It was wonderful speak to business improvement consultant Michelle Dove at her home in-between Lockdowns 2.0 and 3.0. I was there to interview her for this short ‘About Me’ piece for her website. We talked about her work over the years as a specialist in Lean thinking and how she can help the film and fashion industries improve their processes, reduce costs, increase profits and become more efficient. To find out more about Michelle visit her website.
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.
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.
One of the things I love about producing Spoken Portraits is learning about how different things were in the past. Often, these discoveries come from the little details of a bigger story.
So it was with ‘Universal Aunts’. I was talking to someone about his childhood during and after the war. We got onto the subject of his education, and the fact that he went to boarding school on the south coast from the age of seven. During that period the family lived in various parts of East Anglia and Scotland for the father’s work in the Navy. How, I asked, did he and his brother find their way across the country at the start and end of term?
He answered that, if his mother were not able to travel with them, the boys would take the train to London by themselves (hard to imagine young boys travelling alone these days!). They would be met off the train either by one of their ‘real’ aunts who lived in the capital or by a ‘Universal Aunt’. Being an aunt myself with lots of children in my life, I was tickled by the idea of a Universal Aunt. He explained that ‘UAs, as they were always referred to, were comfortable aunt-like people who were there waiting on the station with a visible notice saying UA. They’d take us across London to meet the School Train [two carriages at Waterloo reserved for the returning pupils] stopping at a Moo-Cow Milk Bar or a Lyons Corner House for something to eat.’
I later did some digging on the internet. I found out that Universal Aunt was the official job title for employees of the Universal Aunts company who could be engaged to look after unaccompanied children. The business was established in 1921 by Gertrude Maclean, who herself had looked after her nieces and nephews during the first world war while her siblings were serving overseas. When the war ended and they returned to England she found herself redundant and, like so many women of her generation, unlikely ever to marry due to the huge number of men who had died in the war. Her brilliantly ingenious response to the situation was to make a business out of the business of being an aunt and help out other children whose parents were serving in the armed forces or away working in the colonies.
I was intrigued to learn that the Universal Aunts company still exists today. Their duties have expanded with the times to cover caring for older clients, pet sitting, house sitting and pretty much anything else their clients need help with. And, of course, they include women with families of their own as well as a good number of men.
A recent Radio Times article declared Desert Island Discs the greatest radio show of all time. Such was the verdict of a panel of industry experts including the Today programme’s Justin Webb and 6 Music’s Cerys Matthews. Of their 30 top-ranked shows, it was also one of the longest running (going since 1942), second only to The Shipping Forecast (which began in 1911).
So what explains the show’s popularity and longevity? Its’ producer Cathy Drysdale put it down to the “absolutely genius format [that] makes sure that each programme gets to the heart of people – what moves them and motivates them, what inspires them and enthuses them, who and what they care about. Those are all such incredibly human things that are applicable to absolutely everybody listening.”
The format is of course structured around music: the eight records that each person chooses to take with them to a desert island, which form the soundtrack to their lives, and give a window into their values and joys.
But it’s not just the music. For me, the programme is as much about the space that the presenters give to their castaways to tell their stories, and the kindness they show when talking to them about their struggles and vulnerabilities.
We take inspiration from the show when producing our Spoken Portraits. We don’t generally structure things around music. But, as in Desert Island Discs, the aim of our interviews is to create a space where people can talk freely about their lives, knowing we will respond with interest, humour and sensitivity. And our goal when editing the material together is to give the listener an intimate connection with the subject and what makes them tick.
We spent a glorious morning in Poole Harbour last week, foraging for seaweed with fisherman Pete Miles. The trip was for one of the ‘Meet the Maker’ podcasts that we’re producing for LUSH cosmetics who use the weed in their face masks. Fascinating to find out all about ‘toothed wrack’ (pictured) against a rich sonic background of Brownsea Island sandwich terns, splashing water, engine noises and seagulls.
By way of an update to this post, you can listen to the finished podcast here.
This is the first in a series of ‘Meet the Maker’ podcasts that we are producing for LUSH cosmetics, in collaboration with Cathy Haynes. The aim is to give a sensory rich insight into the craft of making.
Here, we follow Master Paper Maker Gary Fuller at Frogmore Mill, Apsley as he produces a new kind of packaging paper using banana fibre. When the machines were rolling the Mill was incredibly noisy! The challenge for us was both to capture Gary’s voice as cleanly as possibly, and to record and mix in the mechanical sounds so as to give the listener the feeling of being inside the Mill as the paper was being made.