Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Voice of Basil of Baker Street

In this day of big-name actors occupying the lead roles for animated cartoon characters, allow me to trip back to a simpler time when leads were done by Thespians who weren't necessarily household names but just really, really good at what they did. Allow me to present...

Barry Ingham.

Mr. Ingham is an actor who came up through the British Royal Shakespeare Company, who had years and years on the stage. But one day in the early eighties he decided to get less involved with theater and decamp to Los Angeles. As he said over lunch one day, "I wanted a change. I was ready for a change. And if you want to be in films, you almost have to be in Los Angeles. This is where the movie business is."

Barry Ingham didn't end up as the lead voice for The Great Mouse Detective because he was an A-list film actor, or because he had a connection with a high-powered studio exec. He got the role of "Basil of Baker Street" the old fashioned way: he was one of jillions of actors who came in to read for the part, and he was so far ahead of everyone else that he won the role hands down.

I remember the day he came in. We had plowed through a raft of actors, some not bad and some awful, but we weren't particularly happy with any of them. Nobody had possessed the lilt, that spark we were looking for. We weren't even sure precisely what we were looking for. We only knew that the indefinable something hadn't arrived yet.

And then Barry Ingham showed up. He was pleasant, but focused and disciplined. He took direction like the pro he was, immediately understanding the core of the character and what we were looking for. And in about ten minutes he'd nailed the part. (Plus, he didn't have to put on a British accent like the American auditioners did; he had full ownership of that when he came through the door.)

After he was hired and started showing up for voice sessions, the professionalism that was present at the audition got turned up several notches (if that was possible.) One trip through the script and storyboards and he knew how the character Basil should play that particular scene. One day, at the director's request, he delivered 200 readings of a short piece of dialogue without an eye-blink of discomfort or word of complaint. And each reading was different.

I was amazed watching his performance then. I'm amazed thinking about it now.

Lunches with Mr. Ingham were always bracing, entertaining, and instructive. He told us about life on the road touring with Richards Burton and Harris in Camelot, how one day the company would be playing indoors and the next week be thesping in a huge, outdoor amphiteater, and how the actors had to slow down all their line deliveries and make their reactions way bigger because "in a huge amphitheater, the audience can't get what you're doing unless you play it very large and broad. And the laughs start down in the front seats and go slowly up to the back in a big, slow wave. And you have to wait for it before you go on..."

He said how it always took a day or two of adjustments to alter the tempo for maximum effect.

And he explained how, in British Shakespearean acting, there were two distinct schools. "One type goes for the music and rhythms of the text, of making the line deliveries orchestral. The other school -- the one I've always been in -- goes for textual clarity. The whole idea is to get the audience to understand what's being said, rather than just absorbing the symphonic overtones of the dialugue and the soliliquys."

Toward the end of his voice work on Mouse, he told us about a new acting job on a mini-series where he played John Barrymore: "I had a scene where I was a corpse, John Barrymore dead. I was propped up in a chair with eyes closed, working hard to remain still. And I hear the director yell 'action!' and I try to be even more still. It's not often that an actor has to be deader after the director yells 'action'".

I haven't laid eyes on Barry Ingham since Great Mouse wrapped, but reading his credits on IMBD, it doesn't surprise me in the least that he's still working. When you've got the acting chops Mr. Ingham possesses, you can go on working forever.


Anonymous said...

Is "thesping" a word? :0)

Great story; thanks for sharing it!

MrFun said...

Thanks Steve. I remember the good old days when even us low lifes could interact with the voice talent on an animated film. In recent years, we're not even allowed any contact with the so called, "stars."

Stars, they may be -- but most can't act their way out of a paper bag. I missed the old days when animation was blessed with real voice talent. And, I'll say again -- Real voice talent.

Pete Emslie said...

"The Great Mouse Detective" is a particular favourite of mine, as I consider it the last hoorah of that type of character-driven feature I'd always enjoyed. I saw it several times when it was out in 1986 and I had just recently begun my career as a character illustrator at Disney's Canadian Consumer Products Division.

