"My imagination was very vivid": the bewitching sound of Liam Neeson's voice

The musical note of Neeson’s baritone was a tuba, a double bass, the left end of a piano, containing the suggestion of a hinterland within.

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“Oh, I guess my imagination was very vivid as a kid,” meanders the actor Liam Neeson on Magic 105.4 FM’s Drivetime show (6 January, 5pm). “Inspired by movies, Saturday matinees, westerns . . .” There was no urgency in Neeson’s tone – “. . . black and white movies, B-movies about mummies . . .” – almost as though he were talking to himself, but still holding the listener by the scruff of the neck. “They all got under my skin in some way. And I was terrified and kind of excited, too.”

The musical note of Neeson’s baritone was perhaps the lowest I had heard it. A tuba, a double bass, the left end of a piano, silencing any blather from presenters. Later, the host asked someone, “Does he use that voice in the movie A Monster Calls? Is that the actual voice he uses?” and the reply was an awed: “Yes.” It made me think of how few such voices there are in modern cinema. Voices that contain the suggestion of a hinterland within them, that are an entirely indivisible part of the actor, their signature, like Katharine Hepburn’s, or Humphrey Bogart’s, or Orson Welles’s.

Later that evening, on Mellow Magic (8pm), the presenter Lynn Parsons started talking about the Neeson interview – which had been short, mere moments. But the voice had cast such a long shadow. She was recalling things that had affected her the most as a child. “In my mind somewhere, there’s something that scared the life out of me. And it was the fantastic actor James Mason.” She mentioned Salem’s Lot, but the inference was that it was Mason who had shaken her, rather than that movie’s vampires. James Mason’s voice. One of the strangest and most characteristic of all time. Preposterously resonant, superannuated. And extinct, like a dodo.

They’re like precious animals, these voices. Once they’re gone, they’re gone for ever. Who would think to speak like Mason now? Who might challenge the 64-year-old Neeson? “I’ve got the hairs going up on my arms just thinking about him,” confessed Parsons, before segueing into the Eurythmics’ “Here Comes the Rain Again”, the song’s line “falling on my head like a memory” sounding appropriately sorrowful.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge