Welcome to another interview in our “Who’s that Voice?” series, with Elinor Hamilton! Known to millions as the Voice of the London Underground (alongside her late husband), Elinor talks to us about starting out as a radio presenter, the future of voiceover in an AI world and why invisibility would appeal to her!
How did you get started as a VO actor?
I wouldn’t say I slept my way to the top, but… I was already working as a radio presenter on stations across the north of England, when I met my future husband on a sneaky cigarette break on a fire escape outside Tower FM. He was already working regularly as a voice over, and when we got together as a couple (and later joined forces in business) everything went from strength to strength.
What was your first gig?
I honestly can’t remember! It was almost certainly a local radio commercial on which I had to say a phone number very quickly. It’s over twenty years since I started, and back then it wasn’t all that usual to give out a web address as not everyone was online. In fact, most scripts came through by fax.
We know one of your claim to fames, is being the voice of the London Underground (with your late husband). Is it strange hearing your voices on the tube?
It’s very strange but also really comforting. Phil died almost six years ago, but I do love hearing him on the Tube when I go to London. The fact that we still work together – even though he’s no longer alive – is lovely. Although it did make the grieving process pretty tricky – it’s hard to believe someone’s really dead when they’re telling you to Mind the Gap and sounding as normal and healthy as they ever did.
What other memorable gigs come to mind?
Not many really – other than the Underground. I’ve always said that I’m fortunate that my voice isn’t remarkable or trendy. And I mean that in the nicest possible way. It’s just… nice. Clear and warm, and now a little bit more Northern than it used to be. So, I tend not to get massive bookings for international commercials, but I work every single day – usually reading corporate narrations about a huge variety of topics, many of which are fascinating. And while I have children to feed and clothe, I’m grateful that my unremarkable, non-trendy sound has been dependable enough to feed them well, and give them shelter, for years.
What do you love about your job?
I love the flexibility of being able to work from home, although that’s been as much of a blessing as it is a curse, since I’m so easily distracted. All of a sudden the washing up pile starts to look far more appealing when there’s a pile of invoices to go out. During lockdown, very little changed about my working day – I always exercise outside for an hour or so a day, so my routine was identical and I was able to adjust quite easily (although the number of people coming along and asking for snacks did increase dramatically). Don’t even begin to remind me about Home Schooling Hell, though. Try to keep five kids entertained AND work effectively from a soundproof booth.
What are you up to presently?
When my husband died, I not only lost him but I lost his voice and therefore all the business he brought in – and many of my clients too, because they didn’t know how to approach me! So I gradually realised I needed to bring more voices in, and started to “pimp out” a few close friends in the business. It’s grown into eLearning Voices, which is a completely different kind of voice agency from Excellent Talent. I run a small team of people helping the eLearning sector to create beautiful stories and narrations with home-based voiceovers. Especially since lockdown, the creative industries have changed how they work, and want high quality at a very fast turnaround. It’s more important than ever to know where all the best artists are with the best home studios, so they sound like they’re speaking in the same room (even though they’re miles apart).
We know you also host the podcast “Tales from the Tannoy” – can you tell us a little more about it and what it’s like juggling a podcast on top of your regular day?
Well, as previously mentioned, one of my weirder gigs is that I still work daily with my dead husband because we both announce Tube trains all day long. It occurred to me that we hear recognisable voices around us every day – on checkouts, smart speakers, train announcements, and so on – and that Phil and I aren’t the only ones who have an interesting story behind the voices. So I went and interviewed many of the people behind these voices and their life stories are simply fascinating. The podcast has won a number of big industry awards – including the silver ARIA (radio industry Oscars!) for Best Independent Podcast – and I couldn’t be prouder. I’m having a break at the moment before embarking on series three… because juggling a family, a business and a podcast is quite the challenge.
Any VO idols/mentors? What are some of the biggest lessons you may have learned from them?
I can honestly say that there are so many people in this business who have shown such kindness to me and my family in our darkest times, that I couldn’t possibly single anyone out. Suffice to say that it’s an amazing industry to be in, mainly because of the phenomenal people it attracts. Those who really make it big almost always deserve to. And those who make a comfortable living and work daily, without the trappings of fame, are equally deserving of success. If I had to pick from Excellent Talent’s roster then I’d single out Katy Maw, who I interviewed for Episode 5 of my podcast and whose voice and story are just remarkable. She’s also a bloody good egg with a cracking sense of humour and I just love her to bits.
