While New Yorkers may have to put up with cacophonous and disjointed announcements on their subway systems– where the voice seems to be screaming at them– the British tube has long been understood to be a more civilized system. The tube was made famous thanks in part to its soothing, silver-voiced announcement to please Mind the Gap.
At its most basic level, it was a simple service announcement, reminding commuters to be aware of the space between the platform and the car. It’s gone on to become a symbol of not just the London Underground, but of London itself. Let’s not forget though, that this iconic phrase started as one more great voice over performance.
Increased traffic, added frequent stops, and adherence to schedules had made it impractical for drivers and station attendants to warn passengers when necessary at the curved platforms. The phrase was coined in 1968 and began airing in London Underground stations along the Central, Northern, and Bakerloo Lines in 1969. The Underground chose digital recording and as storage capacity was expensive, the phrase had to be short. Mind the Gap was the winner.
According to the Independent on Sunday, the sound engineer hired for the project, Peter Lodge, who owned Redan Recorders in Bayswater, working with a Scottish Telefunken engineer, cast and recorded an actor reading “mind the gap” and “stand clear of the doors please,” and called it a day. But it turned into a moment of voice over casting gone wrong when the actor eventually turned back up, insisting on royalties– per use–for the performance! And since “mind the gap” was played thousands of times a day, this was not a cost Transport for London was willing to pay and the phrases were re-recorded. Lodge himself read the phrases, initially just to line up the recording equipment for levels, and in the end, those were the ones they used.
While Lodge’s 1969 recording is still in use, many lines use other versions. Perhaps you remember that soothing feminine voice? That very commonly used track comes from Manchester/Cheshire based voice artist Emma Clarke. (Here’s a great extra read about her, too!) Others, on the Piccadilly line, are by Tim Bentinck, who is not only an Earl, (with a very long title) but who also plays David Archer in The Archers.
Despite its humble and unglamorous origins as a utilitarian safety warning, mind the gap has become its very own stock phrase cottage industry. It’s used in many other contexts having little or nothing to do with travel safety. You can find it in the names of songs, bands, films, production companies, and novels. At least four non-fiction titles use Mind the Gap as their primary title, but rather than the safety warning, these books are about generations, class divides, social science policy and even the origins of human universals.
Mind the Gap is featured in video games, such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Halo, and many more, plus in several animated series. It’s spawned an entire collection of merchandise from mugs to t-shirts, board games, and decorative tins.
Even when used ironically, as it often is today, nothing seems to be able to dislodge the phrase and its Cool Britannia from the public consciousness. Not only is it a staple of modern British personality, but goes down as one of defining moments in voice over performance.