big day – not just for each other (obviously!), but for and from all our family and friends.
Having had such a wonderful experience myself, I feel huge sympathy for couples who are having to postpone their weddings because of coronavirus social distancing. So it’s a real pleasure to be able to produce Audio Tributes for them.
One example is a couple — both NHS workers — who were due to marry in April. The sister of the bride-to-be approached me about producing something as a surprise gift. We discussed who would be good to speak to and she sounded them out about getting involved. I then set up and conducted recorded telephone and internet interviews with nine of the couple’s closest friends and family, and gathered voice messages from a further five.
After some very absorbing work mastering the sound quality and editing things into shape, the final feature took the form of a 25 minute ‘Lockdown Special’ tribute from people all over the country and even in Singapore. Between them they told the story of the couple and what’s great about them, and sent their well wishes. Here are some edited excerpts:
What struck me most from all the conversations and messages was the amount of love everyone had for the couple. There’s something rather magical about being able to capture that and bring it all together. Here’s what the bride-to-be said about it:
“Thank you so much for putting together the lockdown special. Everyone knew how disappointed we were when we had to postpone the wedding. It really was brilliant to hear my friends and family say those wonderful things. It really brightened up our day/week/month/year! I laughed a lot, I cried a lot, and smiled till my face couldn’t take it!”
I like to think the tribute helped to recreate that warm fuzzy loved-up feeling that the couple would otherwise have had on their big day – as we did on ours.
If you would like to arrange an Audio Tribute for a couple you know, we’d love to hear from you.
Here’s a short audio story we produced about a very attentive telephone operator in the 1950s. It’s told by one of my favourite raconteurs who we spoke to over the landline a couple of weeks into lockdown.
I spend a huge amount of time listening back over recorded interviews when I’m working on Spoken Portraits and podcasts. Once I have organised and cut the ‘tape’ into a flowing, engaging story, there’s the question of all those hesitations. There can be hundreds of ‘ums’, ‘ers’ and long pauses in a lengthy interview, adding up to several minutes (I make no criticism here: I’m a big ‘ummer’). I love capturing the way people sound when they speak naturally. But there’s a balance to be struck between realism and holding the listener’s attention!
Here are a few ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ salvaged from the cutting room floor that I’ve mixed together. I like to think of it as the sound of people thinking.
Are you thinking about commissioning a Spoken Portrait for someone who may be self-isolating at home? Perhaps you know someone who is planning a wedding or special birthday party but guests may not be able to come because of movement restrictions. A telephone-based Spoken Portrait or Audio Tribute is a great way to capture their stories. Here’s an example of how it works, from a few years ago. If the idea appeals and you’d like to find our more, we’d love to hear from you. You’ll find our contact details at the bottom of the page.
I was asked to produce an Audio Tribute to a very special mother for her eightieth birthday. Her children were planning a surprise party and the idea was to present a This Is Your Life style collection of memories told by her oldest friends and family. The problem was that there was neither the time nor the budget for me to interview everyone face-to-face as they were based all over England, in Sweden and even in the USA. The solution, however, was simple: we did the whole thing by telephone.
It was all very straightforward. Her son put me in touch with everyone and explained what we were planning. I arranged a time to ring each of them — nine people in all. I recorded the calls and then edited the material into a feature that her children played to her on the big day. I’m told there wasn’t a dry eye in the room!
The full 18 minute feature included stories spanning 80 years woven together in chronological order, and intercut with music sung by one of the interviewees and his band. Here are a few of the most touching tributes including one recorded over the landline to Arizona.
Since we first posted this, we have also produced Spoken Portraits and Audio Tributes based on internet interviews: a great technique for the more tech savvy. Read about one of the Audio Tributes we produced purely from internet interviews, and listen to excerpts.
Sometimes I get asked to collaborate with video makers on sound. Here’s a delightful example. It’s a short testimonial-style film about a day learning how to think, work and communicate more visually with Scriberia Academy.