A couple years later, Barrie Ingham was going to be playing here in Toronto in the musical, "Me and My Girl", so I immediately got tickets for the show. Also, having recently videotaped an episode of "Murder She Wrote" that he had guested in, I set about doing a caricature of him. About a week before his scheduled performance I wrote to him, care of the theatre, asking if it might be possible for me to visit backstage after the show so I could present him my caricature. I mentioned how much I enjoyed his Basil and I included my work number at Disney on the hopes he might respond.

Well, respond back he did, and in the character of Basil, I might add! Anyway, he was very gracious in letting me know I'd be more than welcome to visit backstage after the show. Meeting him was a great thrill, as he really was a delightful gentleman and he was happy chatting for close to an hour. He regaled me and my friend with stories of the theatre, as well as the making of Basil, which he said he thoroughly enjoyed doing. The only disappointment he said, was that he never got to read his lines with Vincent Price, whom he had been hoping to reconnect with having worked with him on something many years before. I agree that his reading on Basil is a masterpiece. In fact, I think the reason I love that film so much is that it is one of the few Disney features where the hero is just as interesting (and quirky) as the villain. Thanks so much, Steve, for this enjoyable spotlight on Mr. Ingham!

Steve Hulett said...

All the actors I worked with on the recording stage at Diz were first-rate pros, but Mr. Ingham really impressed me.

He was the only actor during that period who got the lead role by coming in at a cattle call. Amazing.

Steve Hulett said...

Is 'thesping' a word?

Ah, probably not really. It's used by VARIETY, but not by Websters. (At least, not the edition here in the office.)

But I'm an idiot anyway. The top paragraph should have been "Thespian" not "thesp."

One of my problems with blogging is I tend to bang stuff out on the fly, either at night between everything else or while I'm on the phone at work. So there's a plethora of typos, some of which I correct later, some of which I don't.

MrFun said...

Not a problem, Steve. We enjoy it all anyway. Heck, you even spelled, plethora correctly.

Anonymous said...

No sweat, Steve - I was just funnin' ya! And if "thesping" isn't a word, it should be! :0)

Steven E. Gordon said...

Of course this was back in the day if an animated film made 25 million it was considered a sucess. It was also unlikely that big names would have auditioned or accepted these roles. Robin Willaims in Aladdin changed all that.

Anonymous said...

The characters and the voices in the old disney was just great!
jungle book, lady and the tramp just great. Remember the live action tv series "Topper" cosmo topper, there was another great voice, don't now the acters name?
G. Fleming

Anonymous said...

I believe you are referring to the great Leo G. Carroll.
You cited Jungle Book as an example of the non-celebrity-voice-actor good-old-days. Phil Harris, Louis Prima, George Sanders, and Sebastian Cabot were all famous and in JB, not to mention the old Disney favorite, Sterling Holloway. Remember Ed Wynn's Hatter and Hans Conried's Hook, also.

Peter Emslie said...

While it is true that the cast of "The Jungle Book" were well known personalities, it is important to keep in mind that they were not top stars at the time, as are so many of today's celebrity voices. Phil Harris and Louis Prima were about 10 or more years past their peaks as recording stars, though certainly had moved on to being popular fixtures on the Vegas circuit. George Sanders had long since gone from being a romantic leading man to a secondary character actor. Only Sebastian Cabot would have been a known entity to the younger set at that time, due to his role as Mr. French, the valet on TV's "Family Affair".

I guess the problem I have with many of the celebrity voices today is that they are mostly A-list actors who are hired more for box-office recognition than for having particularly interesting voices. Whereas Harris, Prima and Sanders brought a richness of vocal quality and personality to their characters, I don't believe the same can be said of many of the stars being hired today. For instance, the cast of vocal talent hired for Dreamworks' "Sinbad" included A-listers Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michelle Pfeiffer, none of whom I would have recognized as providing the voices for their respective characters had I not known from reading the film credits. When voices are that undistinctive, seems to me a studio could save a heck of a lot of money by just hiring relative unknowns.

Steve Hulett said...

One point about voice actors: in the '40s and '50s, Disney used a lot of radio actors. Conreid, for instance, was a veteran radio talent, as was the actor who played Mr. Smee in Peter Pan.

And Phil Harris had been a big radio star in his heyday.

Nothing at all wrong with using "name" actors if they work in a role. But oftentimes they don't.

Anonymous said...


Brina said...

Hi, Steve,
I came across this by accident and I wanted to say thank you for posting it! As a fan of The Great Mouse Detective for so many years (having seen it originally in theaters), I was very pleased to see there was some current recognition for actor, Barrie Ingham. Even though the film is over 20 years old, I never grow tired of viewing it, and I'm sure others would agree with me. It's simply a timeless classic!

I personally wrote to Barrie, including a letter and a GMD litho to have signed, but alas! That was several months ago and I think it's all gone missing! :( One question I asked in my letter was if he was doing any future projects such as a TV series or sequel to GMD. If you have any news, and can share the information, I'd love to hear it!

Thank you again!

Anonymous said...

Hi, Steve.

This comes late, but I just wanted to add my thanks to you for recognizing the underappreciated Barrie Ingham! This actor has been, sadly, very underrated throughout his career. I'm a more recent fan but greatly admire Mr. Ingham's work. Nice to see there's others who feel the same!


P.S. I recently started a little fansite on Mr. Ingham's career. Feel free to check it out and let me know what you think. :)

Barrie Ingham Net

Anonymous said...

Would there ever be a sequel to "The Great Mouse Detective"? If any Disney movie had room for a sequel, this one does. Also, why isn't it as popular as other movies?

Brina said...

Hi, it's me again, I posted a comment back in March. I wanted to update to say that my sister and I were extremely fortunate to meet Mr. Ingham in person at a convention this past September! He is such a nice and funny gentleman, I was very pleased to have had the opportunity to visit with him at his autograph table.

During one of our many chats with him, Barrie expressed an interest in attending future conventions and asked my sister and I which ones he should go to, or where Basil would fit in better. In order for him to get invited, let alone noticed, we need to send emails with a subject like, "Request for a special guest appearance" and tell them who we'd like to see there. I think the more requests we put out, the more invites he'll get.

Below is a list of some conventions that Barrie would probably do well with autographs. If you want to help out, feel free to drop a letter to any or all of these listings. If you have any other convention suggestions, feel free to add them!

Armageddon Pulp Expo:
Hollywood Collectors and Celebrities Showcase:
London Film & Comic Con:
London Movie Comic Media Expo:
San Diego Comic Convention:

Brina said...

To help Barrie Ingham attend conventions, I have updated information. I received a reply from the Hollywood Collectors and Celebrities Showcase email. This is what they had to say:

Thank you for your e mail.
Actually, we do not solicit our celebrity guests. They all contact us, either directly or indirectly (through an agent, manager, friend or relative) when they are ready to attend our Show. If Mr. Ingham wants to get in touch with us, we would love to have him attend our Show.


Ray Courts

So, everyone, do NOT send guest requests for Barrie (or any or celebrities) to! Wish I had known before...

Anonymous said...

From Steve Carras, address

Hey, hello, everyone, and glad to be here.

Great article, and it shows the appela to today's kids these older films have, that time is sitll with us (a VCR, Laserdisc, or DVD insert, or now, Blu-Ray, insert away!) BTW Pete E., gettting deja vu from your comment, as posted on AnimationNation (I think I know the identity of the differently named poster who made a similiar cvomment, re: Jungle Book. You forgot to mention Sterling Holloway, though he too, was alredy past his prime outisde animation perhaps (though still making TV appearances like that next to last Gilligan one as the prisoner.) BTW Mr.Steve Hulett, I recall your name from Disney films and "One Got Fat", in your company Interlude films from way back 45 years ago. My comments--the Hans Conreids, Sterling Holloways, and outside (Ed Graham Prods. "Linus the Lionhearted") Sheldon Leonard, Johnathan Winters, Ruth Buzzi, Carl Reiner (UPA in "Mr.Magoo)") Jim Backus (Both Backus ("Windblown hare" and "Lad in his Lamp", both by Robert McKimson with Bugs Bunny in 1948) and Leonard ("Dodsworht the cat", short lived theatrical short subject series) did voices for Warner Bros. for Robert McKimson in 1948-1953), and the DonS Adams and Knotts, Wally Cox (Total's "Underdog), and various Rankin-Bass and UPA, and Disney radio celebrities turned voice actors were unsurpassed (that includes the great you on "One got fat" and Jay Ward used on "Fractured Fairy Tales", Edward Everett Horton,ditto uncredited Charlie Ruggles (lived and died same years as EEH!) in Ward's "Aesop's Fables"). I think some of today's voices, like John Goodman in Pixar's "Monsters Inc.", and Amanda Bynes (who, if you've seen her work, can do different ones), and Blue Sky/Fox's "Robots", are distinctive, but then you've got as Pete Emslie pointed out, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Bradd Pitt in that Dreamworksd fiasco "Sinbad" (ironic, future cult comedy star Tim Matheson would voice a number of Hanna-Barbera lads like their 1966 animated version of Sinbad, maybe their last remogtely good show, also while I'm at it Bud Abbott reprised his own charatcer in HB's Jomar/RKO "Abbott and Costello", but he was playing himself, so it is a no brainer for me to excuse that case.) Cabot back in 1967 when Jungle Book was out was the only one (I was 7 in 1967 when this came out) who would be known..his first Disney cartoon voice wass in 1963 in "Sword in the Stone", which was otherwise soundtracked with relative "unknowns" (famous radio names Martha Wentworth, Junius C.Matthews, Karl "Merlin the Magician" Swenson, who were just voices to us tykes, though the occasoinlly heard Ginny Tyler was a star the out of Disney records and Mickey Mouse club rebroadcasts in 1962.). When "Winnie the Pooh" first came out with an animated Disney film (correct me if I'm wrong but Disney's the first to have licensed that in the world then) Sebastian Cabot and Sterling Holloway would be heard, though you would hear Paul Winchell..and Howard Morris..and some others of whom only those named would be known, but still resoundingly great as voices. When "Jungle Book" first arrived in 1967 (a hyear before Winchell was added to the mix of Pooh) Phil Harris (of whom I have a LOT of music!), Cabot, Geo.Sanders,etc. were featured (of course,the voice of the young elephant, Clint Howard, Ron's kid brother, is now a "stock comapony" "minor celeb" in Ron Howard's stock repetory company--in 2003 even Mad Magazine in their first article in one issue took a shot at that! When youy're mentioned in Mad, YOU are a CELEBRITY.Even if you're one of several non-famous names in WaltDisney's "Jungle Book". But then "Aristocats", then it varied with films ("Mouse Detective" being, with only Vincent Price, himself a very great voice, an example of better voice casting mentioned here), but then with "Alladin" (1992) it finally became the new age (Robin Williams as the genie could do different voices, but as that Stand Up thing he's best known for, as the genie, rather than try nto define different characters.). I won't even get into later and the most egregious examples of this type of "stunt casting"!!

"Alice in Wonderland" had the first ensemble cast of the earlier great radio example of this (I doubt a Kate Hepburn, Cary Grant, unless they did a lot of radio, or other legends in fiklm then with much imitated voices if they were only drawing cards in theatres would have had the same impact that their radio counterparts did, but there were so many movie to radio and back crossovers it seems anyone then could moonlight as a voice.Bing Crosby was used in Ichabod, and was grea,t but then he had radio and records (and was still doing great ones), and Alice had folks like Ed Wynn and others of radio. Jimmy Durante in Rankin/Bass's "Frosty", also Billy DeWolfe as the evil magician, were
a cinch to use, without just name recognition but actual usable voices and yes, acting! In fact, as cited in Mr.Richard Goldschmidt's 1997 "The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass", Arthur Rankin Jr.said that both DeWolfe (and Charles Nelson Reilly, not used here but in other R/B projects) had voices just tialored for animation. How true! And Durante, as well, and the Disney voices thru the early 70s. (Heresy here, but I find the "The Lion king" (1994) leads for adult Simba and Nala replacable (no offense)!

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