Podcast Transcript – Episode 4: Alison Dowling

In the fourth episode of our podcast, Alison Dowling, Voice Squad artist and star of The Archers, joins us to discuss radio and audiodrama.

In order to ensure accessibility for all, we have provided a transcript of the episode below. If you would prefer to listen to the episode, visit our podcast page here.

Episode 4: Alison Dowling

David John: (00:00)
So welcome back to the Squadcast. If you've been here before, welcome back, if it's your first time - hello. This is the podcast from London voice agent Voice Squad. It's for people connected to the voice over world, involved with audiodrama, or if you're just interested in that world, you're also very welcome.

David John: (00:17)
We'll be talking about life of a voice agency and all the skills involved with being a voice squad artist. I am presenting, my name's David John. I'm a voiceover at Voice squad and I also work in dubbing as a dubbing director and I'm the Equity Audio Counsellor. So I'm kind of always in and around audio.

David John: (00:39)
I'll be interviewing other people who are also working in the audio world regularly - actors and casting people, producers. Today I'm really happy to have my dear friend Alison Dowling. Hello Alison!

Alison Dowling: (00:51)
Good morning Dave!

David John (00:51)
Alison's really well, most known nowadays I would say, for Elizabeth Archer in The Archers, wouldn't you? Probably?

Alison Dowling: (01:00)
Yep, thirty-five years...

David John: (01:00)
Unbelievable. But she's also at Voice Squad of course, and has worked on all sorts of things. Commercials, animation, computer games, corporate work, you name it, Ali's done it. Including ADR of course.

Alison Dowling: (01:17)
Yeah. It's such a big field now, isn't it? The voice industry?

David John: (01:21)
It seems to have grown, over all those years, yeah...

Alison Dowling: (01:22)
Yeah, massively.

David John: (01:23)
Yeah. So we're going to chat about you and about your life in audio and really, where did it all start? I mean, you, you are an actor. So you started in theatre or film...?

Alison Dowling: (01:35)
Well, I started as a child performer. I went to a stage school.

David John: (01:42)
Right! That rings a bell!

Alison Dowling: (01:42)
Got to do a bit of everything. Singing, dancing and drama and worked in stage television, film and recording. And my very sort of first foray into the voiceover world was an audition I got for the film Tommy, which was directed by Ken Russell. So that's a good start, isn't it?!

David John: (02:03)
Bit of a legendary movie!

Alison Dowling: (02:03)
Yeah. Um, and I spent a couple of days in Ramport studios in Battersea. I don't know if they still exist - it's a long time ago. Um, yeah. With Keith Moon and Roger Daltrey, as I was doing the voice of Tommy as a young boy with Roger Daltrey singing the adult lines.

David John: (02:22)
I didn't know that! I'm going to have to listen to that again!

Alison Dowling: (02:23)
It was amazing. They apparently they auditioned lots of choir boys and young male actors. And then ultimately the female voice worked better on this beautiful little angelic young young boy that played Tommy. So that's where it all started.

David John: (02:38)
I've definitely got to back and have a look at that. I'd love to have seen Keith Moon play the drums. I just missed him.

Alison Dowling: (02:43)
Yeah, they were, they were so amazing. Yeah. And they were really nice to me. You know - I was a kid of 11.

David John: (02:50)
And what was the school you were at?

Alison Dowling: (02:51)
I was at Barbara Speake Stage School.

David John: (02:53)
God, that's a bit of a story from the... '70s, I guess it was?

Alison Dowling: (02:59)
Yeah. Great, great start. A little bit of everything. And so that was the first - that was my first voice job really.

David John: (03:05)
And then when you kind of left as an adult, was it kind of radio drama that - ?

Alison Dowling: (03:09)
No, I was [at a] voice agency and I started off doing primarily commercials. I did a string of commercials with Kenny Everett. The job in The Archers came up as a casting that came into the office. They were looking for a young actress to cast as Elizabeth Archer and I took the train to Birmingham along with many others. Auditioned with the lovely Norman Painting. He played Phil Archer - her father in the program - and we just recorded a couple of scenes, got the train back to London and then forgot about it.

David John: (03:41)
So was that a new - ?

Alison Dowling: (03:42)
I'd never done radio drama before at all.

David John: (03:44)
Did The Archers exist as a program or was it a new thing?