Naturally, the visual side of things is terrific: Oz Maqsood is a star, and is intercut with some cracking animations by the Scriberia studio. But so often in video great visuals are let down by poor quality sound and intrusive background noise. I was hired to come in with broadcast quality equipment and capture crisp audio of Oz as he was being interviewed. It was a small job, but the results were well worth making that little extra effort.
Image: Crying Girl by Roy Lichtenstein, 1964
Sometimes when I’m interviewing someone for a Spoken Portrait I learn things about the past that really shock me.
An extreme example came out of a conversation with a lawyer who had for a time specialised in family law. We were talking about women’s rights and in particular how things have changed for married women, and she gave the example of victims of domestic abuse (thankfully, this did not affect her personally).
Back in the 1950s it was generally denied that domestic violence happened at all. If a woman was being abused by her husband she might confide in her GP. Typically, however, doctors would respond as if it were a problem with the wife and not her partner. So, if she had been suffering as a result from depression and panic attacks the doctor would focus on that. Worse still, it was quite common for doctors to recommend that women in this situation be lobotomised (yes, you read that right).
A lobotomy, if you don’t already know, is a procedure that involves severing connections in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex. It used to be a standard medical treatment for mental disorders ranging from depression to schizophrenia. The idea was that the surgery would cut off the source of the patient’s feelings of extreme anguish. The price for this, though, was that they would generally be left emotionally numb and intellectually impaired: think Jack Nicholson at the end of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
The majority of lobotomy patients were women. 5% of patients died. Some were left suicidal, others severely brain damaged.
It takes conversations like these to appreciate just how much the world can change in a lifetime. Thankfully, the practice of lobotomising people with mental health issues was banned in most countries by the 1970s in favour of modern psychiatric drugs and therapies. Depressingly, there seems to be no end to domestic abuse. But thanks to the efforts of women’s rights campaigners, it is at least now recognised as a serious criminal offence rather than a problem with the victim. Law reforms mean that those who wish to stay at home with their children can apply to do so and have their partner excluded, where before they would have had to leave if the house was owned in the husband’s name. And those that dare not stay can seek safety in the network of women’s refuges started by Erin Pizzey in the 1970s.
Image: Musician Meta Maclean (an escort) conducts CORB evacuees to Australia aboard MS Batory in 1940.
As a childhood fan of Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Carrie’s War, I grew up with a keen interest in stories about children evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz. But I had no idea that some children were evacuated to the other side of the world.
The topic came up in an interview with a man for a Spoken Portrait. When the war started he was boarding at an English prep school as his parents were based in what was then Ceylon. When the public school that he was due to attend was bombed it was felt that the best thing would be for him to return to Ceylon. Soon after he arrived, though, Singapore fell to the Japanese. Fearing an invasion, all expat children were advised to leave the island. So, he headed to Australia where he stayed with a local family and went to boarding school until the end of the war.
His was a ‘private evacuation’ by a rather indirect route. I was surprised to discover that some 2,664 British children were evacuated directly to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and the USA by the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB). The Board was set up in 1940 after Dunkirk when the country feared an imminent German invasion. The evacuations involved perilous journeys on converted ocean liners through war zones dodging U-Boats. One such ship SS City of Benares was torpedoed and sunk on its way to Canada. 77 of the 90 child evacuees aboard died. The tragedy led to the CORB programme being abandoned in September that year.
Each child evacuated abroad no doubt had different experiences there. I’m glad to say these were happy years for the man I interviewed. Perhaps the toughest part was the return to the UK. First, there was the question of how to get back. There were limited boats available and thousands of British troops who also needed repatriating. CORB evacuees had priority. For people like him, the options were either to wait many months for a place on a ship or to work your passage. For all children who had spent years apart from their parents, it must have been hard readjusting to family life. And I can only imagine how grim cold damp austerity Britain must have seemed. Perhaps unsurprisingly at least one-third of the children evacuated to sunny Australia eventually returned to live there.
Did the war mean crossing continents for you? I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences.