Tag Archives: Ivor Novello

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.

The Rules of the Park: Gosford Park, The Rules of the Game

23 Jun

Robert Altman famously cited The Rules of the Game (La Règle du Jeu) (1939), by French director Jean Renoir, as his chief inspiration for Gosford Park (2001). That is pretty obvious upon watching both the films. They both involve a large ensemble cast playing servants and masters on a shooting week-end at a country house.

While Gosford Park is bound to the conventions of a murder mystery, Rules is bound to the conventions of a French farce. Both films sport complicated plots told in an oblique way, with little pieces of plot exposition “overheard” in snippets as the restless camera moves throughout these people’s lives.  Altman made this style of filmmaking his trademark. Renoir on the other hand, was a revelation to me. I’d seen his Grand Illusion in a college course. I wasn’t prepared for something as contemporary feeling as Rules delivers. The irony is that part of my feeling is actually owing to my familiarity with Altman, who is borrowing heavily from Renoir.

The two films have many scenes and characters that line up in synchronicity with one another. Both contain a scene in which a servant announces their master’s dietary peculiarities to a bemused kitchen staff. Both films play the scene for comedy, but I find it interesting, if not particularly important, that in the English country house the orders are obeyed, while the French cook sneers that “I can allow for diets, not obsessions.” I think I might get that stitched on a pillow. In Rules of the Game one of characters is Andre, a famous aviator. His counterpart in Gosford Park is Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) who like Andre, is also famous, self-made and despised by the titled aristocracy as a climber. Though they invite the outsiders in to add a bit of glamour to their week-end, they make it clear that they exist apart from their so-called betters. Novello is kind to Mabel, a woman whose cash-strapped husband is cheating on her and whose position is so tenuous as to be mocked by everyone including the servants. The moment stands out in a film that is all about the nuances of correct behavior, because it is a rare instance of a person actually being nice. One can be polite, the film says, and be mean as hell. In Rules of the Game, the Marquis takes a shine to a poacher about to be punished for killing rabbits on his land. He not only lets the fellow off but gives him a job on his staff and helps him out of a jam involving a married ladies’ maid. In the end, though, noblesse oblige only goes so far and the Marquis has to dismiss the poacher because the fellow takes it too far, driving the maid’s husband into a shooting spree.

Both films take place in the 1930s, prior or the Second World War and reportedly satirize the upper class that was enjoying its last hurrah before the war and encroachment of the middle class. And both films, weirdly, end up falling a bit in love with the upper class creatures they are meant to savage. After Renoir’s hunting scene, where he shows crowds of bunnies and pheasants blasted by ladies and gentlemen in tweed suits, the director doesn’t really follow through. He shows us these people, warts and all, and the result is that we like them. Altman shows us upper class parodies like Dame Maggie Smith’s Lady Trentham, who is best described as a bitch on wheels. By the end of the film, though, he has revealed her fragility and we see her as a weak old lady who has to rely entirely on a paid employee for companionship.

I was reminded of my one and only experience with the titled aristocracy. My husband, then-boyfriend, and I were invited to spend the week-end at the estate of the Earl of Perth, by the Earl’s grandson. I went into the week-end with an American-sized  chip on my shoulder. On the first evening of our visit, His Lordship did nothing to alleviate my prejudices. He fussed about my drinking a glass of Scotch by addressing my boyfriend as if I weren’t in the room, and gave me a pictorial magazine to look at as if I were incapable of reading a newspaper or joining in the masculine conversation about world events. I fumed privately that the French had the right idea in their revolution. By the second afternoon, I began to change my mind as the Earl, dressed like Bertie Wooster on Jeeves’ day off, announced that we should all go into to town in the Purple Emperor (his name for the purple mini van in which he was driven about the county) to purchase corduroy trousers, an adventure which was quashed (to my eternal regret) by his grandson. Later that day he took me aside to show me his treasured collection of ladies’ scrapbooks, some dating from the 18th century, which held the botanical pressings of generations of the female members of his family. That night, he even let me have my dram of whiskey without comment. In short, it can be difficult to hate the gentry once you get to know them. I feel like that is what Renoir and Altman ended up deciding as well.

Since this will be posted on a Jeremy Northam fan blog, chances are that most of you are, like me, more familiar with the imitator than the original. While Gosford Park stands on its own as an independent work of art, it makes it richer when you understand that it is an homage. I’m loathe to say one is better than the other.  Both are fantastic, inventive and so dense with action and detail that rewards repeat viewing.

by Jenny The Nipper

Author of three books about classic film stars published under the name “Jenny Curtis,” Jenny is equally well-known in the world of classic movie geekdom as “Nipper.” If you’ve ever seen Bringing Up Baby or The Awful Truth, you may remember “Jerry the Nipper” on which the nom de blog is an obvious pun.

Jenny’s blog, Cinema OCD, which describes itself as ‘The Aristocrat of motion picture blogs’  is packed with wonderful reviews of classic movies. I highly recommend a visit.

Memories of ‘Gosford Park’ from the Ivor Novello Consultant David Slattery-Christy

20 Jan

When people who are unfamiliar with Jeremy’s work ask me ‘What will have I seen him in?’, it’s always Gosford Park, and Jeremy’s wonderful and much admired performance as Ivor Novello, that I suggest first.

Robert Altman's 2001 masterpiece, 'Gosford Park'.

Robert Altman’s sublime murder mystery set above- and below-stairs in a country house gave Jeremy one of his very best roles to date, and despite being amongst one of the most talented casts ever assembled, Jeremy gave what Robert Altman himself described as ‘one of the, really, best performances I’ve ever seen in a film‘.

Ivor Novello is the only non-fictional character in Gosford Park. To give Jeremy’s portrayal authenticity, David Slattery-Christy, author and playwright, and expert in the life and works of Novello, was engaged as the film’s official consultant. I was delighted when David agreed to tell me about his memories of working on the film.

David Slattery-Christy

I am fortunate enough to have some great memories of my time working on ‘Gosford Park’. The first ever meeting I was invited to, at an apartment in Kensington, London, I shall never forget. At the time I was directing a tribute show, to mark the 50th anniversary of Ivor Novello’s death, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, when I was called and invited to attend the meeting. At that point I had no idea what the film involved. Imagine my surprise, on arriving at the said apartment, to find the likes of Robert Altman, Dame Maggie Smith, Charles Dance, Dame Helen Mirren, Eileen Atkins, Kristin Scott Thomas and Jeremy Northam, to name but a few. At this moment I realised this would be like no ordinary film.

During the location filming at Wrougtham Park near London I was fortunate to meet and see Jeremy Northam shoot his scenes and witness the resulting rushes. The one memory I was left with concerning Jeremy was his modesty. He quietly went about his scenes and left everyone so impressed with his skill and the depth he brought to the Novello role. Watching the rushes of his scenes was the only time I remember there was total silence in the tiny screening van. He did all this with no fuss or fanfares. He was a very warm and polite man and always had a ready smile for everybody.

Jeremy as Ivor Novello, with Claudie Blakely

Prior to shooting I had compiled a list of all the things that Novello did or didn’t like along with a few insights into his character. Jeremy’s portrayal and performance captured Novello brilliantly, even to the playing of the piano and singing of the various songs whilst shooting the scenes. The only thing that changed was the piano playing – Jeremy’s brother played the piano track we hear in the film.

David Slattery-Christy
Ivor Novello Consultant – Gosford Park

David has written at greater length about his work on Gosford Park in his excellent book on the life and work of Ivor Novello, In Search of Ruritania.

An absorbing and thoroughly engaging read, and a must-own for fans of Altman’s film looking to learn more about Novello and his work … straight from the film’s Ivor Novello consultant.’ Tara O’Shea, Chicago.

You can find out more about David’s book and where to purchase it (I have a copy myself and I highly recommend it) by visiting his website: David Slattery-Christy.

I’d like to thank David very much indeed for taking the time to make this wonderful contribution to the blog.

by Gill


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