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The Voice

1 Jul

Let me say it right now. If a search engine pulled up this post because you’re looking for the American reality-TV singing competition called The Voice, you’re in the wrong place. The only Voice in question here is that of British actor Jeremy Northam. An educated guess on my part says that Mr. Northam would rather have bamboo sticks shoved under his fingernails than sing on a reality show. Well, I’ve never met the man, so for all I know he’s actually pining to be asked to sing on Pop Idol… I just wouldn’t put any money on it, if I were you.

If you’re still reading this then you probably know that the Jer Blog is exactly the right place to be if the subject is great voices. You know that Jeremy’s is a truly glorious voice, one that deserves to be referred to in initial capital letters. So let’s give The Voice our full attention. I mean his speaking voice, of course. Although he was wonderful when he sang as Ivor Novello in Gosford Park, modest Jeremy disparages his singing and sticks to roles that don’t require him to use that particular talent.

It’s not exactly breaking news that his speaking voice causes people to sit up and take notice; critics as well as admirers have long heralded it as one of the features, along with his good looks and oodles of acting talent, that make him such an arresting presence on screen. Adjectives used to describe his voice include melodious, deep, rich, resonant, seductive and mellifluous.

I was a little fuzzy on the exact meaning of that last word, so I looked up mellifluous in my Merriam-Webster’s (11th ed.) and found this definition: “having a smooth rich flow.” Jeremy’s voice certainly does have that quality. The word’s roots are in the Latin for “honey” (mel) and “to flow” (fluere). Honey suggests sweetness, which is also entirely appropriate here. Now add to those ideas my own phrase, “capable of making a grown woman melt into a puddle,” and you’re approaching a good description of the Northam Voice. Don’t take my word for it: a female interviewer once called it “one of the sexiest voices Hollywood has ever pumped through loudspeakers.” I guess she was left feeling a little “puddly” after hearing The Voice, too.

Sir Robert Morton, 'The Winslow Boy'

A great voice is a gift, but Jeremy has taken his gift and honed it like a fine instrument. He has learned how to bring out all its varied qualities and use it to its best advantage. He can make the rafters ring with its most sonorous tones or draw the listener in close with its most intimate murmurs. He can give it the gentle touch of a butterfly’s wing or the hard, cold edge of steel. He can make us laugh with its silliest accents or move us to tears with its heartfelt emotion. Although you can hear the effect time and cigarette smoke have had—it’s deeper and gruffer than it was twenty years ago—his voice has lost none of its strength. Rather the reverse is true, I think. With every year that passes, with each new role, Jeremy comes closer to realizing the full extent of its power.

Dr Matt Proctor, 'Miami Medical'

His voice has been in my mind quite a bit lately, and probably in yours too, because it has been a year since we’ve seen the man—since we saw Dr. Matt Proctor gazing off into the sunshine from the roof of MT One in the final frame of Miami Medical. While going a year without seeing Jeremy Northam is definitely a bad thing, it’s not as bad as going a year without seeing or hearing him. He has at least made his presence felt this past year by putting his splendid voice to excellent use in several audiobooks.

Nor is going a year with only his voice as devastating as it would be if we were talking about a lot of other actors, because Jeremy is an extremely talented audiobook performer. I use the word performer and not reader or narrator purposely; it is the only term that does justice to the way his considerable acting skill brings to life the words on the page. Whether reading narration, exposition or dialogue, he is adept at creating atmosphere and characters by giving his voice various inflections (arch, indignant, dejected) or qualities (raspy, smooth, velvety).

Dean Martin, 'Martin and Lewis'

In an audiobook Jeremy gets to play every part. His use of accents and those wide-ranging voice effects make for characters as vivid as any he’s given us on screen. I don’t need to see gloomy Puddleglum in The Silver Chair or breathy, effete Antony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited to be left helpless with laughter at their comic antics. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, the voice Jeremy gives Jack Miller, the narrator of Dark Matter, is so moving that it literally haunted me for days after I finished listening to Michelle Paver’s ghost story.

