Speaking out against voiceovers

We are an envious nation, and it’s easy to see why.

We are an envious nation, and it’s easy to see why. While most of us toil at the north face of the earnings curve, scrabbling a few yards up, lungs bursting and fingers bleeding, only to be sent slithering back down by taxation, mortgage payments, utility bills and the outrageous cost of fitted kitchens, sunshine holidays and shiny cars, we can see, way up above us where the summit pierces a cloudless sky, a distant dot.

Take a strong pair of field glasses, raise them to a rheumy careworn eye, and the dot is plainly the fat backside of some undeserving sod who’s on to a well-paid racket. Focus again, and you’ll see there isn’t just one of them, there are thousands, all clawing their way to undeserved riches and the concomitant benefits of foaming jacuzzis, huge circular beds and huge foaming circular blondes.

It’s been a good few days for spotting the blighters. Princess Diana’s lawyers bung in a bill for 500,000 for three months’ work, including 20,000 for one employee for a month of unspecified toil; footballer Robbie Fowler asks for 50,000 a week, or 2,6m a year, in return for pledging his services to Liverpool for the next five years; and actor Steven Berkoff gets 25,000 for a few minutes spent in a recording studio plugging McDonald’s.

In fact, Berkoff got more than 25,000. He also received a chorus of exceptionally well elocuted catcalls, raspberries and boos from members of the actors’ union Equity who accused him of breaking industrial action. He is, however, but a minor villain. The truly nasty piece of work is the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, which wants to cut by two thirds the amount of money paid in repeat fees for voiceovers.

At present the equity rate is 79.90 and, with repeat fees, an actor might expect to be paid about 3,000 for an hour’s work at most. You can hear the squeals from the foothills. “Three grand for an hour? In the back pocket of some poncy luvvie for reciting a three-word slogan? That’s obscene. Another light and bitter, please luv. And a bag of dry-roasted.”

The artist Whistler had the answer. In response to the incredulous question “For two days’ labour, you ask two hundred guineas?” he replied “No, I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.” And so it is with our own dear friends from Equity. When you buy the voice of Helen Mirren, Joanna Lumley, Prunella Scales, or Tim Pigott-Smith, you buy not a random assemblage of sounds emanating from an untutored larynx (if you want that you listen to the reporters on BBC’s Nine O’clock News), you buy honed perfection.

As the actor Peter Egan says, it takes craft and talent to play a detergent. “If I am speaking as a detergent,” he explains, “I am going to be the most reassuring, non-abrasive detergent on the market.” There speaks a professional. A man who can deliver the silver tongued promise of a bottle of bleach in a few takes, an impossible achievement for an amateur.

A remarkable fact to emerge from the great voiceover debate is that the talking tortoise in the Creature Comforts electricity ads was the voice of a tax inspector from Bristol who was recorded for 132 hours to get 40 seconds. That meant that he spoke for the equivalent of five and a half days and nights, non-stop. One can see why he was cast as a tortoise, but what did he say in all that time? Definitely a man who could simultaneously clear his throat and a saloon bar.

As with all civil wars, the voiceover conflict is turning out to be exceptionally nasty. Harry Enfield, who admits to enjoying many a nice little earner from voiceovers and acting in commercials, exposes the rackets on the other side. In television, he says, it takes a day to shoot four minutes of screen time. In advertising the clients are conned into believing it takes a week to shoot 30 seconds. Successful scriptwriters in TV might earn about 100 per minute of copy produced. Copywriters in advertising may earn 50,000 for about ten minutes of copy per year.

It all comes down to supply and demand, says Enfield. Top artists are paid well for voiceovers because that’s what the market dictates. If clients think their ads are too expensive, there are many better ways of saving money than squeezing the small percentage actors get.

“Agencies, being skilled in the art of deception, cloak their own high costs in the mystique of creativity,” he adds. “The agencies are taking their clients for a ride.”

For a sound perspective on other people’s rackets we find the answer, perhaps surprisingly, in the words of veteran football analyst Jimmy Hill. Big money, he explains, is about respect. “Women have developed an enormous interest in young footballers. It’s not that players are better looking than than they used to be, but they’re more glamorous. Girls used to go for footballers until they were 15 then they’d start looking out for proper boys. Now they’re staying with the game. And players are respected, not looked down on.”

So if you think your agency is ripping you off, think again. It’s not money the adperson craves. It’s respect, glamour, and the enormous interest of the opposite sex. Is that too much to ask?

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