Alison Dowling: (03:48)
No The Archers has been going, yeah, many, many years. Yeah. So it was quite privileged to begin within this Archers family, which now thirty-five years later I'm still part of, and it has such a devoted fan base. Also the actors that I've worked with over the years in the Archers, it's something you'd never get to do. It's all sort of like having a nine-to-five but still being an actor.

David John: (04:12)
Yeah, it's almost, I suppose it's like a theatre company, but it goes on and on forever...

Alison Dowling: (04:16)
Yeah. We've had, you know, we've grown up as families together, working relationships, something that you don't normally experience as a jobbing actor.

David John: (04:26)
I suppose we get that with ADR as well -

Alison Dowling: (04:28)
Almost like a rep group, that you get to see the same people.

David John: (04:32)
Which is good. I like that, it's really nice.

Alison Dowling: (04:32)
Yeah, it's lovely. It's really team playing.

David John: (04:35)
So do you think having that role has kind of changed the way your career went? Has it influenced it in any way or has it meant less radio drama or more?

Alison Dowling: (04:47)
I think quite fairly, it's meant less radio drama -

David John: (04:51)
Because you're such a well known voice -

Alison Dowling: (04:52)
I think that people generally tend to cast it - you know there's so many actors that adore the medium of radio. Naturally they're going to give other people a chance. And the BBC has a rep company where people can get to meet lots of different directors and play many parts, which is terrific because often with visual casting there's certain roles you're never going to get to play if you don't look right.

David John: (05:12)
You're restricted. Right, exactly.

Alison Dowling: (05:13)
Yeah. So doing The Archers has given me the chance to work with these incredibly experienced radio actors over a period of thirty-five years. And they've been generous enough to hand over the Baton and teach me those skills. Now my character has two children in the program. So two young actors have been cast who haven't done radio before. And I'm in that position that I can help them with all the various techniques that just add to a fast turning program like The Archers, where there isn't a lot of time to help young actors understand the dynamics of working in a radio drama studio.

David John: (05:55)
It's quite a kind of old school technique in many ways. But it has changed hasn't it? I mean I did one last week and it was all on iPads.

Alison Dowling: (06:04)
Yeah, The Archers still has paper.

David John: (06:09)
Still paper! That's interesting!

Alison Dowling: (06:10)
But then - the age of the cast - we have a June Spencer, who plays Peggy who is a hundred years old. And I don't think she'd be particularly comfortable with an iPad!

David John: (06:20)
She's not changing her technique for anyone!

Alison Dowling: (06:20)
No. And nor should she.

David John: (06:23)
What about the young lads?

Alison Dowling: (06:25)
They'd all be keen to have iPads, but no, no. We stick to script.

David John: (06:29)
So you're still - they have to learn the skill of not having paper rustle, which is really difficult sometimes - turning the page.

Alison Dowling: (06:35)
Yeah. Yeah. But it's great because we do lots of rewrites with a program like The Archers. Like I said, we're working every month. The production team is working all the time throughout the year. The actors come in for ten days a month. So there's lots of little rewrites and topical inserts and things that are done on the hoof. So actually paper and pen kind of works the best.

David John: (06:56)
Yeah, it's interesting 'cause the one I did last week, they said everyone must have an iPad. That's kind of how it's changing.

Alison Dowling: (07:04)
Same with audiobooks, isn't it? They really prefer you to work on an iPad.

David John: (07:08)
Regarding audio drama. Just for people who are listening, who've never been in a studio, just give us an idea kind of how it starts, what you do to prepare, what's expected of you in the studio.

Alison Dowling: (07:20)
Well you get your script, hopefully in plenty of good time before you're actually booked to turn up at the studio. So most actors - I'm going to talk specifically about The Archers - we have our scripts, we have the privilege of knowing our characters quite well. So you read through the script, marking up your own specific scenes and then you look at the episode as a whole, what the other characters' storylines are doing, how it threads together, whether one scene is pathos, then there's another dramatic thread running through the episode. So that you understand the components that are going to pull that episode together.

Alison Dowling: (07:53)
And then you turn up on the recording day and the actors involved with an episode, or with a radio drama even, we'll do a read through, where we just read the whole thing through and the production team will do timings to make sure that it's within the remit of what the airtime transmission is, and then you go in scene by scene into the studio and begin another rehearsal - often with a spot effects person. You are on mic doing your approaches. Your recedes. If there'a a door opening, there's a spot effects person that's doing that - popping champagne, delivering a lamb if it's lambing season, et cetera. With all the old tricks with a pot of yogurt and a wet cloth as the lamb hits the hay! All very distracting.

David John: (08:39)
Fascinating for people who haven't ever seen a radio studio.

Alison Dowling: (08:42)
Absolutely. And there's lots of, you know, in The Archers we have a lot of horse riding, so I have a saddle and a lot of thigh slapping, a bit like panto!

David John: (08:49)
Coconut shells!

Alison Dowling: (08:51)
Alka seltzer and corks popping! It's fab, it's definitely a team effort and then you'll have little rewrites perhaps. And it's about getting the balance right so that everyone sounds that they're where they should be when they should be wherever.

David John: (09:08)
So you're taking direction then from a - a producer or director?

Alison Dowling: (09:12)
Yes. The producer and director and studio, um, and it all pulls together and when the actors are finished, of course then the work goes on because it goes to the editing suite where it will be fine tuned and cut and just knitted together with the preferred takes.

Yeah. Well, it's interesting to hear that because that is how it always was. As in, in the radio drama rep when I did the one in the world service, the way it was done was like that. But recently with some other companies, independent companies like Audible and Big Finish, the spot effects are kind of almost never done in the studio at the time. They kind of add it later. So often you just work with the iPad, do all the dialogue, and then they kind of mix stuff in later.

Alison Dowling: (09:56)
That's a bit like working on animation then it's very similar. I quite like the organic way of doing it in the studio. It's collaborative. You can feel your way if the actor and the spot effects person work together. Often I'll say to whoever's doing the spot effects I think my character is just going to pause for a moment here and then continue loading the dishwasher because there's something going on emotionally. So it's, it's drama driven.

David John: (10:21)
Yeah. So you have actually more of a say as an actor than if it's all done afterwards -

Alison Dowling: (10:27)
And you work together.

David John: (10:28)
So let's just chat about other stuff that you've done from Voice Squad. I mean you've been at Voice Squad so many years - since the beginning, was it?

Alison Dowling: (10:40)
A little later. Yeah.

David John: (10:41)
I think they're coming up on twenty years, so almost twenty years. So you've done all sorts of stuff. What, I mean, apart from The Archers, what kind of stuff do you really enjoy?

Alison Dowling: (10:54)
Um, well, the, the joy of being a voiceover artist as well as a jobbing actor is the variety. So you can spend the morning, uh, doing Victorian gutter chat in something, a series like Harlots. Then you could nip along to a studio to do a highly technical, lots of big words, medical documentary, or corporate. Then next you could go to the game studio in the afternoon and be a, uh, a speaking vampire or a little, you know, tree that talks in a preschool animation or game. It's just the breadth of characters that you get to explore. I can't call it work. It's the best job in the world! I love it. Yeah.

David John: (11:37)
Yeah. I mean, I, I agree with you that because visually there's so many things that most of us can't ever play because how we look, whether we're too tall or small or whatever -

Alison Dowling: (11:48)
You are cast to type.

David John: (11:48)
You are cast to type - because of how you look. And of course with the, with the voice you can sound like, you know, my thing is I can sound tall! Whereas I can't look it, whatever I do! You know, so yeah. Yeah, that's interesting.

Alison Dowling: (12:01)
And it's also lovely when you're doing work like ADR, which again is a lot of work that comes through Voice Squad. Yeah. You're working with a team of people where the egos are left at the door, you have the best craic going. The sense of humour involved in ADR is just wonderful. No one's afraid to make fool of themselves and neither should you be. And you get to know each other. There's a shorthand in studio. It's a very familiar group of people with new people coming through all the time as well. But there's great camaraderie and I, I really enjoy the ADR, the spontaneity. You have to think on your feet. It's a bit like doing standup a lot of the time or improvisation because that's more often than not what it is - sometimes with specialised dialogue, if it's a period piece you're working on. Yeah. So you're, you're always thinking it's, um, I think it's very good for honing your acting skills.

David John: (12:51)
Yeah. Keep you sharp, isn't it? Yeah. And it, as you say, it's that kind of teamwork thing and there's a lot of, you know, familiar faces, people you work with for many, many years, but because you need young voices and they're coming in and they're learning the trade from us as we carry on.

Alison Dowling: (13:05)
And at any one time, given the, the work of the people that are involved in ADR, a lot of them are very successful actors, quite often away doing a tour or a TV job. So you have to be able to mix up and use new people all the time too. So I think with all of us, there's a voice that we've got three of us. So if one person is away doing a telly, you've got A, B, or C choice.

Speaker 1: (13:31)
Yea. We had one of these podcasts with Louis Elman actually, so we did a long chat about ADR and you know how he casts and it's quite interesting.

David John: (13:43)
Before we go, we've got a few quick fire questions we ask everyone so people can get to know you a little bit. Okay. So are you a cat person or a dog person?

Alison Dowling: (13:56)
Well, animal person is the answer, but I do have a dog and I've previously had cats. So anything. Both!

David John: (14:01)
Have you got a favourite ice cream flavor?

Alison Dowling: (14:06)
Strawberry all day long. But it's got to be quality!

David John: (14:09)
Right. And is that from childhood?

Alison Dowling: (14:11)
I think, yeah. I've always been strawberry really.

David John: (14:14)
Yeah, yeah. Fair enough. So your favorite movie, have you got one?

Alison Dowling: (14:20)
Oh, this is the [hardest]!

David John: (14:21)
Everyone says that!

Alison Dowling: (14:21)
Yeah. 'Cause each, yeah, you have a standout film, don't you? But I'm a huge Woody Allen fan. So kind of anything. I just love the way his films are character-driven dialogue. I'm not a fan of big explosions and budget car chases. It's about the people, the, the humanity, the interaction. So Woody Allen, he is one of the best and Blue Jasmine, I just adored, not least because of Kate Blanchett's performance. But then for laughs there's Little Miss Sunshine. If you haven't seen it. Get that one out.

David John: (15:00)
Do you get to theater these days? And if you do, what's the last thing you saw?

Alison Dowling: (15:06)
The last thing I saw was at the Fire Stables in Oxford and it was Table Manners by Ayckbourn. And it's very good. It was young Oxford graduates in the show. Really nice twist on a very old play.

David John: (15:25)
So last one. Can you come up with a favorite place in London?

Alison Dowling: (15:30)
Yeah, a hundred percent. Chelsea and Westminster hospital. Now. And everyone's going to go 'what?' but it's where my children were born. And it's where I became a mother and that was just the most amazing thing in my life - and still is - watching these young chaps grow up. And it's, it's a privilege and it's been one of the best things that ever happened in my life. So, yeah. Chelsea and Westminster hospital is where they began.

David John: (15:58)
Brilliant. Brilliant. Great. Well thanks Ali.

Alison Dowling: (16:01)
My pleasure. And see you in a studio soon!

David John: (16:04)
See you soon! Yeah, very soon.

So we've got next week, an interview with Adjoa Andoh. A television and stage actress as well as a Voice Artist with Voice Squad. She's appeared as a lead character in EastEnders, Casualty, Doctor Who and all sorts of other things as well. She's been in a lot of theatre recently - I saw her at the bridge in the fantastic Julius Cesar, which was incredible. Great reviews. And then since then she's been in Richard II at the Globe, which she also directed. So her career is going from strength to strength -

Alison Dowling: (16:43)
And she's been in The Archers recently!

David John: (16:44)
And she was in The Archers!

Alison Dowling: (16:46)
Isn't everyone at some point?!

David John: (16:48)
She's pretty prolific as a voice artist - though how she fits it all in, I don't know. She's a great audio book reader and is the voice of No 1. Ladies Detective Agency. So looking forward to speaking to Adjoa next week.

David John: (17:04)
If you want to find out more about Voice Squad, you can go to the website. If you want to listen to any of the artists, it's voicesquad.com. Check us out on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and if you enjoyed this episode, then do subscribe and you can rate us wherever you listen to your podcasts.

David John: (17:20)
So that's it for this week. Squadcast is a Voice Squad Ltd production. I host it. David John. It's devised by Neil Conrich. It was produced and edited by Emma Samuel. If you've got any questions about the show, please visit the website or even better email us here.

The transcript from our previous episode, an interview with Louis Elman, is available here.