January 13, 2011
STRANGER: Zeb Soanes
LOCATION: Andrew Edmunds, 46 Lexington Street, London, England
THEME: Dinner with a BBC radio presenter
Zeb Soanes has a voice for radio.
A charming, calm, and rich British voice, which is perfect given that his job is a newsreader on BBC Radio 4. He also presents television programs for the BBC, or Auntie Beeb as I knew it growing up in England. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
I’d been back in Hull, England, for Christmas and enjoyed three weeks of home cooking, having my laundry done for me, and no exercise. Good times. Duty (or more accurately, employment) called, however, and I was heading back to Washington, DC. The night before my flight back to America’s capital, I had plans to have dinner with a stranger.
It was a dark and stormy night when Zeb and I met in London. Well, actually, there was only a light drizzle of rain. We met at Andrew Edmunds, a restaurant nestled down a side street in the heart of London that looks fresh out of a Dickens novel.
I was early — new year, new leaf? — and settled in at a small table near the bar. It’s a small place, without a lot of leg room for tall people like myself and Zeb. Despite the close quarters the other tables didn’t feel intrusively placed.
Moments later Zeb arrived and we had some small talk while perusing the hand-written menu. Zeb said he’s a regular at the restaurant and that the dishes on offer change every night, hence the lack of a typewritten menu. Nice touch. Some of the dishes were a tad exotic for my usually bland tastes, and I didn’t know what half the ingredients were, but Zeb assured me everything would be good.
I took him at his word, we placed our orders, and then we started on a delicious bottle of red Sancerre wine as Zeb gave me his abbreviated biography.
He was born in the small fishing town of Lowestoft, Suffolk, in England. The Zoanes family’s presence in the town dates back to the 1700s. “I’m the only one of my immediate family who’s left the area, gone to university, and come to London,” he said.
Zeb went to the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where he studied drama — something he’d been interested in since an early age. He went to university with aspirations to be an actor, while smartly pursuing a degree that would also allow him to teach drama.
While at university Zeb performed in a improvised comedy show, and developed a reputation for playing different characters and impersonating famous old actors such as Alec Guinness and John Gielgud, a very plummy voiced British thespian.
Sidenote: anyone that meets Zeb should ask for his Gielgud story. Not only is there a hilarious punchline, but his impersonation of the late actor is impeccable. I don’t want to spoil the punchline and without the Gielgud voice couldn’t do it justice anyway.
Back to Zeb’s higher education days. He said he was “quite shy” when younger but never had a shyness problem when taking on a character. And his knack for impersonation meant that he often took on the older roles that other people his age couldn’t pull off.
Where does the interest in performing come from? Possibly from his Methodist minister father, he said, who quite enjoys the ceremony and pomp of the church, apparently.
Zeb also enjoys acting because it gives him a chance to act out a character hugely different from his own calm, measured personality. “Working on a character is the most rewarding because you get to be someone else and put yourself in someone else’s mind.”
One day toward the end of his degree, Zeb appeared on a local BBC radio station to promote a charity improvised comedy show in which he was taking part. One of the presenters spotted him and a few days later called Zeb in to do some improvisation live on air. I’m sure the presenter was in part taken by Zeb’s aforementioned polished voice, each word pronounced crisply and correctly.
The presenter and Zeb devised a prank in which Zeb would pretend to be the Rev. Percival Peabody, an elderly Anglican vicar. Because Zeb’s father is a Methodist minister, he was familiar with the ways of the church, a knowledge he put to use in his on-air prank.
Peabody was billed as the top guest for a live phone-in, describing how he had decided to hold confessionals in the glass elevators of a shopping center. The radio host was a “brilliant interviewer” and was able to set up punchlines with a number of questions, including asking Peabody what other services he was offering at the center. “We have tried a baptism, we give a squirt with the fire extinguisher and say a blessing,” Zeb said in his Peabody voice. The impersonation was astounding, his pleasant voice now making him genuinely sound like a crumbly old reverend.
“It went really well,” Zeb said of the skit, and the boss of the station subsequently would book him to do unpaid trailers and promotions. Unpaid? Not exactly. His temporary coworkers took him to the pub. “My first BBC wage was in pints of Guinness,” he said.
“A microphone to 13 million people”
For a while he juggled acting jobs and unpaid BBC radio work, until one autumn he found himself without any paid work. That’s when “two things came up at once,” he said. One of Zeb’s university teachers invited him to lead some elocution lessons. At the same time, BBC Radio Norfolk offered him a semi-permanent job reading news and travel reports two days a week. He ended up taking the radio job and stayed with the station for roughly a year.
That’s when he spotted an advertisement for a television continuity announcer at BBC headquarters in London. Continuity announcers are the people providing voice-overs in-between shows, their comments acting as a bridge between shows.
The approval process was rigorous, Zeb recalled, with intense vetting because the continuity announcer is the “national voice” of the BBC. “It’s all live. You have a microphone to 13 million viewers and could say whatever you like . . . and then be sacked,” Zeb said.
Zeb behaved himself and passed the interview process, which included a written test because the announcers write their own material. The interview also involved putting Zeb in a studio, mocking up a live session where everything in the studio breaks down — a way to test his ability to cope under pressure. He obviously excelled, because he was offered the job and took it.
He found it to be “really interesting” work. Here was someone who in his youth watched a number of shows made at BBC headquarters, now getting to work in the same building and see the sets of some of his favorite programs.
He also got to work alongside some of the beloved voices from his childhood, particularly long-serving continuity announcer Peter Brook. “Peter had one of those amazingly rich, typical BBC voices. But when the BBC began to phase out some of the old-fashioned clipped accents, Peter evolved and flattened out some of his vowels. But his voice was still fantastically plummy.”
Peter also gave Zeb some good advice. “He said when it came to writing scripts keep it simple, say what you see, don’t try and be clever or witty.” This was a good tip because as a continuity announcer the goal is to be anonymous, Zeb said. “You’re the glue between a program. If people are noticing the way you’re saying something then you’re not doing your job properly. You’re there to entice people to watch something they may not, to be that warm, authoritative, friendly voice” of the BBC.
Zeb did television continuity for three years before moving over to Radio 4. On that bombshell (all right, not really a bombshell) let me sidetrack for a second into talking about our starters.
I went for a potato and leek soup that was just the right warmth, the potatoes soft but not to the point of crumbling to pieces on contact, and an overall mild but winning flavor.
Zeb chose a dressed crab that he said was “fantastic, very fresh.” I wish I could explain more about what was in the dish, but my note-taking that night was non-existent.
So let’s gloss over my poor reporting and switch back to Zeb’s story.
Zeb had wanted to work for Radio 4 as far back his youth, when he’d go to bed with a transistor radio by his side listening to Radio 4, a BBC station that focuses heavily on drama, news, history, and other programs compared to, say, Radio 1 that blares out top 40 hits and the like.
In particular he liked listening to the Shipping Forecast, a weather report for the coasts around the British Isles that is the last thing Radio 4 plays at night before the national anthem, after which the station goes off air for a few hours.
“I remember thinking what an amazing job to tuck the nation in and say good night,” Zeb said of being a Radio 4 announcer and reader of the Shipping Forecast. “I never thought I’d be doing it.”
But when he made the leap over to Radio 4 that’s exactly what he ended up doing, in addition to reading news and other work as an announcer for the station.
The Shipping Forecast is one of his favorite tasks at Radio 4, Zeb said. There are four daily broadcasts giving the conditions of the sea and wind for coastal places with unusual names like Dogger, Forties, and Cromarty. “It has this liturgical quality to it. Most people who listen to it have no idea what it means but they love the poetry” of how the broadcast sounds, Zeb said. “And for some people it’s important life-or-death information.”
At least a third of listeners are seafaring folk who rely heavily on the forecast, Zeb said. But other listeners tune in to hear what he described as a strangely evocative technical broadcast. “It gets into the national psyche and reinforces the sense of the island nation. Even people who’ve never set sail like to listen to it. They have a sense of being tucked up in bed while someone out at sea is battening down the hatches,” he said.
The forecast is written by the Met Office, which provides weather forecasts for the United Kingdom. Nowadays it’s e-mailed to the radio station, though in the past it came through on fax. Technology might change, but the forecast doesn’t. No matter how much weather news there is, the broadcast always has to be exactly 10 minutes long, ahead of the 1am playing of the national anthem before the station goes silent for a few early morning hours.
In addition to reading the Shipping Forecast, Zeb also reads the news, which he says “is more rewarding because it’s all storytelling and you have a lot more time,” with the average news broadcast running 30 minutes.
Reading the news also requires voiceover skill in being able to transition from one serious story to a lighthearted news item without it sounding too obvious. “It’s like changing gears in a car. You’re doing it with your voice, so it sounds natural at home. When it’s done badly you really notice it.”
Not only does Zeb have to make sure that his voiceover talents are in top form each time he’s on air, he also has to be ready to take control when things go wrong or breaking news events occur. “The core skills you need are to be calm under pressure and don’t flap. One analogy is to a swan — the legs are paddling under the water but not above the surface.”
Because I have a terrible sense of humor, I’m going to transition from Zeb’s analogy of a swan to the fact that my main course that night was duck.
As I told Zeb, the only other time I tried duck was from a barbecue on a beach in Anguilla when I was 18. I hated it so much I buried it in the sand. Which was great until the chef’s dog uncovered it and took it back to his owner.
The duck at Andrew Edmunds in contrast was fantastic, succulent, very tasty. Great food, and very filling, and no need to find a sandbank.
Zeb opted for the lamb dish that — again — I wish I could explain more about. But he gave high marks to his dish and generally praised the restaurant.
“Here the food is the star. I love the restaurant. It’s so un-pretentious. The wine is fantastic, the food is always really, really good, and it’s always got a good atmosphere. It’s always difficult to get in here, which is good for the restaurant,” Zeb said.
Zeb says he visits Andrew Edmunds fairly often, whenever his often erratic hours allow. But his free time might be further constrained by his foray into television work.
About five years ago he started work as a television presenter for the Proms, an eight-week season of daily classical music concerts held at London’s Royal Albert Hall and broadcast by the BBC. The work meant he had to stop acting, but it’s something he said he gave up “happily” because he loves presenting the Proms.
“I love classical music. I used to play the piano, and my mum plays the organ at church by ear,” he said. Zeb has also tried to mix things up with the Proms shows, changing from the BBC’s past approach of bringing in experts to discuss the music. Instead Zeb will interview musicians from the orchestras as they head off stage to ask them about the performance, almost like a post-sports match interview with the key players. Zeb will ask the musicians questions like what they found the most challenging, all the while they’re “perspiring like they’ve just been in a boxing match.”
“I’m naturally predisposed to being calm”
Is there any other television work Zeb’s interested in?
He’d like to one day do a television series based on the Shipping Forecast, saying the places like Dogger and other uniquely named locations are “full of history.” Zeb said he’s not the first person to express an interest in some type of Shipping Forecast project, noting for example that photographers have done projects featuring pictures from the locations. But Zeb would like to get out to each location to interview the locals.
Sounds like a fun idea, and I wish Zeb the best with it. Based off his ease at chatting with this particular stranger and apparent permanent calm, I think he’d be able to get plenty of mileage out of meeting the people who inhabit the various Shipping Forecast locales.
About that calm.
Zeb is so peaceful I think it might actually be impossible to rile him. He’s charming, friendly, personable, and all kinds of other complimentary descriptive words. He speaks in wonderfully measured tones, is intelligent and quick with his quips. I’m sure all these talents serve him well on the radio. But does he ever truly lose it and just flip out?
“Sometimes I wish I was one of those people” who freaks out to let off steam, he said, but added, “I’m naturally predisposed” to having a calm nature. “My dad’s the same.”
I should mention by this point that the effect of the Sancerre was starting to get to me and I could feel I was rather tipsy. I took Zeb up on the offer of splitting dessert, thinking that perhaps the extra food might help to offset the effects of the alcohol.
We went for the Boston brownie, a culinary ode to my life in America. The chocolate was rich but not sickly, and the ice cream a perfect complement.
Another perfect complement to the last course was half bottle of ice wine that Zeb very kindly offered to buy for the two of us. Ice wine, or in German, Eiswein, is a dessert wine made from grapes frozen on the vine. Zeb said this makes the wine very sweet and “is the closest thing to ambrosia I’ve tasted.” It was indeed delicious.
Dinner was drawing to a close, and so I asked Zeb if there was anything about his work with the BBC that he doesn’t like. No, as it turns out. But there are crazies who send in letters.
“We call them the Green Ink Brigade,” Zeb said, because the more alarming correspondence from the public tends to be written in that particular color. One of Zeb’s colleagues was mailed some soiled toilet paper — apparently the colleague was delighted because until that day he was the only presenter on sister station Radio 3 never to have been sent some loony mail.
More traditional letters to Radio 4 criticize things like presenters’ pronunciation, which Zeb said is because Radio 4 is “the keeper of the English language and the national speech radio network.”
But even the missives from the Green Ink Brigade can’t shake Zeb’s calm persona, nor his dedication to and enjoyment of his work as a BBC radio and television presenter.
Zeb said he didn’t originally intend to be at the BBC for the many years he’s been working there. When he first moved to London he still wanted to be a full-time actor. “I thought a job at the BBC was great, it helps me establish a base and carry on pursuing acting. Twelve years later, I’m very much part of the BBC.”
With the dessert wine polished off, it was time to pay the bill and head on out. Before we left I dashed off to the toilet. I’m not writing that to add some color about my ability to answer nature’s call, but rather because while I was away Zeb spoke directly into my tape recorder.
I figured I’d put the clip of what he said up for two reasons. One, it offers a brief snippet of his polished voice. Two, it reveals my usual state at the end of these dinners.