For those in peril on the sea
12:46 16 December 2008
His voice launched the TV channel BBC4 and was heard by billions at the Beijing Olympics closing ceremony. Lynne Mortimer talks to Lowestoft's Zeb Soanes, voice of the iconic Shipping Forecast.
The chances are you would walk right past Zeb Soanes and not have a clue who he is.
It is also likely you could have a chat with him and, though you might think his voice sounds familiar, you won't be able to place it.
It is more probable that you will simply think he has the most amazing speaking voice. And he does.
It is the sort of voice that you could curl up with and cuddle. It is warm, reassuring and beautifully modulated. It's this vocal quality that makes him the ideal person to read out the shipping forecast on Radio 4, a job that by his heritage he seems destined to perform.
After all, he comes from Lowestoft, a town famously associated with Britain's once mighty fishing industry. The shipping forecast has been part of the way of life here.
Miles from shore, in a boat battered and tossed in heavy seas, Zeb's voice has given local trawlermen the information they need to hear.
What you won't hear is much evidence of the local dialect but, born “north of the bridge” in Lowestoft, the 32-year-old can produce a very fine Suffolk accent on request.
When he started his job on Radio 4, he was the station's youngest newsreader. Today, he is still comparatively young to be ensconced at the home of the BBC's fine broadcasting tradition; a place where the spoken word is still revered.
His youth can confound.
“Some people are surprised when they come in and they've not met me before - they've listened to you and then they see you.
“A producer who'd booked me to do a voice-over came into the studio and said, 'Where's Zeb Soanes?' And I said, “That's me.' And she said, 'No it's not.'
“I said, 'I'm sorry?' And she said, 'You have a beard.' And I said, 'I'm sorry?' And she said, 'In my head you have a beard.'
“It just goes to show how strongly people visualise the person that goes with the voice.”
Zeb explains that the shipping forecast is read four times a day on long wave. This is the frequency that sailors and fishermen listen to. It is also broadcast on FM twice a day.
“First thing in the morning and last thing at night is when the general public will hear it. First thing in the morning is 5.20am; last thing is 12 minutes to one in the morning. It's a ten minute read so the last thing you do at night on that shift is read solidly for 10 minutes.”
And, of course, it is live.
“It used to come in on a printer which trundled away behind us and you'd tear it off, but now, of course its emailed to us by the Met Office. It's true public service broadcasting in that it's information people need.”
Does he know all the shipping areas? “I have a map of them on my phone,” he says and reels off a few of the east coast names such as Thames and Dogger.
For many people, the shipping forecast is much more than a mundane list of names with their associated wind factors. Zeb is fascinated by what people think of it.
“Some people find it poetic. For others, it reinforces the sense of being an island nation.
“It's very comforting to be in bed, knowing you're safe. My grandmother's family were fishermen… I really feel I know who I'm talking to. Late at night, it's more intimate.
“With the new maritime technology people can get the information from other places but a third of the people who need the shipping forecast only get it from listening to Radio 4.”
Zeb is short for Zebedee, a man who gets an honourable mention in The New Testament as the father of James and John, two of Jesus' disciples and, aptly, a fisherman.
His dad is a Methodist minister in Lowestoft, and, says Zeb, had no knowledge of The Magic Roundabout character when he named his son after the Biblical figure.
“It could have been worse. I could have been Nebuchadnezzar,” Zeb grins.
He thinks it is a fine name and “in hindsight I wouldn't have changed it.”
He also has his dad to thank, he says, for his beautiful speaking voice, a product of nature rather than nurture.
His roots are firmly bedded in north Suffolk . “My grandmother was born in Pakefield, She was at school in what used to be the Seagull Theatre and then, years later, I was a member of the youth theatre there.”
He went to Northfield St Nicholas infants (now Poplars), Harris Middle School and Denes High School. A passionate interest in the theatre developed from his early teens although he has always been a performer.
“I'd always loved playing characters since I was a little boy doing impressions. That was when I got a taste for it.
“We had a little reporter's tape recorder and I would pretend to interview my sister (he has two, Hannah and Rebecca). I would be Terry Wogan and she'd be Margaret Thatcher; that kind of thing. We used to make the family sit and listen to them all.
“I've always kind of stolen voices - when I've been working with people. If they've got an interesting voice I find myself wanting to learn the nuances of it.”
After A levels, Zeb went to the University of East Anglia where he read English and American Studies, majoring in drama and, inevitably, after college he headed towards the theatre, acting with the Albion Shakespeare Company on their open-air Shakespeare tours.
The troupe performed at National Trust and English heritage properties including Dunwich Heath, where Zeb was to discover one of the vital lessons of alfresco acting. “I got bitten to shreds at Dunwich. I learned to stock up on Jungle remedies.”
He was cast in character roles such as Peter Quince in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. They were the sort of parts he relished.
“When I was growing up, I loved all those Ealing Comedy films and loved Margaret Rutherford, Alastair Sim, Alec Guinness - it was that kind of actor I wanted to be.
Zeb is a huge fan of Guinness and, as he is speaking, you can hear a little of Sir Alec in the cadence of his voice. When I mention it, Zeb proves the point by delivering a line from The Ladykillers which is uncannily Guinness.
At the same time as performing open air Bard, Zeb was doing some broadcasting for BBC Radio Norfolk after his vocal versatility was spotted at an improvised comedy gig at university. He was asked to do some impressions on air. This, in turn, led to Zeb going into the Radio station on a weekly basis to record promotions and trailers in a variety of different voices.
“Gradually, they offered me more work and I started to work in the newsroom, doing travel, editing tape etc, for a couple of days a week. And then, at the same time, one of my teachers at UEA, who taught at Langley School in Norfolk phoned me up and said. 'We need a speech teacher, will you come and teach speech?' So they were the two jobs that, after acting, kept me going," Although: “I was still keeping my eye out for acting work.”
His career, though, was about to change course. He saw an advertisement for a continuity announcer at BBC television in London. He applied, auditioned, got the job and was “off to London ”. That was 10 years ago.
“I thought I'd do that for a couple of years. Acting was still very much the focus and I would take holidays from the BBC and go off and do a play in the summer. I used to be in repertory on the north Norfolk coast at Sheringham.
Initially, the continuity work was on term contracts but Zeb was then offered a full-time staff job. Radio has turned out to be a perfect medium for him.
“When I was going for acting one of the difficulties I always had was that I looked very young but sounded much older. Even though I could change my voice, when you're being met by a director and you're just having a chat all they can hear is the fact that you sound 50 but you look 18.
“For television when you announce: 'This is BBC One', you just sound like everyone else.”
And this too, is part of the art. “With the radio news and the continuity, you don't want to stand out because the news and the programme are the most important things. You would be doing the job badly if people were listening to how you were reading the news.”
But acting skills are not entirely redundant in as they are useful for understanding the text and in telling a story.
Zeb agrees there is a buzz about reading the news on Radio 4. “I love the immediacy of the news. The fact you can start a shift at 5 o'clock on the PM programme and each hour, as you read the news, the stories have developed a little bit - another quote; a bit more colour.
“When you have big national calamities, people go to Radio 4, because they know, even if it doesn't report the news first, Radio 4 takes a little more time but wants to get it absolutely right. The Today programme first thing in the morning on Radio 4 sets the news agenda for many of the papers.
While he is a voice without a face on the radio, Zeb is seen as well as heard when he presents the Proms on BBC4. Here he can indulge his interest in and appreciation of classical music, getting to meet and interview some of the headline performers.
Have there been any hairy moments while he has been broadcasting?
Zeb instantly recalls the day of the 7/7 bombings in 2005 when he was doing the continuity announcements and the 6 o'clock news had been extended from half an hour to an hour.
“Seven minutes into it, live on air, (Charlotte Green) says: 'And now we hand you back to Radio 4 continuity'. Usually if there's a catastrophe you'll get a nod beforehand but they thought there was a bomb outside the newsroom so she just had to go. So I was faced with, potentially, having to fill 45 minutes at tea time.
"Luckily, it was only eight minutes.”
For the future, Zeb looks forward to new challenges and achievements. “I'm quite tenacious. There are things I want to do in my life and I wanted to work for Radio 4 because I always listened to Radio 4 and loved it. I never expected that I would necessarily get there but I had an ambition to work there. It was the same with acting.”
He harbours an ambition to develop a one-man show based either on Kenneth Williams or the young Alec Guinness. You had to be there, really, but his Williams is truly remarkable. The flared nostrils, the incredible vocal range, sliding up from a richly resonant bass to a faux aristocratic tenor to a high-pitched nasal whine scorn… as I say, you needed to be there.
The north Suffolk coast is where Zeb's heart lies - he definitely regards his home town as part of Suffolk - and he looks forward to a time when he can return here. His suggestion that we meet in Pakefield's Ferini art gallery is no coincidence. It was here that he bought the big seascape that now lives on the wall of his Islington home, reminding him of the powerful, natural beauty of this coast.
As the rain eases off, we walk along the beach under a leaden sky. A few fishing boats are dotted about and the wind is teasing the sparse scrub of sturdy plants that live on the strand above high water. Zeb loves this unspoiled stretch of coast. “One of the reasons I like coming back is that it is easier to think here - the still, small voice of calm.”
Excerpt from BBC News online August 23 2008
“He usually broadcasts to just a few thousand early risers, but the voice of the shipping forecast is ready to make his global debut before one billion people at the Beijing Olympics closing ceremony.
Radio 4 announcer Zeb Soanes, … read the distinctive forecast as part of music marking the handover of the Games to London.
He was also asked to read a number of public announcements, including the World Service call sign "This is London," which opens the piece, and the classic London Underground warning, "Mind the gap."
Composer Philip Sheppard's sequence combines elements of the shipping forecast, Jersualem, Greensleeves and harmonies based on the chimes of Big Ben.
Written by Zeb Soanes for The Observer: An excerpt
“The Shipping Forecast was first broadcast on 4th July 1925.
The first time I read it, my right leg was trembling under the continuity desk - I was very aware that I was reading something iconic, and most importantly, having to read it to time. At lunchtime we have precisely three minutes in which to read the forecast, no matter how long or short it may be. The skill here is to read it at an even pace so the listener doesn't notice that you're suddenly having to speed up at the end or stretch it out in order to fit the time. Last thing at night, the longer forecast could be anything between eight-and-a-half and 11 minutes long, and we have to adjust our timings accordingly to ensure that the national anthem is played at exactly 50 seconds before 1 o'clock (otherwise the universe will fold in on itself and all life as we know it will end... or so I was told).”