If you weren’t doing voiceover, what else do you think you’d be doing for a career?
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that, whatever it was, it would involve some sort of showing off.
With Facebook changing its name to Meta, and robotic roombas now hoovering our floors, do you think there is a place for AI in the world of voiceover?
Yes, absolutely there is a place for AI in voiceover, whether we professional VOs like it or not. The way I see it is that the opportunity for using VO has increased massively due to the accessibility of audio/video creation with a mobile phone, so the available pie is already much bigger. A lot of these videos use AI voices because they may as well. They were never in a million years going to spend money on a professional, because there’s no value in it to them, so it’s great that they can find something that’s good enough for their purposes.
What we’re finding is that the bigger companies are using voiceovers MORE – to differentiate themselves from the competition, and to show a high level of quality as well as to offer diversity. Companies are now making content with multiple voices from a variety of backgrounds, and making sure that the people behind them are real. So, for example, if the character is Nigerian, they want a Nigerian voiceover, not a white RP actor pretending to be Nigerian (in the old days the attitude seemed to be that it was audio only, so who was going to know?). The client knows, because they booked them. And they care a lot. Rightly so.
The creative market – particularly the gig/freelance economy – is almost becoming a bit artisan, and I often liken what we do to a simple loaf of bread. AI voices are the cheap mass-produced white loaves which serve a purpose, and frankly we all enjoy a slice from time to time. They fill a hunger gap, but you wouldn’t serve sandwiches with them if you wanted to impress a guest. Meanwhile, an artisan loaf, made with care and attention and all the best ingredients, is delicious and impressive and gives just the right message to the person you’re serving it to. Both products have their place, and both do the job of filling you up, but one is quite rightly more expensive than the other, and harder to get hold of.
I think the only voiceovers suffering from the rise of AI are the artists who haven’t invested as much time and money in their studios, or on really becoming masters of their craft. These are the ones who tend to only be found on the cheap “pay to play” sites rather than through an agency with a rigorous selection process, but those sites won’t care as long as they’re selling a dream and allowing just anyone to part with their cash and sign up. Quality shines through – but it comes at a premium. Ultimately, people like working with other people. I can’t ever see that changing.
Can you offer 3 helpful tips for newbies trying to make it in the voice-over industry?
- Although I said earlier that my very neutral voice has been a wonderfully dependable instrument over the years, the number of RP artists out there is so great that the market is pretty flooded. I know I’m now booked more for my experience than my voice – only because you need to be reading long narrations day in, day out, for quite a long time to become proficient – so it’s a hard market to crack when you’re new and not sounding different from anyone else. So, I would probably advise anyone to really capitalise on what makes them stand out and be proud of what makes them different. I’ve spent the last twenty years switching off my light northern accent in front of the mic – now I’m having to furiously backtrack and let people know I’m a real live genuine northerner because I’m booked for that as frequently as I’m booked for RP!
- Invest. Invest money in really good equipment – it really does pay off. But you also need to invest time. Clients are on such tight turnarounds – and there are so many full-time voices already out there – that if you’re not available to do the work straight away, they will go somewhere else.
- Get really good at long form narration. Take the time to understand the material so you really sound like you know what you’re talking about. Anyone can read words in a nice voice but it’s so obvious when people are just reading aloud and not properly imparting information. It’s great to do the really fun jobs like commercials and characters, but most of the bread and butter repeat business comes from very loyal corporate clients and it’s important to look after them by taking the time to do a brilliant job.
And now…onto the more serious questions!
If you had a choice between two superpowers, being invisible or flying, which would you choose, and why?
OMG… that’s a tough one. It would HAVE to be invisibility. SO many opportunities for naughtiness.
If you got to choose a song that would play every time you entered a room, what song would you pick?
I’ve got to choose ONE? Are you kidding? You’d get a different answer every day!
And finally….If you were a brand, what would your slogan be?
Ooh, I don’t know… I’m paid to say other people’s slogans, not think of them myself. Erm, how about “Fast, Filthy, and Found Underground – the voice of the Tube”. It’s slightly better than “Bland and Dependable” which is the sound I’m often hired for!