My reward is that I get to interview cool colleagues like Barri Tsavaris who was featured last week. I test out new equipment, such as the brilliant SSL2+ audio interface, and I review books like Voice Over Man by Peter Dickson. It’s not even out yet, but I got an advance copy, signed by the man himself!
Now, if you haven’t got the faintest idea who this Peter person is, don’t worry. I’ll let him introduce himself, the way he does best in his book:
Dickson began his career at the BBC where he holds the unique distinction of being the youngest ever TV news presenter at the tender age of 17. In 1982 he moved to BBC Radio 2 in London, as an announcer. And that was just the start. Peter continues:
“I have spent the last forty-three years locked in acoustically isolated, padded rooms shouting about pizzas, cars, gas boilers and three-piece suites, playing zombies and wizards and fighter pilots and working with and alongside some of the planet’s biggest stars. And yes – I’ve had the most unimaginable fun. I have been the voice of over 200 TV series, many of them multi-award-winning, the promo voice for over 60 TV channels, acted on over 30 of the world’s top-selling AAA game titles and I’ve voiced over 30,000 TV and radio commercials. Perhaps surprisingly, very little of what I have done survives, much of it having been broadcast, is now far away in the ether – halfway to Mars – and will eventually clatter around the cosmos forever. God help the inhabitants on Planet Zarg at the outer reaches of our universe when ‘The X Factor’ eventually reaches them in the 25 th Century. Lord only knows what they will make of it!”
NATURAL STORYTELLER (AND NAME DROPPER)
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of being in Peter’s company, you know the man is a born raconteur. If you haven’t had that experience, his book Voice Over Man is the next best thing. Not only will you meet a whole cast of colorful, and mostly British characters. You’ll learn about the changing media landscape in the United Kingdom, and how Peter has skillfully navigated that landscape to build an unparalleled portfolio as one of Britain’s most prominent, beloved, and versatile voice talents.
His career started, like so many of us of a certain generation, playing with a tape deck. Peter writes:
“I was a strange kid. Outwardly normal in every respect but with this weird compulsion to talk out loud in rooms on my own. I am laughing now because you could say I haven’t changed one bit!
On passing my eleven-plus Grammar School entrance exam on the second attempt, which was known as ‘the review’, my parents had bought me a brand spanking new National Panasonic cassette recorder, which was cutting edge technology back then, can you believe it? I would spend hours on that, recording little programmes, performing on the fly drop in edits, and reading aloud in the privacy of my bedroom where no one could see or hear me, or so I thought. My father was probably listening at the door thinking “What in the name of sweet Jesus have I spawned?””
And thus begins a journey that leads us to the studios of the BBC, and many other venerable institutions where Dickson’s voice could be heard in many different incarnations. He takes us behind the scenes of the many shows he has worked on, and delights in painting a picture of the often dimly lit, and most unglamorous spaces that were reserved for announcers:
“The old radio continuity desk at Radio Ulster was built like a Rolls Royce and probably cost as much. It was virtually bombproof, which was just as well because there were loads of them exploding on a nightly basis outside. Completed and installed back in the days when budgets were only for Chancellors and Aunty BBC had never heard of a bottom line. All black shiny Bakelite and Formica, with gleaming silver-plated knobs and dials illuminated from behind by impossibly exotic looking German valves with names like Telefunken EL84, which cast a comforting orange glow through the ventilation grill onto the wall behind. It must have cost fifty thousand licence fees. In the centre of the desk were the huge, doorknob sized orange handled ‘pot’ faders. These were the days before the horizontal sliding faders, which are now commonplace on today’s mixing desks.”
I don’t know about you, but when I read that description, I was right there at Radio Ulster. That’s just one of the many aspects that makes Peter’s book such a delightful read. Peter’s son, who is a graphic designer, was responsible for the look of the book. There are lots of cool graphics relating to the voice over world, including a volume knob as a page footer that appears to rotate when you flick through the pages! It’s these type of ingenuous touches that makes this autobiography stand out in a unique way.
MEETING MOVIE STARS
But the bulk of Peter’s life story is taken up by numerous, humorous anecdotes. Stories, such as this one:
“One afternoon, I found myself alone, wandering down a corridor trying to find the sound stage where Purple Taxi was being shot, when a slightly built man wearing a beautifully tailored suit, stepped out of a room in front of me. There was no one else around and he proceeded to walk in front of me towards a large set of double doors. He stopped, turned 90°, opened the door, motioned with his hand and said, “After you!” Impressed by the stranger’s good manners I turned to him as I walked through and thanked him for his kindness. It was only when I looked at his face, I realised that I was looking at one of the biggest movie stars of all time, and I mean all time. They don’t come much bigger. I was face to face with none other than Mr Fred Astaire!”
