Back in the autumn of 2006, BT got together with Children In Need and decided to run a competition to find a new permanent voice for the BT Speaking Clock. Previously, the voices had been chosen from within the BT telephone exchanges, but now the competition was widened to the general public – literally anyone could enter.
One morning, I heard the Children In Need competition details being discussed on BBC Radio 2’s Wake up to Wogan. That same day, a friend from work suggested I call and was certain I’d win 🙂 …and then my Dad called and suggested I enter. I figured, these things happen in threes…so why not?
To enter, you had to pick up the phone and call a number (all the call charges proceeds went to raise money for Children in Need) and you were asked a question by Terry’s recorded voice. Honestly…I didn’t know the answer!!! It was about Children In Need and which countries it collected money for…and I thought huh?? Is it just the UK…or the world!!?? So I hung up and looked it up (oh the shame of it)
It was just the UK…so I called again and this time confidently answered. I was then asked to do a time check, which I did and then add my name and address. When it got to the postcode, coming from years of working on the telephone, I phonetically spelled it out…only to be cut off halfway through! Clearly B for Bravo and N for November three was all I was allowed! Anyhow I called again – again – and went through the same process – again.
For each audition, I said ‘Hello’ first, which apparently no one else did, then did a time check, left my details then went about my business. Later it was coined in an article that ‘I had them at ‘hello’’ which I thought was rather nice!
The deadline arrived: November 5th 2006 and the fact that it was the deadline date did suddenly go through my mind. After that, I forgot all about it…until…one evening, I was laying on my sofa feeling exhausted. I’d had a really long day doing lots of voice work and admin and I was dead beat. I had poured myself a huge whisky and ginger and was happily recumbent. I heard the phone ring in my office and though ‘Naaaaa!’ I was just too tired to move! Then I forgot all about it as it was after hours and I assumed it would be a sales call. How wrong I was!!! I later picked up a message from Justin McKeown: BT’s PR guy for the Speaking Clock competition and he wanted me to call him! So, heart pounding in my chest, I dialled his number and he explained I’d been ‘long-listed’ – which meant I was down to the final 60. I asked how many entrants the competition had had, only to be told 18,405!! Well, I was very happy to have got this far!! Justin asked me if I had a criminal record and, to be honest, I had to think?? Had I? What had happened in my youth? I cast my mind back but was happy to say, no I didn’t.
Justin explained that if I was successfully shortlisted, I’d be notified by a certain date, which was in fact the following weekend. But, sadly, that date came and went and no one called. But, d’you know what, something told me it wasn’t over. I had a really strong feeling that I’d get a call – and I did!! A few days later the phone rang again and Justin explained things had taken a bit longer than hoped but I was down to the final 15. Yikes!!
Now then, as exciting as this was, I was also terrified!! Bear in mind, my chosen professions have always been behind scenes. I did telemarketing and telesales for years, rather than face to face sales and I did voice acting instead of stage/TV acting so I was behind the mic and not in front of an audience. Whilst I appear self-assured and outgoing…I’m actually quite introverted and can get quite anxious but I’ve learned to manage that over the years. Luckily as I’ve got older, the confidence has grown, but still…I was nervous. You see, the thing was, as one of the shortlisted people, Justin wanted me to go up to London and appear on BBC Breakfast and all manner of things! So, no more hiding for me.
Throughout the process, the strangest things happened. I started getting visions! That’s the only way I can describe them. I saw little snippets of my journey to come. For one, I kept seeing myself live on stage with Terry Wogan being introduced to the nation. I had no idea at this point that the winner would indeed be live on Children In Need until a close friend read that fact from an article in the local paper.
Suddenly, the media wanted a piece of me and my life changed completely. I had TV crews in my living room and studio, radio interviews were coming in thick and fast and the press were on the phone and email. It was surreal! Fun, but nerve-wracking.
Then it was time to go to London.
Three of us were shortlisted. There was me and two other shortlisted guys Brian and James; two absolute gems. We were put up in a hotel and we got to know each other and had a great time! We were treated marvellously and given a real experience. We were whisked around London in a private car and taken to the BBC where we were taken into ‘makeup’ and then were live on BBC Breakfast with Kate Silverton. Then we were taken off to the Greenwich Museum and the Royal Observatory where we met with the team there, and had our photos taken. Accurist sent us a watch each and we met a representative who was keen to chat to each of us. So we had our photos taken wearing the watches and I realised afterwards they were for their press release.
