Those of you who follow my blog posts know that I perform one man theatre shows based on the life and works of my great great grandfather, Charles Dickens. It is a respectable calling and to have a script writer who was one of the greatest novelists the planet has ever seen is quite a privilege. It is fair to say that Charles Dickens guided my professional life for more than 25 years, but there is another individual who recently has occasionally tweaked the tiller and navigated me down a slightly different stream. The gentleman in question is titled (Dickens never was) and is a man of astounding eccentricity, not to mention great imagination. I never know when he will holler, but for ten years or so I have answered his call on numerous occasions.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to introduce you to Sir Sidney McSprocket.
Let me explain. Many years ago I was recording a series of audiobooks featuring unabridged works of Dickens. I was working with a major independent radio company based in London and the idea was to record the complete works in order but unfortunately the corporate suits cut budgets and decided that audio books had no place in the station’s output. It seemed as if the plan had foundered, leaving me, and more importantly, a talented group of producers without work. But from the ashes rose the phoenix of Create Productions, the brainchild of Suzy Jamison and John Hirst. Initially the company took studios in London’s famous Denmark Street, the heart of the capital’s music scene. On recording days I would enter a saxophone shop and then make my way up four flights of stairs (the rickety caged lift took an age to arrive and in one of those quirks of fate it was always at the top of the building when I arrived, and the bottom when I was ready to leave), before arriving somewhat breathless into the stylishly decorated Create offices.
Working with a succession of young producers I would sit in a tiny studio and steadily read Dickens aloud from 10 until 4. Together we recorded The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, as well as A Christmas Carol and some of the other short stories. It was intense work, but great fun and gave me a much deeper knowledge and respect for Charles’ output.
At one recording session one of the producers asked if I wouldn’t mind passing my eye over a script for a new radio show which Create had been engaged to produce on behalf of their client, Fun Kids, a national radio station for children and their families available on DAB digital radio and http://www.funkidslive.com. Fun Kids were launching a show to promote science and technology. The brief was that children should be entertained and inspired so the ‘host’ of the programme needed to be fun, engaging and a little bit bonkers, and this is when Sir Sidney McSprocket was born.
Sidney is a Scottish Laird, living somewhere in the Highlands. He is an inventor of only limited success, for most of his inventions either explode or leave unpleasant smells in their wake, but you can never criticize him for his enthusiasm and quest for advancement. During each episode the listener finds him working on some outlandish invention, before talking about a real-life product, inventor or engineer. Inevitably he is having his favourite snack, a toasted teacake, for he often feels ‘something rumbly in my tumbly!’
For the initial recording (which I now suppose was an audition) I adopted a Scottish accent never before heard on these isles – it was sort of like a sing-song Mrs Doubtfire, without the veracity of Robin Williams’ performance. As his voice soared to high peaks of enthusiasm dogs across the nation must have been howling, wondering what this strange call was.
The wonderful thing was, a year or so later I was invited back to record another series, and another and now I am the official voice of Sir Sidney McSprocket.
During these long months of lockdown I have not worked, with all forms of theatre and public entertainment being impossible under the strict distancing measures that are currently in force. It has been a hard time, and professionally speaking it has felt as if my reason for being has been removed. Of course there is a personal positive flip side to that, being that I have been able to spend so much more time with Liz and our children, enjoying the peace and pace of the countryside, listening to birdsong, watching the trees turn from bare to green and the crops in the fields grow. Together we have discovered beautiful scenery on our doorstep. However as the months have come and gone so have various dates when I should have been on stage performing, and each one has hurt a little bit more.
It was with delight, then, that I opened an email a few weeks ago from Create Productions asking me if there was any way I could record a new series of Sidney McSprocket programmes for Fun Kids. I send a couple recordings made on my phone and laptop, but they were not of suitable quality, so Charlotte, the producer, arranged for a professional microphone to be delivered to the house. I tested the acoustic of various rooms in the house until we discovered that the bedroom, with the blind pulled down, offered the best sound quality: Sir Sidney was ready to ride again.