The first part of the book is mainly devoted to Dickson’s fascinating career in radio and television. But when he decides to break free from the confining corporate culture, and venture off on his own, things become even more relatable for voice overs trying to make a living in the gig economy. Dickson:
“The freelance life is altogether more discomfiting. There’s an edginess about it, it’s a hand to mouth, dog-eat-dog, day to day existence where the only yardstick of success is the amount of cash flowing into your bank account on a monthly or in most cases, an annual basis. The freelance world is so uncertain and irregular, that one has to invariably take this longer-term view. Annual income rather than monthly is the more accurate window of measurement. Scary stuff indeed for the dutiful wage slave I had become.”
CHANGING THE GAME
When Dickson became his own boss, he found himself on the road for most of the week, driving from studio to studio, reading script after script. The money was coming in, but at a hefty price because of all the travel involved. He was one of the first voices who saw the potential of ISDN, and jumped at it. Dickson installed ISDN in his home studio in 1999, and it was a total game changer. He writes:
“For those of us who adopted ISDN, it was revolutionary. I could work around the globe from the comfort of my own home, frequently wearing my pyjamas! What other job affords you that level of delicious informality and comfort.”
“What I and others hadn’t bargained for, however, was that this was about as far from a sociable way of working as you could imagine. In practice, it was exactly the opposite. I now found myself spending whole days in the studio – often not seeing or speaking to anyone, with only myself for company. Now, I don’t have an issue with this because I am by nature a fairly private individual and like my own company, but some of my colleagues, however, have found it difficult to adapt – and struggle with the long hours in isolation. It was this very issue that led me, Tony Aitken, Lois Lane, Jacky Davis and John McGuinn to found VOX, the world’s first social network for voice talent and much later, gravyforthebrain.com – a global training and networking organisation.“
As the saying goes, it takes at least twenty five years to become an overnight success, let alone build a solid reputation. Peter’s long career is definitely a testament to that, and a powerful lesson to anyone thinking of breaking into the voice over business to make a quick buck. There is no such thing as a quick buck, and the buck is rapidly decreasing to fifty cents.
In his book, Peter pays loving tribute to the many mentors he has had, without whom he probably would have stayed stuck in some stuffy studio as an anonymous disembodied voice. And let’s not forget the crucial role of his agent who seems to present him with golden opportunity after golden opportunity.
Full disclosure, I know Peter personally, and he asked me to write a short quote which you’ll find at the beginning of his book. I like and admire him immensely, so I’m not going to be too hard on him. But I do want to say the following.
If you’re looking for a book that teaches you the art of voice overs, this isn’t it (watch this instead). I had hoped to read a little bit more about how Peter created and maintains his signature sound; how his technique and approach has developed over the years, and how he has weathered the many trends in announcing and voice acting.
When you listen to broadcasts from forty years ago, you know how much has changed. People just don’t speak the way they did in the forties, fifties, and sixties. How does one stay relevant and marketable? Peter makes it sound so easy, and that usually means it is not.
You also have to realize that this is a quintessentially British book. If you’re an Anglophile like me, who grew up watching British TV and listening to the BBC (heck, I even worked for the BEEB), you’ll recognize many of the people that “guest star” in Dickson’s autobiography. People like Sir Terry Wogan, Bruce Forsyth, Harry Enfield, Steve Wright, and many, many more. Peter is of the generation that witnessed the birth of the comedy group Monty Python. When I mention Python to today’s generation, they’ll give you a blank stare and ask: “Monty who?”
That’s why many of the names that Dickson drops throughout his book, even the names of television shows and radio programs, won’t mean a thing to the average American, and perhaps not even to a younger generation in the UK. He tells fascinating stories, but if you’re not familiar with the eccentric characters, why should you even care?
That brings me to the main thing that bothers me a bit about this book. There is so much captivating anecdotal material about other people, that I feel I didn’t really get to know the real Peter Dickson.
Like many of the Brits I know and love, he remains charmingly reserved, not talking about who he is, but about what he does so well.
The Voice Over Man.
Why be so elusive, I wonder? Don’t you want us to know you, or am I so used to my American surroundings where unbridled self-disclosure is a national sport?
And then I was reminded of Peter’s own words:
The audiobook version is available from spokenwordaudio and the hardback, paperback, and Kindle versions are available on Amazon now. The audio version will also be available on Audible. Click here for a long interview with Peter on the Media Focus Podcast.