Listen to Claire talking about Portraits in Sound on Brooklands Radio:
"It's not just what people have done that makes them interesting, but who they are... it's easy to judge people when you don't know much about them..."
Third Age Matters, Spring 2015: Focus
You can't hear your ancestors' stories - but you can tell yours.
Radio producer Claire Peyton Jones runs Portraits in Sound, one of several companies that help people to record their voices for future generations.
WE ARE surrounded by loved ones in pictures and objects around our homes - but one thing that brings them rushing into focus is their voice in person, on the phone, or in a recording. On my desk I have my grand-mother's ivory letter opener. When I use it I remember her with pleasure - cycling round to her house after school when I knew she was having a bridge afternoon so I could soak up the approbation of her friends and eat quantities of cake. The carved elephant at the end of the letter opener brings to mind the tales of her childhood in India. I can remember some, and can pass on these stories to my grandchildren one day. But what a marvellous thing it would be if I had a recording of her telling these stories herself.
Now a small number of businesses specialise in just this, appreciating what a vital thing the voice is in carrying the personality. For a reasonable fee they will record someone talking about their life and create a lasting record of that person's life history. Many of these businesses are run by people with a background in radio and work to broadcast standards. They argue that audio is as much a visual medium as film is because it encourages you to see pictures in your mind. It is much easier to imagine an elderly person as a child if you are not looking at them as they are now. Another advantage of being interviewed using just a microphone is that it is easier for an inexperienced interviewee to relax and unfold if they are not worrying about what they look like.
There are several companies and they have different styles. Portraits In Sound specialises in making a lively listen by cutting out the voice of the interviewer so all the focus is on the subject, editing the interview to sharpen and structure it and illustrate it with music and sound effects. Lives on Record and Lifetime-stories provide the interview edited as a two-way conversation. Spoken Memoirs has an oral history perspective - the interview forms the basis of writing a memoir, so the interview itself is largely unedited, and the attention goes into making the text more fluent. I suggest you browse their websites, listen to examples, decide which you like the sound of most, and discuss it with them to make your choice.
So who should consider it? One company I spoke to suggested it was not just for the over-seventies with a dramatic story to tell - but ordinary people of any age with a family they love. One woman who had a portrait in sound made to give to her grandchildren was pleased to see that they loved it. But she was astonished by the dramatic effect the recording had in reconciling her to her estranged sister. Memories of a shared childhood possibly healed the breach. Exploring our ancestry is an increasingly popular pastime. Imagine being able to hear your great-great grandfather talking about his life. Now you can ensure that will be easy for the generations to come.
www.portraitsinsound.co.uk (based in London and Chichester)
FEATURE, March 2013
Memories of loved ones come in a variety of guises. For former broadcaster Claire Peyton Jones, it is always the human voice that leaves the most lasting impression. Fiona Adams hears her story
In homes up and down the country, great and small alike, the rooms are filled with the remembrance of things past: images of loved ones and ancestors adorning the walls and furniture, defiantly holding back the years. Once, before the advent of photography, miniatures and painterly portraiture would have been the chosen currency of preservation; perhaps even the odd lock of hair. Today, in the digital age, memories are just a click away: people, places and moments frozen for ever in time. Yet each of us has one priceless asset that strikes an even more resonant chord, elevating memory to an intense and evocative plane: our voice.
Claire Peyton Jones, former broadcaster at the BBC, spent her early career learning the techniques of interview at the hands of master producer Piers Plowright. Since then, she has developed this passion for the unadulterated telling of stories into a successful business recording people's memories and anecdotes.
"Piers's preferred style of interview was always to cut out the presenter. He wanted the material to talk and he trained me with that in mind," she explains. "I suppose he saw the interviewer as merely the facilitator. Rather than listening to a conversation, the most intimate feeling on radio is the sense that you're being talked to."
Claire, who spent her formative years in Esher and Richmond, began her company Portraits in Sound three years ago, but it was after hours at the BBC that she made her first forays into private recording.
"I started back in the 1980s, doing sound portraits for my family. I finished work at 6pm and had a studio all to myself, so I thought: 'Right, I'll interview my granny and my uncle, and have some fun.' Of course, I had to beg my granny, as she didn't think she had anything to say. But I was interested. I'd interviewed so many people and found that, if you let them talk, so much comes out; things you'd never otherwise have known.
"Granny was a colourful character, fond of golf, bridge and her gin and mixed. It was magical being able to play the CD of her later to my children, who weren't even thought of when she died. They were all captivated by her voice, which says so much more than the stories she tells, revealing her humour and warmth. This was the genesis of my idea: to do the same thing for other families."
Where a painted portrait draws attention to a subject's appearance, Claire's portraits reflect her love affair with the human voice, focusing heavily on the subject's experiences and bringing them into the present. Inevitably, many of the interviewees have seen quite a lot of life.
"One of my clients was 90, but she didn't want anyone to look at her as an old woman because she had once been attractive with lots of lovers! That can be quite hard to picture, but the voice gets beyond all that. You hear someone talking about when they were young and attractive, and you can really imagine it."
People come to Claire because they want a permanent record of family history, or to preserve memories and anecdotes as a gift for children and grandchildren. Some of them, in fact, have quite a story to tell. "One lady commissioned me to interview her, and while I was there her niece turned up. On the way out, the niece said: 'I do hope you got the story about Churchill!' I said: 'Nope, but I'm going straight back in to get it now!' Actually, there was a whole lot more to come out. The niece was one of seven cousins, but none of them had ever had the courage to ask their aunt about her love life, or why she'd never married. For me these were perfectly innocuous questions and she answered them."
Most clients give Claire free rein and, though initially nervous, soon loosen up and enjoy their time in the spotlight. "I usually say: 'Tell me everything you want included.' Some people are very awkward for the first five minutes - one woman thought it would be like a grilling on the Today programme! But if you just start at the beginning, things tend to come out naturally."
Claire, it is apparent, takes seriously her role as a keeper of secrets. "I do think people find it cathartic. I feel a bit like a priest in a confessional. That's certainly how I behave. If somebody were to tell me something to get it off their chest, and it clearly wasn't appropriate to put it in their portrait, it would never go any further. I often find it humbling. It's very easy to judge people when you only know a little about them; to come to conclusions. But with a portrait in sound you see them in broader perspective: their sense of humour, their experience, their difficulties. I always end up admiring the clients and come away thinking that I've learnt from them."
For more local articles visit elmbridgemagazine.co.uk
The Magazine of Fishbourne and Apuldram Parish Churches
Parish People - Claire Peyton Jones
If Claire Peyton Jones lives in London, how can she be a 'parish person'? The answer is that she has been a familiar figure at many of the services at Apuldram and Fishbourne church during the past five years, and has been especially noticed this last year, when accompanied by her amazingly well behaved and delightful puppy, Freya. Claire and husband Jeremy moved their boat to Dell Quay from its previous location in Totnes! The idea came to Claire whilst they were sailing in the Channel Islands the summer before as their son Patric was about to start at Dulwich College and she realised that they would have many more free weekends as he would be leaving Southwark Cathedral, where he was a chorister, so Chichester would be more convenient than Devon.
Brought up in Esher, Surrey, Claire had thought she might be a Philosophy lecturer or head teacher but, obtaining her degree at York University, returned to the south to work in London in Radio Features for the BBC, where she stayed for 10 years until her daughter Miranda was born.
In 2009 Claire formed her own company - Portraits in Sound (check out www.portraitsinsound.co.uk). The idea came about when she made a recording of her grandmother in the 1980s, which has given much pleasure to the family. it occurred to her that of the interviews she didn't sell to Radio 4, that they would be wonderful for their families to enjoy. This has proved to be the case, and Claire records people's reminiscences for their families, organisations or archives. She takes time off in the summer, but is always under pressure before Christmas because people want Sound Portraits for family gifts.
Claire can vaguely link interviewing people with her original hopes, as she encourages people to think and reflect. She is quietly proud that even the people who had been hostile or anxious beforehand have all enjoyed their interviews in the end. She has found her work to be a privilege, and a wonderful way of encouraging people to record their testimonies of faith, to pass on to and encourage future generations......
It is impossible to keep Religion and Politics separate, Claire believes. If you think you can, you have no understanding of history or the moral foundation on which all our legislation is based. Everything is informed by Christian values. The 'raison d'étre' of Law rests upon Church teachings.
Thinking about a life lesson she has learned, Claire recalls Psalm 30 'Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning'. The bad times don't last or have dominion.
When asked what her hope for the future is, Claire has one word - 'Jesus'. Whatever difficulties she has had or will encounter, she believes there will be a plan. Jesus is her hope for today, tomorrow and the future."
Portraits in Sound: Interview with Claire Peyton Jones
Interviewing people about their life seems such a marvelous idea. Tell me how you started?
When l worked for BBC radio, I recorded my grandmother - Molly Ullman - who will still be remembered by some in Esher as a very colourful character, fond of golf, bridge and her gin and mixed! This was the genesis of my idea of doing the same thing for other families. It was magical being able to play the CD years later to my children, who were not even thought of when she died. They were all captivated by her! Her voice says so much more than the stories she tells. It reveals her sense of humour and warmth - you can hear an extract of her [and others] on my web-site.
What sort of people approach you to make a sound portrait?
That's what I love about my work. There is such variety. One Esher gentleman Edward regretted not having written his memoirs, so asked me to record them for his grandson. Others are persuaded to do it by their children. Some do it just for fun, others are anxious they may not be interesting: often these people are the most thoughtful and reflective, so I've never gone away with a dull interview. The only thing my clients have in common is how much they enjoy the experience of being encouraged to reminisce!
Why do you call it a portrait?
When you see a painted portrait, you don't see the artist - the attention is all on the subject. In the same way, I always like to cut my voice out so you just focus on the person being interviewed without the distraction of the personality of the interviewer. I was trained to do this by the legendary BBC Radio feature maker Piers Plowright. They say if you listen to an interview where you can hear the questions, you are eavesdropping. When you listen to just one voice, you are being talked to. I agree! It's also a considered piece of work like a portrait as opposed to a snap shot - it aims to not just tell a story but capture something of the personality. I like to tread the fine line between creating an honest portrait and one that is celebratory and life affirming.
What preparation do people need to do?
None, an interview can be fresher if not prepared for and worried over. We just need a quiet roornwhere we will be free from interruptions. Sometimes I'm asked to include a favourite anecdote by another member of the family.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about doing a portrait?
Don't wait. Tomorrow you may break a leg and have a miserable voice! Catch the moment - if the idea interests you, go for it!