Charlotte sent me ten scripts, and each one began ‘Och! Hello! Sir Sidney McSprocket here!’ (lots of exclamation marks). The theme throughout this season was linking inventors who exhibited in The Great Exhibition in 1851 with their 21st Century counterparts, making the point to children that inventions were not only something that happened in the olden days, but a constant occurrence and that anyone with an idea and imagination can possibly change the world and be a truly GREAT Briton.
I tackled each script with as much energy as I could muster, whilst ensuring that the story of each invention was told. From 1851 I had such delights as the J Harrison steam loom, the Stereoscope invented by Charles Wheatstone and GM Gilbert’s eccentric Pilot Kite, which was a horseless carriage tugged by a 5 metre kite through the streets of London (quite how Gilbert planned to get around the problem of numerous vehicles making turns at road junctions without all become tangled up was not explained in the script!). Each Victorian inventor was paired with a modern day one and featured in the scripts were James Dyson, (of Ball-Barrow, Dyson bagless vacuum and Airblade handrier fame), Jonathan Ive, the designer behind the stylish look of Apple products and Lucy Hughes who has created MarinaTex a plastic substitute made out of the waste products from fish production, which biodegrades within 6 weeks, thereby protecting the ocean environment.
I don’t know about the children who will be listening to the programmes, but I was becoming more and more inspired!
But then I came to two modern inventors who brought both Sidney and Gerald to a crashing halt: Oluwaseyi Sosanya and Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh. This collections of letters looked less like pronounceable names and more like an eyesight test at a high street optician and the thought of attempting them in my McSprocket accent was terrifying.
Taking Sosanya first, I searched the internet and eventually found a YouTube clip that featured his name, allowing me to write down a phonetic pronunciation of his name, which actually proved easier than I had anticipated. For the record Oluwaseyi has developed a method of weaving in three dimensions, as well as a computer programme that allows the user to build the model in virtual reality.
Jane proved to be more difficult prospect, however. The scriptwriters from Fun Kids had helpfully provided their own phonetic translation, but I wasn’t convinced, they suggested that Jane Niggle Quintish would suffice, but I wanted to delve deeper. As the YouTube route had proved so successful with Oluwaseyi Sosanya I returned to that platform and sure enough discovered a documentary about Jane and her Sugru company. The piece was narrated by an Irish reporter which meant I would get not only the correct pronunciation but the inflection as well although unfortunately he glided through the name with a silky speed which meant that I couldn’t distinguish any specific syllables, beyond realising that ‘Niggle Quintish’ wasn’t going to work.
My next idea was to send message to my sister Nicky who lives in Ireland. It ran: ‘Panic! Help needed from Ireland!! I am doing some voiceovers for a children’s science radio programme and have to talk about a young Irish inventor: Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh. – HOW DO I PRONOUNCE!!!!!?????’ Subtle, adult and to the point, I am sure you will agree.
Although Nicky is not an Irish speaker her daughter-in-law Una certainly is (and a teacher, to boot), so my request was swiftly forwarded to her and returned, with a full explanation as to how the Irish language works, which was fascinating in its own right. Not only did Una provide the phonetics but also recorded a beautifully modulated, and slow, voice memo. Oh, families are a wonderful thing.
I printed out the name and placed it on the wall behind my laptop so when the time came I could easily read it.
I started the script and as the first use of Jane’s name approached, I glanced at my crib sheet: would I get the pronunciation right? Could I do it in Sidney’s accent? YES! was the answer to both questions, I sailed through JANE KNEE GULL-QUAAN TIGH only to find the next line completely impossible to deliver: ‘From Ireland, Jane is the inventor of Sugru – an innovative mouldable glue’ Innovative modular glue? Impossible to say, and my pride took a severe fall as I attempted take after take
Finally I got the entire series recorded and sent it back to Charlotte at Create. What a fun couple of days I had inhabiting my old friend the mad professor, and I hope that he is waiting for me with more mad experiments.
But for the time being, As Sir Sidney McSprocket himself says at the end of these episodes: ‘Tatty bye for now!’
For those interested in listening to some previous episodes of Inspiring Engineering here are the links: