Voice

Victoria Brignell on Chelmsford, the power of radio and a particularly limiting aspect of her disabi

When I was given my first job in BBC radio I almost felt as if I had been destined to work there. I come from Chelmsford, Essex, and on the outskirts of the town there are brown tourist signs which declare the place to be the "birthplace" of the wireless.

This boast does rather overlook the fact that the development of radio can be attributed to the work of a number of people including Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Heinrich Hertz, Augusto Righi, Nikola Tesla, David Hughes and Sir Oliver Lodge, none of whom have any connection with Chelmsford, so far as I'm aware.

But Chelmsford does have a genuine claim to being the home of radio because not only was it here that Marconi first started manufacturing wirelesses but it was also here that the first live radio entertainment broadcast was made.

Guglielmo Marconi first began experimenting with the transmission of radio waves in 1894 at his family's home in Bologna, Italy. He was only 20 years old at the time. Gradually he increased the distance the signals could travel - across a room, along a corridor and from the house into nearby fields.

Eventually, using rudimentary apparatus, Marconi succeeded in sending radio waves to a receiver positioned 1.5 miles away on the other side of a hill. (His servant was allegedly told to fire a rifle whenever he received the letter S in Morse.)

Although other men had previously performed important research into electromagnetism and had demonstrated the underlying principles, Marconi was the first person to realise the practical and commercial possibilities of this new technology.

After moving to England in 1896, Marconi carried out further experiments in London, the Isle of Wight and on Salisbury Plain, managing to extend his range to more than nine miles and sending a signal across the Bristol Channel.

Having been granted the first wireless telegraphy patent, he went on to establish the Wireless Telegraphy and Signal Company. In 1898 he opened the world's first radio factory in a former silk mill in Chelmsford, employing about 50 people. These days the building is used by the Essex and Suffolk Water Company.

In the years that followed, Marconi continued to make technological advances. In 1899 he managed to transmit across the English Channel and two years later he achieved a major breakthrough when he successfully sent the first wireless signals 2,000 miles across the Atlantic from Cornwall to Newfoundland, Canada.

Wireless telegraphy quickly became accepted as an essential form of communication, and its reputation was enhanced still further in 1909 when two ships collided off the east coast of the United States - wireless telegraphy was used to summon rescuers, saving more than 1,700 lives.

And the fact that more than 700 people survived the Titanic disaster was largely thanks to the Marconi staff on board who used radio equipment to send distress calls to nearby shipping. (Marconi himself was originally scheduled to sail on the Titanic but a few days beforehand changed his plans.)

During its first decade the Marconi Company expanded rapidly. By 1912 the original Chelmsford factory had become too small so Marconi decided to move his workforce into new premises in the town.

This was the first purpose-built radio factory anywhere in the world. The grand opening was timed to coincide with the International Telegraphic Conference taking place in England that year and a special train brought delegates to Chelmsford to tour the factory.

A special milestone was reached on 15th June 1920 when the world's first advertised public radio entertainment broadcast was made in Chelmsford.

The famous Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba sang in a recital broadcast from Marconi's factory. Two years later the first regular entertainment broadcasts began from a radio station set up in a wooden hut in the village of Writtle on the edge of Chelmsford.

This ex-army hut formed part of the Marconi Research Establishment. Using its call sign Two Emma Toc ("2MT" for short), it began transmissions in February 1922 and for a year it broadcast daily half-hour programmes of news and entertainment.

Early in 1922, Marconi began liaising with other interested organisations to set up the new British Broadcasting Company. After much persuasion, the government finally granted it a licence to operate and by 1924, 18 radio stations had been set up in major cities around the country.

Chelmsford continued to play a key role in pioneering broadcasting technology. In its early years, the BBC was only able to broadcast local programmes on medium wave from its network of relatively low power transmitters. Anyone living beyond the reach of a medium wave transmitter could not hear the BBC. But in June 1924, a new experimental transmitting station was opened in Chelmsford using long waves which could enable most of the country to receive BBC broadcasts. This transmitter was judged to be a success and the following year, on July 25th (which, incidentally, is also my birthday) it was moved to the more central location of Daventry in Northamptonshire.

John Reith, the BBC's first director-general, felt strongly that the BBC should also be offering a service to people living overseas. Despite financial and technical problems, an experimental station using short waves opened in Chelmsford in 1927 which was able to broadcast programmes to the British Empire. This too was eventually transferred to Daventry where a permanent empire station was established. Later, when the BBC began its television service in 1936, the first regular television service in the world, it used transmitters designed and made in Marconi's Chelmsford factory.

Marconi is often credited as being the inventor of radio, the person who built upon the work of other scientists to create a workable radio communication system. This is a matter of some debate.

It is possible that the Russian scientist Alexander Popov beat him to it. But what is clear is that Marconi was the first person to develop the technology on a large scale and that Chelmsford owes a great deal to the radio industry.

Much of the town's growth in the first half of the 20th century can be attributed to the Marconi Company which brought jobs and investment to the area. Indeed, it has been said that if the British followed the practice of the Americans, the inhabitants of Chelmsford would now be living in Marconiville. The history of radio and the history of my hometown are closely intertwined.

So it seems somehow appropriate that I should end up working as a radio producer for the BBC. But there's also a certain irony about this. Radio is a medium that celebrates the human voice. Whether you listen to pop groups on Radio 1, opera singers on Radio 3 or lively conversation on Radio 4, voices are always at the heart of radio. And yet one unfortunate side-effect of my disability is that I have an irritatingly small voice.

When I underwent an operation at the age of six to remove a tumour from the spinal cord in my neck, it not only made me paralysed from the neck down but it also left me with weak lungs. Last autumn, during an appointment at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, a physiotherapist measured my lung capacity and discovered that it is about a fifth of what you would expect for a woman of my age. This voice impairment is one of the most frustrating aspects of my tetraplegia.

In a normal setting my voice weakness isn't too much of problem. But if I'm in a noisy bar or restaurant, it can be hard for the people around me to hear what I'm saying, which obviously makes conversation pretty tricky. I often end up leaving early, not because I want to be antisocial but because I get to a point where the effort of trying to make conversation gets too much and the frustration and embarrassment of not being heard outweighs the pleasure of being with friends.

What makes my voice impairment worse is that if I'm nervous I tend to rush my words and have difficulty working out the best way of expressing whatever it is I want to say. A weak voice, shyness and lack of confidence make a lethal combination when it comes to communicating clearly. It's all too easy for a vicious circle to develop.

For example, when I begin speaking in a meeting, I worry that people can't hear me. At the same time I become anxious about saying something stupid and making a fool of myself. As a result, I panic and try to finish what I'm saying as soon as possible. This causes me to talk too quickly and leave out pieces of information so by the time I've finished speaking, the chances are that the people at the meeting have indeed not heard me properly. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sometimes being misheard can lead to amusing misunderstandings. I remember a few years ago chatting to a friend's husband at a wedding reception. There was a disco in full swing nearby and it wasn't the easiest environment in which to hold a conversation. This friend is a very talented artist and I remarked to her husband that I was looking forward to seeing her new paintings. A shocked expression passed over his face as he heard the word 'nude'. "I don't think she does that kind of art," he replied.

If I could choose to change one element of my disability, I would opt to regain the use of my arms first. But second on my list would be to acquire a normal strength voice. It would mean far more to me than being able to walk again. While other people might dream about becoming rich or famous, I fantasise about acquiring a beautiful voice.

There are two particular voices I admire. For every day use I long to have the voice of the Radio 4 newsreader Charlotte Green. If you've never heard Charlotte Green then just imagine the audio equivalent of melting chocolate and you'll have an idea of what you're missing.

For the occasions when I want to sing, I would like to steal the voice of the soprano Elin Manahan Thomas. On BBC4 on Easter Sunday I heard her perform Allegri's Miserere with The Sixteen choir and it was simply sublime. I have a passion for early music and, in my view, to be able to sing works by such masters as Palestrina, Thomas Tallis and Bach must be the closest you can get to paradise in this world.

It's good to dream. But sooner or later you have to come to terms with reality. My philosophy is the same as Monty Python's - always look on the bright side of life. My voice isn't always a problem. If I'm in a small meeting of just three of four individuals, people are able to hear me. Strange as it might seem, I also feel comfortable giving a speech to a large audience. This is because I have a script in front of me, so there's no pressure on me to remember the points I need to make. I can practice what I'm going to say beforehand and work out the best points to take a breath. And sometimes there might even be a microphone available which overcomes the problem of having a small voice. There have been five times in my life when I've had to deliver a speech to a group of more than 50 people and I've always felt happy doing so.

Thankfully, my voice can be loud when the occasion demands. Although I find it difficult to maintain a high level of sound over a long period, my lungs are strong enough to shout a word or short phrase.

A particular incident at university comes to mind. At night I use an intercom to call my carer when I need assistance. It's the kind of intercom that parents use to hear their babies. These days I employ carers myself but during my three years at university I lived in a hostel for disabled students and used the carers employed by the hostel. One night I woke up, called out and waited but no carer came. I called out again. Still no carer. With a sinking feeling, it dawned on me that my intercom must have broken down. I kept on shouting the carer's name but as she was in a room on the opposite side of the building, I knew the probability of her hearing me was about the same as my winning an Olympic figure skating gold medal. Now and again, though, miracles do occur. Eventually, I managed to yell so loudly that I woke up another disabled student at the end of my corridor. He pressed his help button and thus finally the carer appeared in my room. The relief was immense.

Having a weak voice can be annoying, but it's better than having virtually no voice at all. This was the predicament I faced for the first few months after I became disabled. In the hours following my operation, I developed breathing problems so the doctors gave me a tracheostomy and fixed me up to a ventilator and I was for a while unable to talk in barely more than a whisper. Somehow, though, I managed to get by. My parents quickly learnt how to lipread me and if I needed to attract someone's attention, I used to tut. By the time the tracheostomy was finally removed six months later, I had developed tutting into something of an artform.

Getting rid of the detested tracheostomy filled me with a sense of jubilation. But although this gave me back my voice, my lungs at that point were still weaker than they are now. What helped to improve my breathing was taking part in my junior school's choir. Luckily, no audition was necessary. The school policy was to encourage everyone to join. Little did I appreciate it at the time but all those years I spent singing songs from Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat proved to be highly beneficial. I suppose I ought to show my gratitude to Andrew Lloyd Webber so just in case he happens to be reading this - thank you.

It's true that I will probably always feel more at home with the written word than the spoken word. However, I don't feel out of place spending my days in the world of radio. I know I don't have the vocal talent to be a presenter or reporter, but I'm happy working behind the scenes and leaving the on-air stuff to the successors of Dame Nellie Melba.