Adland's new kings of voiceover

Matiness, regional accents and funny people now rule what has traditionally been Queen's English territory. In an age of special effects, location shots, fast edits and big-money celebrity cameos, you could be forgiven for assuming that the humble voiceover is a relatively insignificant part of the commercial-making process. Surely, choosing an accent to mutter the pleasantries at the end of a TV commercial is the easiest and least important of an advertising agency's jobs?

Not so. According to those in the market, such misconceptions are partly fuelled by the ubiquity of certain voiceover artists. Switch on the TV and the familiar tones of actors such as Stephen Fry and Sean Pertwee (the star of the British horror film Dog Soldiers and son of the Dr Who and Worzel Gummidge actor Jon Pert-wee) can be heard extolling the virtues of everything from mobile phones to headache tablets. Ten years ago, the same could have been said for Martin Jarvis and Richard Briers.

The decision to use these voices is seldom taken lightly - every voice has connotations that have repercussions for the brand it is promoting.

"If you look at actors such as Briers or Jarvis, they're good, wholesome people who represent wholesome family values," Jon Briggs, the managing director of the voice agency The Excellent Voice Company, says:

"Most of Briers' work has been family oriented and represents part of middle Britain. You can have your products associated with everything he has ever done, simply by getting him to speak the words at the end or in the middle of the ad."

Association is just one of the reasons why famous voices remain perennially popular with agencies and clients. Although Hugh Laurie's credit list is unparalleled, his old comedy partner, Fry, is coming up on the inside with voiceovers for Orange, Dairylea and Kenco. But a highly scientific and robustly trustworthy straw poll of voiceover agents conducted by Campaign revealed that the undisputed king of the voiceover is now Pertwee. His recent gigs for HP and Carlsberg, plus previous work for Anadin and Royal Mail, have catapulted him into first place.

Recognisable names are not always the right choice, though, and the past few years have seen the rise of realism in the business. The craze for reality TV belatedly exposed the British viewing public to a range of regional accents, something that advertisers are increasingly taking on board. The serious, nondescript Queen's English that was once so popular in commercials is today the exception rather than the rule.

"We are finding here that comedy is popular at the moment, along with regional and cool voices," John Love, of the voiceover agency Another Tongue, says. Jane Savage, who manages Calypso Voices, adds: "Ads always used to feature 'expert' voices, the type you could imagine following you around the supermarket, telling you what to buy. But we've been moving away from that for about ten years now. It's not just that agencies want more regional voices, it's also that they want more matey voices."

And it is not only tastes that have changed in the world of voiceover - wages have undergone a similar transformation. In the late 80s and early 90s, a voiceover artist could earn as much as £10,000 plus residual fees for 15 minutes work.

The rise of procurement departments has put an end to that. Today, voiceover artists will get a basic studio fee, plus a one-off buy-out payment of around £2,000. "There are still some actors who can earn a living from it," the voiceover agency Earache's Alex Lynch-White says, "but for most, it's just a way to buy a nice holiday."

Famous names such as Fry and Joanna Lumley do have the ability to command a higher premium, as their voices can attract attention, solicit recognition and, most importantly, help achieve precious cut-through for the brands they are advertising, albeit for a matter of seconds.

Studio fees plus a lump sum of £2,000 for an hour or so's work may still seem like a pretty good return, but good voiceover is not as easy as it might seem, as Briggs explains. "Voiceover is two things - it's emotional ability and technical ability," he says. "A lot of actors have the former but they don't have the latter.

"You have to make the words fit into very tight time-frames and a lot of actors aren't used to these restrictions - that's why the best voiceover artists tend to be broadcasters or singers.

"They understand rhythm and can shorten or lengthen sentences easily. Of course, these days, this can be done by a computer, but however good the computer is, it never sounds as natural as a good voiceover artist."

ADLAND'S HOTTEST VOCAL CORDS

SEAN PERTWEE

Credits: Royal Mail, Anadin, HP, Carlsberg

Originally best-known as the son of the man who played Worzel Gummidge, Sean Pertwee spent three years with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

He then went on to star in films including the Brit surfing flick Blue Juice, Dog Soldiers and Event Horizon. TV credits include Cold Feet, Cadfael and Harry Enfield's Television Programme.

His voiceover credits include ads for Royal Mail, Anadin, Max Factor and Emirates Airlines, while recent work for Carlsberg and HP has made him the voiceover man of the moment.

Pertwee has also supplied voiceovers for video games - he was the voice of Governor Severus in Warhammer 40,000: FireWarrior alongside a cast that included Brian Blessed and Tom Baker, and was Colonel Gregor Hakha in Killzone.

FELICITY MONTAGU

Credits: Expedia, BT Broadband, BabyBel

Felicity Montagu got into voiceovers following a 20-year acting career, which saw her appear in Bridget Jones's Diary, as well as numerous TV series. Her most famous role was in I'm Alan Partridge, as the chatshow host's put-upon PA, Lynn Benfield.

"Producers started noticing me from TV and requesting me for ads. I soon got the hang of it and started enjoying myself," she says.

Her advertising credits include Expedia and BT Broadband and she also worked on an ad for Mini Baby Bel cheese, in which she "did the voice of a mum who kept gasping and making odd squeaky sounds, as the Baby Bel jumped out of the window". Montagu gets a lot of work based upon her normal voice and says she has been told that she "does a great mum".

HUGH LAURIE

Credits: Anchor, Birds Eye, Daewoo, WH Smith, BT

Hugh Laurie's list of voiceover appearances stretches back as far as 1996, when his dulcet tones appeared in no fewer than 18 ads for brands from Fisher Price to Energizer batteries to Walker's crisps.

It's not just his voice that is popular - he's lent his face to Bradford & Bingley, Marks & Spencer, British Telecom and Alliance & Leicester.

Laurie made his name on the TV comedy scene with A Bit of Fry and Laurie and Jeeves and Wooster (both with his comedy partner, Stephen Fry), while his movie credits include Peter's Friends, Sense and Sensibility, 101 Dalmatians, Maybe Baby and Stuart Little.

His latest project is a role in the upcoming film Superman Returns, alongside Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey. It's all long way from voicing Chicken Dippers ads for Birds Eye.

JON GLOVER

Credits: Bupa, Wanadoo, 3 Children of the early 90s will remember Jon Glover as the old-fashioned BBC presenter Mr Chomondley-Warner, in Harry Enfield's Television Programme. He was also one of the original voices on Spitting Image.

After the show finished, he was talked into doing voiceovers, although one of his first ad roles was on-camera; alongside Enfield, he resurrected Mr Chomondley-Warner for a series of ads for the phone company Mercury.

Glover has since voiced ads for Bupa, Wanadoo and, most recently, 3, while also finding time to work on several cartoons. He is often asked to do Australian, American and Northern Irish accents and has a long history of providing producers with animal noises, "particularly, for some reason, parrots".

MICHAEL FENTON-STEPHENS

Credits: Direct Line, The Times, Mastercard

Michael Fenton-Stephens has been a comic actor on UK TV and radio for years, in shows such as KYTV, My Dad's the Prime Minister and, most recently, BBC2's Nighty Night.

"My speciality is now the straight endline with a hint of sarcasm or irony," he says. "This is very different from what I used to do, which was lots of silly voices. I am hardly ever asked to do those now. I'm more of the 'soft, brown' voice, as I believe it is called."

Does he ever get asked to do accents? "You very rarely get asked to do accents, apart from the odd foreign caricature. If people want a Geordie, they tend to hire one. Now, the variation people are after is to do with delivery and style rather than accent."

And the strangest request he's ever received? "I was once asked if I could sound more like a blackcurrant while doing a VO for Ribena."

LEWIS MACLEOD

Credits: Daily Mirror, Nationwide

Lewis MacLeod's first brush with voiceovers came when he was 16. His father paid for a radio commercial for his brother's band and persuaded MacLeod to provide the voice.

Since then his vocals have been used to promote brands such as the Daily Mirror and Nationwide. He's dabbled in TV comedy, with appearances in 2DTV and Double Take.

Although MacLeod specialises in impersonations and characters, he can also turn his hand to regional accents. His specialities are Scottish, RP and chav.

He was once even asked to do Professor Steven Hawking with an updated voice chip that sounded like a Speak & Spell. The work, he says, can frequently be fun: "I enjoy the humour in the booth and I also enjoy not knowing what they are saying about you through the glass panel."

SANJEEV BHASKAR

Credits: Boots, Hugo Boss, Panasonic, Tropicana

Over the past five years, Sanjeev Bhaskar has made a name for himself in comedy shows such as The Kumars at Number 42 and Goodness Gracious Me.

Besides being the face of Cadbury's Celebrations, Bhaskar has provided the voice for brands such as Boots, Persil and Tropicana.

One of Bhaskar's strengths is his ability to sight-read. "I also have a naturally clear and sincere voice and I'm adaptable - or at least that's what my agent tells me," he comments.

"Sometimes, I'm asked to make my accent more Cockney or do a Birmingham or Indian accent." Does he enjoy the work? "Yes - I worked in marketing for ten years before I got into the business, so it's good to see another side of the job," he says. "Plus, it can be quite quick too."

EDWARD ENFIELD

Credits: Nike

Having spent most of his career as a local government officer, Edward Enfield decided to follow his famous son, Harry, into showbusiness at the grand old age of 63. He started writing for The Oldie, which led tobroadcasting, presenting and voiceover work. "Having a well-known comedian as a son has definitely helped," he admits.

Enfield's main selling point is the warmth and friendliness of his voice.

He also has exceptional timing and intonation, which frequently gets put to good use on BBC Radio 2. He has appeared in numerous radio and TV commercials for brands such as Nike and Disneyland Paris.

The strangest request he's ever had came on an ad shoot: "I'm still not sure what product this was for but I had to say the line, 'That woman bit me, is that allowed?'"

IAIN LEE

Credits: RAC, The Guardian

Iain Lee's quick wit was first brought to the public's attention when he hosted Channel 4's experimental late-night comedy strand The 11 O'Clock Show. He later presented the ill-fated breakfast offering Rise.

But when he's not in front of the camera, Lee keeps himself busy with voiceover work. "My speciality would be my ability to read a script and not get upset when I hear the producer saying over the talkback, 'we should have spent that little bit more to get Richard Bacon'," he says.

As to why he got into voiceover work, Lee says: "I have a unique quality that can only be beneficial in the world of marketing and advertising. It seems a shame to let so many products and services remain unused when I could easily shift them. It has nothing to do with the money. At all. Honest."

SIMON GREENALL

Credits: Lurpak, Woolworths, Sky Bet

Simon Greenall is probably best known for playing Michael, the Geordie porter in the sitcom I'm Alan Partridge. But though he's famous for playing a Geordie, Greenall gets frequently asked to do foreign characters, particularly Iranians. He also does comedy voices - skills he once put to good use when asked to play a 100-year-old Indian chief.

He has worked for brands including Lurpak, Woolworths and the British Egg Council. Like many voiceover artists, Greenall also provides voices for cartoons. Recent credits include the BBC animated series Monkey Dust.

Greenall's acting credits include comedy shows such as Harry Enfield's Brand Spanking New Show. He has also had cameo roles in the sitcoms Swiss Toni and Trevor's World of Sport and the film Wimbledon.

BEN MILLER

Credits: Listerine, Kit Kat

Ben Miller is a writer and comedian who makes regular appearances on TV. He has had his own series on Channel 4 - as one half of the comedy duo Armstrong & Miller - and recently made the step up to big-screen roles, appearing in films such as Johnny English.

Miller's talent for creating unusual-sounding comic characters has enabled him to create a particularly amusing showreel in which he plays characters as diverse as a roving reporter, a racehorse commentator and an Australian bushman.

"Doing voiceovers is a very good way of keeping your acting hand in," he says. "It enables you to perfect both your timing and your reaction to scripts. Some of the best comedy writers in the country are working as copywriters."

Are there any products he wouldn't sell? "No, not unless the Nazi party start making carpet cleaner."

TOM OLDHAM

Credits: Vodafone, Camelot, Sharwoods

A drama-school graduate, Tom Oldham tried his hand at law and merchant banking before moving into acting. His numerous voiceover credits include Vodafone, Camelot, Sharwoods, Sharp and Garnier.

Oldham specialises in accents including Mancunian, Scottish, RP and his native Geordie. "Being born in Gateshead means you need to be able to speak many foreign accents if you want to be understood," he says.

Oldham's most surreal moment came when he was at South Kensington station auditioning over the phone for the role of an Australian lifeguard. "I had to shout at the top of my voice 'look out, sharks!' before receiving direction from the creative at the other end, then resuming my performance with 'I said, everybody out of the water!' I was nearly sectioned."

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