Homework: The Last Voice You Will Ever Hear

Note: this post is an assignment from Homework, an ongoing collaborative project.  Read more about Homework here, and see the completed response to the assignment from artist Nan D’agostino here.

YOU MAY ALREADY KNOW British actor Patrick Allen, even if the name is not immediately familiar.  American audiences will most readily recognize him from either his role as Detective Pearson in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Dial M For Murder,”(1) or from the unsettling audio sample heard at the beginning of the Frankie Goes To Hollywood song “Two Tribes,” in which he calmly intones: “Mine is the last voice you will ever hear. Do not be alarmed.” (2)

But if the England had been the victim of a nuclear attack in the 1980′s, Patrick Allen might have ended up being the most famous—or at least the most widely heard—actor in the United Kingdom, if not the world.

Born in Nyasaland (now Malawi) in 1927, Allen’s early career was dominated by character roles in low-budget comedies, but it was in voice work that Allen found his greatest success, beginning with voiceover for the 1965 film “The Big Job.”  Though his face was rarely seen and his work often went uncredited, Allen’s narration became ubiquitous in British television and film over the next few decades, eventually becoming the official voice of the E4 television network.

While Patrick Allen was cementing his place in British broadcasting with series like “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color,” his government was preparing to create a very different kind of television program: a series of instructional films intended to aid the survivors of nuclear war.

England had used mass media to educate citizens about survival in wartime since at least 1938, when the pamphlet The Protection of Your Home Against Air Raids was widely distributed to help homeowners protect their property against bombings.  After World War II, when the Cold War and threats of nuclear attack replaced fear of air raids, the government responded in turn, creating a leaflet and accompanying series of public information films addressing entitled “Protect And Survive.”

A dramatically more frank depiction of life after a nuclear attack than its cheery American counterpart “Duck And Cover”, the “Protect and Survive” series covered such grisly details as how to deal with solid waste once running water becomes scarce and the proper methods for corpse disposal when burial is not an option. (3)  But the creators of the films wisely recognized that these crucial instructions would fall on deaf ears if citizens felt that their situation was hopeless.   To be truly effective, “Protect And Survive” would have to deliver this difficult message in a voice that would encourage the British people to maintain faith in not just their government, but in television itself.  In a classified 1974 letter to the BBC made public in 2008, Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications Director H.C Greenwood wrote:

“During the last War we all came to recognize the voices of [BBC announcers] Stuart Hibberd, Alvar Lidell and other main News-readers.I would expect that in the period of crisis preceding an attack a similar association of particular voices with the authoritative ‘Voice of the BBC’ would develop.  The reassurance that “the BBC is still there” would not be gleaned from…an unfamiliar voice.”

The search for this familiar voice led to Patrick Allen; authoritative, warm, and ubiquitous.  The perfect voice to assure the shellshocked victims of a nuclear attack that they are not alone, and that life will soon be back to normal.

Our trust is a highly sought-after commodity. For politicians, it is connected to our votes, for corporations, our dollars.  Navigating a landscape with so many parties vying for this limited resource requires methods for vetting which ones are worthy, whether those methods are logical or not.  In her 1977 essay “This Typeface Is Changing Your Life”, Leslie Savan wrote wrote about one subconscious—and ultimately absurd— method of determining trustworthiness, recognized during the daily trial of finding a restroom on the New York City subway:

“We assume a [subway] restroom to be dirty and disease-ridden, and settle for what we have to.  Occasionally, though, I’ve found a restroom that, before I’d even entered, I’ve assumed with relief was not dirty but clean.  I realize that it was a restroom sign, with its modern, Teflon-smooth letters spelling ‘women,’ that led me to expect a clean toilet.”  (5)

What was this magical typeface that inspired the trust of a cynical New Yorker?  Helvetica, of course; the best way to say, typographically, “trust us, we know what we’re doing.”

YOUR HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT is to think about the illogical aspects of trust.  Identify an instance in which trust has been earned with logic that is questionable, or even faulty.  Consider how this trust benefitted (or adversely affected) either party.  Feel free to include your own experiences, historical events, fictional situations, and/or wild speculations.

And as always, please show your work.


Notes/Recommended Reading:

1. “Patrick Allen.” IMDb. IMDb.com. Web. 12 Apr. 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0019996/>.

2. Ewing, Tom. “Popular.” FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD “€œTwo Tribes”€. 13 Aug. 2009. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <http://freakytrigger.co.uk/ft/2009/08/frankie-goes-to-hollywood-two-tribes/>.

3. Coney, George. “Protect and Survive.” Casualties. Protect and Survive, Feb. 2002. Web. 12 Apr. 2012. <http://www.atomica.co.uk/casualties.htm>.

4. Greenwood, H. L. “Wartime Broadcasting Service.” Letter to R. C. Yeats, Esq. 20 June 1974. MS. Waterloo Bridge House, London.

5. Savan, Leslie. “This Typeface Is Changing Your Life.” Village Voice [New York] 7 June 1976: 26-30. Print.

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