Voices from the Void

Not driving a cab and in possession of a Freedom Pass (an oxymoron if ever there were these days), I have discovered the Underground network to be a pretty scary subterranean place.

Signs everywhere warn of impending danger lurking around every corner: Stand on the right; Wear a face mask; Carry dogs; Fold pushchairs; and for we Baby Boomers: Please hold on to the handrail, which for me should have ‘for dear life’ appended.

You don’t want to hear this

The warning you don’t want to hear over the announcements is “Inspector Sands…”. Apparently, this is a warning of fire somewhere in the bowels of the system.

Luckily the most ubiquitous announcement is “Mind the Gap”, in fact, a whole souvenir industry has sprung up around this urgent warning of impending danger: tee shirts, mugs and even underwear.

When taking my daughter for her first job interview some years ago, we were sitting on the tube when a drunk sitting opposite awoke to the announcement “Mind the Gap”. Our slumbering passenger then started to doze off again, until that is, we reached another station and upon hearing the Mind the Gap announced a second time declared to the rest of the carriage “F**k Me! That bloke gets around”.

First announcement

The original Mind the Gap announcement which had awoken our slumbering friend was first heard in 1968 when AEG Telefunken supplied the recording of an unknown actor, unfortunately, the fellow had insisted on being paid a royalty every time his voice was heard. Unsurprisingly that recording was scrubbed and re-recorded by someone cheaper.
Sound engineer Peter Lodge then took up the baton and his sound tests proved so popular with the powers that be it was decided that his voice should be the announcement broadcast.

Listen to the 12th Earl of Portland

The Earl of Portland was a title bestowed on the first Earl for mopping the fevered brow of King William III who at that time was struck down with smallpox. The 12th and current Earl could once have been heard on the Piccadilly Line, his Mind the Gap announcement earning him the princely sum of £200. Tim Bentinck is best known as the actor who plays David Archer in Radio 4’s The Archers.

The gap problem like so much these days can be blamed on London’s bankers. When tunnelling commenced early in the last century, engineers were concerned that the excavations would undermine the City’s banks. It was decided, where possible, to tunnel beneath the roads, many of which followed their Medieval routes.

As a consequence despite billions being spent on planning, building, refurbishing and rebuilding our trains just don’t fit the stations. Passengers on the Central line at Bank are regularly reminded of this fundamental flaw in the Tube system, gaping enough to accommodate mobile phones, umbrellas, wallets and purses, and Oyster cards.

The sharpest bend

This fear of being sued by powerful property owners has meant Bank station has one of the sharpest bends on the Tube network. This sharp bend has even become represented on Harry Beck’s iconic Tube map where Bank Station is given its own unique kink. There is even some speculation the bend had to be made even sharper so the tunnel didn’t end up in the Bank of England’s vaults.

So just in case you didn’t hear the announcement or are hearing-impaired, platforms now also have the warning painted on the edge at regular intervals. At Baker Street, the worst for gap incidents on an annual basis (which brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘gap year’), blue warning lights have been installed as an extra precaution. Apart from Tim Bentinck, another sounds a bit like Joanna Lumley, and I wait in vain for a ‘darling’ to be added to the end of the announcement.

Voice from Beyond.

At Embankment Station the doom-laden tones of the ‘Mind the Gap’ message on the Northern line station are those of theatrically-trained Mr Oswald Laurence whose stentorian performance is worthy of Shakespeare. He enunciates perfectly, and adds a dramatic pause between the word ‘Mind’ and ‘the’, just to get our attention. His voice had been heard at many a station on the Northern Line, but it was slowly phased out until Embankment was the last place it was used.

After he died in 2007, his widow Margaret would still enjoy listening to his voice, but one day just before Christmas 2012 she was devastated to find he had been replaced. No longer could she enjoy her late husband’s announcements. But when TfL learned that she was missing her Oswald’s voice they did a wonderful thing – they reinstated him.

Featured image: Passengers have to “Mind the gap” at Bank Central Line station by David Hawgood (CC BY-SA 2.0). The Central Line through Bank station is curved sufficiently that the well-known announcement “Mind the gap” warns of a substantial gap between the end doors of a carriage and the platform. The girl in the photo is jumping onto the platform, the woman behind waits to step out.

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