The trick to turning butterflies into a box of miraculous delights, Zeb Soanes in conversation with WSO's Helena Todd.

This year Wimbledon Symphony Orchestra is very excited to be sharing the platform with BBC Radio and Television broadcaster Zeb Soanes. Zeb will narrate Peter and the Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood in our family concert on 20th November, which features as part of Wimbledon International Music Festival 2016. WSO’s Helena Todd took the opportunity to pose a few questions to Zeb to help us know a little more about the man behind the soothing tones that many recognise as the voice of the shipping forecast.

What are you most looking forward to about this concert?

Peter and the Wolf is a piece I have wanted to perform for years.  I first heard it in my Primary school.  I had a wonderful music teacher called Mr. Taylor who illustrated pieces of music on an overhead projector, then played the record and we would copy the pictures into our books - even now when I hear those pieces of music I can visualise his illustrations.

There are so many characters in Little Red Riding Hood and Peter and the Wolf. How did you devise their voices?

Mostly the voices that I hear in my head when I first read something are the ones I choose, it’s instinctual,  then when you try them out loud you discover how easy they are to sustain, whether they are clear enough in a live performance.  You try to make them as distinct as possible and fully rounded characters.

How do you then practice these voices into familiarity?

I don’t think about it, it’s just like singing - you think of the note and then you sing it.  I think of the character and my body does what it needs to do to make the right sounds.  I’ve played with my voice and made silly voices since I was a child; we had a cassette recorder with a microphone and I would pretend to be Terry Wogan or Russell Harty interviewing my sister as Margaret Thatcher.

Besides news shows, you have presented a number of music shows including The Proms and Songs of Praise. You are also a patron for Awards for Young Musicians. Where does this musical involvement come from?

From my family.  My sisters and I were encouraged to play the piano, my mother was in a choir and dad played the church organ.  I used to come home from school and spend hours improvising on the piano.  AYM is a wonderful charity, funding talented young musicians who otherwise couldn’t afford to buy an instrument or take lessons.  Two BBC young musical winners have been supported throughout their studies by the charity.

Your voice is a real tell tale of how you are feeling emotionally. How did you train out quivers, shakes, audible smiles?

A studio microphone is a very sensitive lie detector, you can’t fake ‘fun’ or ‘sympathy’ and it makes me cringe when I hear it.  That means it can be tough when you’re reading the news at 5.30am and wishing you were still in bed.  Everyone feels nerves sometimes, particularly when things go wrong or you’re covering a major event that you know millions are tuning in for.  You develop a kit bag of psychological tricks to deal with these things and my way of handling nerves is to tell myself the butterflies are actually excitement and a willingness to get on with whatever it is I’m about to do.  And an audible smile is a wonderful thing, when you want to show it: it can subtly suggest incredulity or elicit forgiveness if you’ve said something you shouldn’t.

If you could spend a month in another job of your choice, what would it be?

A tea-buyer - flying around plantations drinking tea - what could be better?  (Wine could be substituted for tea if there are no vacancies but it would be a short career.)

Were there early signs of you being a news reader? How were you spotted?

I was a very shy child but it didn’t stop me wanting to be a performer so long as I was being other people.  I used to invent puppet shows and do all the voices, I wrote plays in my primary school and had a very inspirational drama teacher at High School, who was rewarded with a thank you in last year’s BAFTAs by another former student.  At university I was in an improvised comedy show and was spotted by the BBC because I was a good mimic until one day needed me to read the news (which was terrifying).  My career-plan was to be an actor playing anyone other than myself and have ironically spent the last 20 years mostly using my own voice.

What from your childhood do you associate with Christmas?

One of the most magical children’s television programmesIsaw as a child was The Box of Delights (BBC, 1984) which had Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony as its theme.  Whenever I hear that piece of music it feels like Christmas and I am 9 years old.  It has made me love The First Nowell for the same reason.

Is there something in particular you would love to narrate or a show you would like to appear on?

I would love to narrate Britten’s setting of W.H. Auden’s poem Night Mail to accompany a screening of the GPO film for which it was composed and I would quite like to live in the BBC’s Cranford (only with better medical facilities).


 Zeb Soanes

Zeb Soanes