For a Master Class on Audiobook Acting just listen to the European Traders’ Association Lunch passage in Our Man in Havana. I’ve lost count of how many different accents and voices he creates in the scene, but it’s a jaw-dropping tour de force which is nonetheless completely in service to the story. Jeremy’s voice effects always add to, and never distract from, our appreciation of an author’s words. For more on his audiobook performances, I refer you to Gill’s excellent Jer Blog reviews of Down and Out in Paris and London, The Aspern Papers, Dark Matter and most recently Homage to Catalonia.

Lane Woolwrap, 'Guy X'

Of course, given our druthers, we like to see as well as hear Jeremy’s acting virtuosity. I’ve been aware for a while now that how a character sounds is part of the persona he creates, but recently, with the audiobook work in the forefront of my mind, I’ve been reconsidering how he utilizes his voice when he’s acting. To what degree does he alter his voice? How? And to what effect?

When I think of Jeremy modifying his voice for a role, his uncanny Dean Martin impersonation in Martin and Lewis leaps to my mind. It shows how completely he can change the way he speaks and sustain it throughout a performance. Another obvious way he changes his voice is the nearly flawless American accent he has adopted for a number of films. Yet think how different from one another Walter Hagen’s heartiness, Morgan Sullivan’s mildness and Lane Woolwrap’s gruffness sound; Jeremy’s not just “doing an American accent” for those roles.

Heseltine and Warlock, 'Voices from a Locked Room'

Now consider his two characters in Voices from a Locked Room; they sound quite unlike each other, too. Philip Heseltine’s smooth, educated accents and Peter Warlock’s deep working-class growl are distinct enough that until we see Warlock for the first time 43 minutes into the film, the secret about the two men is almost as hidden from us as it is from Lily Buxton.

Prince Amerigo, 'The Golden Bowl'

What about the controversial Italian accent Jeremy has as Prince Amerigo in The Golden Bowl? Yes, it’s distracting at first to hear him speak with that accent, but for me it very quickly becomes part of the character, like his beard or the expressive hand gestures. Even if you think it the most ludicrous Italian accent ever perpetrated, which I am far from doing, it serves a vital purpose. It reminds us more effectively than anything else could that Amerigo is a foreigner; and that, however fluent in English he may be, he speaks a different language than the other characters. Without the accent we lose a key to understanding both the Prince’s motivations and also one of the film’s important themes.

Clearly the voice Jeremy chooses for a character isn’t just pulled out of the air; it’s thoughtfully designed to inform the character’s identity and personality. Let’s go back to Morgan Sullivan in Cypher. Changes in his appearance signal the gradual transformation Morgan undergoes as the story progresses, but Jeremy adds to the effect by subtly altering the way he sounds as well. His voice starts out soft, hesitant and with a nasal timbre, a typical nerd’s voice. (You know the line. Say it with me now: “Independent contractor.”) But this quality disappears along with Morgan’s eyeglasses and the Brylcreem in his hair. A slight deepening and strengthening of his voice accompany those visual clues.

With Lucy Liu in 'Cypher'

The best place to examine Jeremy’s vocal dexterity in Cypher is the hotel bar scene. Morgan is chatting with a group of salesmen when he spots Rita Foster sitting at the bar. After he removes his glasses, he sits down next to her, lights up a cigarette and orders a drink. As you watch the scene, he becomes more masculine and attractive. Now try closing your eyes and listening to the scene (yes, I know, but do it anyway!). Compare how he sounds when he’s talking to the other men to when he orders his Scotch, feeds Rita that first line, and begins trying to pick her up. He starts to sound more masculine and attractive, doesn’t he? Until she shuts him down with the “no rings” remark, that is. Then the glasses reappear and so does the nerdy voice. By the end of the movie, when Jeremy looks like a sex god incarnate we shouldn’t be surprised that he thoroughly sounds the part as well. (My definition of a sex god includes a British accent, you see.)

Randolph Henry Ash, 'Possession'

Pick pretty much any character Jeremy has played and you’ll be able to hear the understated changes he makes to his voice to suit the character’s persona. Recently I had occasion to watch Possession and Enigma on successive days and I was struck by not only how different his characters look in the two films but also how different they sound. I started thinking about what makes them sound so different. First, Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash and WWII Secret Service Agent Wigram are obviously distinguishable by their vocabularies and diction. Ash speaks in images such as “a brilliant dusty hutch of mysteries” and “walked the landscape of my life,” while Wigram uses slangy phrases like “crack codebreaker,” “shiny new shooter” and “seeing each other’s brains out.” And they are worlds apart in tone, too. Ash is earnest and heartfelt, while Wigram is sarcastic and detached.

But it’s more than differences in word choice or vocal inflection; Jeremy actually changed his voice to give each character a unique sound. For Ash, he used his lower vocal registers and emphasized what I think of as the “velvet” quality of his voice. Ash’s voice is deep but hushed; it caresses your ear, brushing against it as if it had an actual nap. Wigram’s voice, by contrast, really is smooth as silk. Jeremy accentuated the higher and lighter components of his voice for the snarky spy. Wigram’s words glide and slip insinuatingly into your ear.

Wigram in 'Enigma'

Many other actors would have been content to use their regular speaking voices for these roles. Unlike most of the other parts I mentioned, here there is no absolute reason for an alteration of his voice. He’s not imitating a famous person, establishing a character’s nationality, underscoring a personality change, or distinguishing between two characters he’s playing simultaneously. But nevertheless, he makes Ash sound like a passionate man under the spell of an all-consuming love affair, and he gives Wigram the voice of a man whose job is ferreting out secrets among people he considers his inferiors. Their voices fit these two very different men perfectly. That Jeremy completes the characterizations with his voice shows what a consummate actor he is. It also gives new insight into the famous Northam ability to disappear into a role.

Although I have seen both movies many times, this was the first time I noticed this aspect of Jeremy’s portrayals of Ash and Wigram. The change in his voice is subtle, doesn’t call attention to itself, and yet it is as essential to defining their characters as their hairstyles are. You could no more exchange their voices than you could switch Ash’s flowing mane with Wigram’s clipped and pomaded cut. Just try to imagine hearing Wigram’s voice say ”I know you live very quietly, but I could be quiet.” or Ash’s voice say “Think of all those Polish names in the U.S. of A.”

Completely absurd, isn’t it?

Almost as absurd as trying to imagine any other actor playing R.H. Ash or Wigram. Or trying to imagine Jeremy Northam singing on an American reality-TV show.

by LauraP

The “one of the sexiest voices” quote comes from a JN interview on The Winslow Boy by Jane Wollman Rusoff for Entertainment News Service, 6/1999.

The JN audio recordings I mentioned that aren’t reviewed by Gill elsewhere in the Jer Blog are: The Silver Chair, by C.S. Lewis, HarperAudio (2004); Brideshead Revisited (abridged), by Evelyn Waugh, CSA Word (2008); Our Man in Havana, by Graham Greene, CSA Word (2009). They are readily available from the usual outlets in both CD and downloadable audio format, as is most of JN’s superb audiobook work.

As always, thanks to Gill for allowing me to contribute to the Jer Blog and for doing such a terrific job choosing the pictures that accompany my posts.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, read by Jeremy Northam

23 May

Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell, read by Jeremy Northam

Orwell’s prose, Northam’s voice – it’s a marriage made in heaven and easily the most lucid breakdown around of the Spanish civil war.

Sue Arnold, Guardian, 21 May 2011

Jeremy Northam can hardly be said to be ubiquitous these days, so his new audiobook, Homage to Catalonia (published by CSA Word) is like a much longed for glass of sangria to his parched admirers.

Jeremy’s last audiobook for CSA Word was George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. You can read my thoughts about that here. I enjoyed it enormously, so I was delighted to discover Jeremy had been asked to read Orwell’s account of his involvement in the Spanish Civil War.

I must begin by exposing my ignorance. I knew nothing very much about the Spanish Civil War beyond having seen a documentary or two, and I can’t say I’ve ever been inspired to find out more. Until now. The ‘marriage made in heaven’ Sue Arnold describes has suddenly rendered the subject fascinating!

George Orwell spent from December 1936 until June 1937 in northern Spain, wanting to fight against fascism. He travelled to Barcelona, and more by luck than choice, joined the P.O.U.M. militia. The P.O.U.M. were an independent Trotskyist political party, opposed to Stalin.

At the beginning of his war experience, Orwell was, by his own admission, largely ignorant of the factions and complexities involved in the political situation. The novel charts both his discovery of the political reality and his disenchantment with Stalinist communism. Orwell’s experiences of fighting with (and the Stalinist repression of) the P.O.U.M. heavily influenced his political views, and his later novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four in particular.

I’m afraid, no matter how beautifully written or read, for me, politics alone is a dry diet, and being rather a dim bulb about such things, I did struggle to grasp the whys and wherefores. Happily, there is so much more to make this novel the great book it undoubtedly is.

The road wound between yellow infertile fields, untouched since last year’s harvest. Ahead of us was the low sierra that lies between Alcubierre and Zaragoza. We were getting near the front line now, near the bombs, the machine-guns, and the mud. In secret I was frightened. I knew the line was quiet at present, but unlike most of the men about me I was old enough to remember the Great War, though not old enough to have fought in it. War, to me, meant roaring projectiles and skipping shards of steel; above all it meant mud, lice, hunger, and cold. It is curious, but I dreaded the cold much more than I dreaded the enemy. The thought of it had been haunting me all the time I was in Barcelona; I had even lain awake at nights thinking of the cold in the trenches, the stand-to’s in the grisly dawns, the long hours on sentry-go with a frosted rifle, the icy mud that would slop over my boot-tops. I admit, too, that I felt a kind of horror as I looked at the people I was marching among. You cannot possibly conceive what a rabble we looked. We straggled along with far less cohesion than a flock of sheep; before we had gone two miles the rear of the column was out of sight. And quite half of the so-called men were children–but I mean literally children, of sixteen years old at the very most. Yet they were all happy and excited at the prospect of getting to the front at last. As we neared the line the boys round the red flag in front began to utter shouts of ‘Visca P.O.U.M.!’ ‘Fascistas–maricones!’ and so forth–shouts which were meant to be war-like and menacing, but which, from those childish throats, sounded as pathetic as the cries of kittens. It seemed dreadful that the defenders of the Republic should be this mob of ragged children carrying worn-out rifles which they did not know how to use. I remember wondering what would happen if a Fascist aeroplane passed our way, whether the airman would even bother to dive down and give us a burst from his machine–gun. Surely even from the air he could see that we were not real soldiers?

George Orwell with the P.O.U.M. at the Aragon front (Orwell is the tall man, third from the left)

The reality of trench warfare is not the hand to hand combat Orwell imagines, but frustrating, cold and lice-ridden. Whilst on leave in Barcelona, Orwell is caught up in street fighting against, not fascists, but factions within what he assumed was his own side. His appreciation of the complex realities of the war, and his view of communism, are transformed. On his return to the front, he is shot in the throat and, back again in Barcelona, is forced to flee as the P.O.U.M. is outlawed. Orwell’s account of what really happened is at odds with the propaganda published at the time, and Homage to Catalonia is now regarded as one of the few honest, first-hand accounts of this aspect of the war.

Homage to Catalonia is a beautifully written, vivid account of  a man’s journey from idealistic naivety to enlightened disillusionment. There are edge-of-the-seat, life or death moments, and in amongst the chaos of war, characteristic wry humour. Though I can’t say I easily understood all the intricacies of the political situation (I did say I was a dim bulb!), for me, the Spanish civil war is no longer the ‘forgotten war’.

What can I say about Jeremy Northam’s skill in interpreting this book, in peppering it with wit, in creating a perfect voice for George Orwell that, most of all, filled me with great admiration and affection for this brilliant, endearing and passionate man? I ran out of superlatives to describe Jeremy’s work a long time ago, so I’ll just say: I really can’t think of anyone who could have read this book better. CSA Word told me:

… we were thrilled when he consented to be the voice of young Orwell during one of the most important formative periods for the the author, … Homage to Catalonia. Jeremy’s skill can sustain an intense unabridged production like the Down and Out audiobook and the longer text of Homage, something which may not come as easily as you’d think, even to experienced actors. We want readers to feel like they are listening to the thrilling man himself when they listen to our Orwell non-fiction, and this is what Jeremy delivers.

If you enjoyed Down and Out in Paris and London and want to meet Mr Orwell again (under rather different circumstances, but very much the same man), I highly recommend Jeremy’s reading of Homage to Catalonia.

Homage to Catalonia from CSA Word, read by Jeremy Northam, is unabridged  (8 hours, 7 CDs). At the time of writing, it is available on CD from Amazon UK. When it becomes more widely available, I will update you.

by Gill

Down and Out with Jeremy Northam

3 Mar

The Paris slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people—people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work. Some of the lodgers in our hotel lived lives that were curious beyond words … Poverty is what I am writing about, and I had my first contact with poverty in this slum. The slum, with its dirt and its queer lives, was first an object-lesson in poverty, and then the background of my own experiences. It is for that reason that I try to give some idea of what life was like there.

‘Down and Out in Paris and London’, George Orwell

I’m often to be heard moaning about being poor. I’m sure many of us are feeling the pinch at the moment and reassessing our expectations. Nevertheless, it’s difficult, as a ‘first world’ citizen in 2011, to comprehend the reality of abject poverty.

In 1928, George Orwell resigned from serving in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma and returned to Europe, his decision prompted by guilt that his race and caste prevented him from befriending the Burmese. He chose to live in ‘fairly severe poverty’ amongst the poor of Paris and London, and used his experiences to create Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933.

I’m familiar with George Orwell’s fiction, but I must confess that his literary journalism was never high on my list of must-reads. This was a mistake. Down and Out in Paris and London has been a rather wonderful discovery, courtesy of CSA Word and Jeremy Northam.

Orwell’s experiences of living in Paris with no work or money, and later, working in various Paris hotel kitchens as a plongeur, are as funny as they are tragic.

The second half of the novel comprises a travelogue as Orwell writes of his experiences living as a vagrant in London. He describes the people he meets and the appalling conditions in tramps’ lodgings, and exposes the ill-founded prejudice in the prevalent attitudes towards tramps.

The book is not only a colourful, humorous, and often shocking look at the lives of the extremely poor, but also a powerful social commentary that still has relevance.

CSA Word very wisely asked audiobook ‘don’ Jeremy Northam to voice their audio version of Down and Out and he delivers a characteristically brilliant reading. Of course, to those of us familiar with Jeremy’s audio work, this comes as no surprise. But if you have only seen Jeremy’s on-screen work, and have thought that audiobooks are only for the blind, then you’re in for a treat!

In Jeremy’s experienced and intelligent hands, the inhabitants of Paris and London spring into vivid, entertaining and poignant life. Jeremy is an extremely talented interpreter of the written word and like all the best storytellers, he holds us with him from start to finish. Each individual we meet in the novel is memorable and distinct, whilst the social commentary feels relevant, contemporary and moving.

Bea Long from CSA Word told me:
‘Jeremy’s reading on Down and Out in Paris and London is excellent, which is why we were thrilled when he consented to be the voice of young Orwell during one of the most important formative periods for the the author, on our forthcoming Homage to Catalonia.

Jeremy’s skill can sustain an intense unabridged production like the Down and Out audiobook and the longer text of Homage, something which may not come as easily as you’d think, even to experienced actors.

We want readers to feel they are listening to the thrilling man himself when they listen to our Orwell non-fiction, and this is what Jeremy delivers.’

Down and Out in Paris and London audiobook from CSA Word is an unabridged reading of the novel. It is 7.5 hours in length, and consists of 6 CDs. It’s available from the CSA Word website and also from audiobook retailers as a download or on CD.

Homage to Catalonia will be published by CSA Word in May of this year, and is already available for pre-order at Amazon UK. I’ll bring you more news on this closer to publication.

Many thanks to Bea Long at CSA Word for her co-operation.

by Gill

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