We were treated like Royalty really! At one point, we were in the Greenwich museum and 3 telephones were pointed out to us. One was from the 30s, one from the 60s and one from the 80s. Each had a little button to press next to it and when you picked up the receiver and pressed the button, the accompanying Speaking Clock voice, from that era, could be heard down the receiver: Firstly, Ethel Jane Cain, then Pat Simmons then Brian Cobby. The PR guy with us said ‘you do realise, whoever wins tonight will take their place in British History and have their own telephone here’. It was at that point I realised the magnitude of the situation and I was somewhat awestruck to say the least.
After that it was anxiety central! Back to the hotel and I had time to myself to chill …but I couldn’t! I tried sleeping but no way! I was so nervous. I kept getting words in my head alongside the visions that said ‘relax, you’ve won!’ but I dismissed them …just in case! I did have a feeling, I must admit, that I might have been chosen, but I was far too nervous to consider them to be true. All these visions and ‘voices’ in my head were getting hard to ignore.
Anyhow…after a whisking away a couple of whiskies from the mini-bar and concealing them in my pocket (told you I was nervous) (hey, it’s not every day you’re in front of 15 million people!!) we were taken off in cars to the BT Tower. At this point we were given Children in Need Tee Shirts and were asked to surrender our mobiles. Apparently there was an issue with having them in the Tower. We promised to keep them switched off and they agreed to let us keep them with us. It was only afterwards we were told that one of the tabloid reporters had had the winner’s name leaked and had threatened to call the winner up and spoil the surprise! Nice. I guess it would have been a bit odd not to be able to use a mobile in the BT Tower! But it didn’t even occur to us at the time.
Anyhow…then Brian, James and I were taken upstairs to the top of the tower and seated behind a charity-donation-taking desk. The seats each had numbers and mine was number 8…my lucky number! We had a run through where we pretended each of us in turn had won, and practised our reactions. It was funny really…the whisky helped! (We’d all had the odd tipple!) Then, suddenly we were live on Children In Need and Nicky Campbell, Julia Bradbury and Pudsey Bear were with us and Julia was opening up the golden envelope and reading out the winners’ name.
Silence all around.
‘Sara Mendes da Costa from Brighton!’
Oh my goodness…talk about not knowing what the hell was going on!! It was like I was dreaming! Suddenly there was Nicky saying ‘Sara, Sara, have you got the time, to which I answered fretfully ‘No!!’ but then managed to get a time check out. It was brilliant. People were congratulating me, a couple of stars of Eastenders included and Brian and James were so lovely. It was amazing.
I was then asked to take a donation call and I spoke to a guy called Mike and pretended to take a donation so I could be filmed. The poor guy must have just got a tirade of verbal nonsense from me! But he was lovely too. After that I was signing autographs!! Me! Autographs! It was bizarre. We all had our photos taken at the top of the tower and then I went to the loo and did a little air-punching dance! (on my own I hasten to add) After that I was taken outside by the photographer and snapped in front of the BT Tower…and my hair went all fuzzy!! (panic!!)
Then I was in the back of a black cab doing an interview for the Sunday Times and being taken to BBC TV Centre. I was treated like a VIP and when Justin took me to the entrance, the cordons were removed so I could go back stage to Children In Need. I was surrounded by celebrities!! And OH MY GOD…I was back stage with my idol (from when I was six) DAVID CASSIDY!!! (Quiet swoon) Although he does have a very small bum! Sorry David… but I do need a man to make my bum look small 🙂
Anyhow…it took ages to go on stage. Due to the weird and unpredictable timings of live TV, I was meant to go on not so long after I arrived but then had to wait another two and a half hours! This gave me time to answer calls, check msgs, talk to friends and family and, most importantly, drink my whisky!! Needs must and all that.
In that time, Rory Bremner came and introduced himself to me – having just performed a sketch on the Speaking Clock; Natasha Kaplinsky also came and gave me a hug and said she was so glad I’d won and various celebs said hello as they were passing; surreal indeed.
Then it was time to go on stage.
I stood behind the curtain with a lovely young man with a headset on who explained it would be a matter of moments before I’d enter stage left. I could hear Sir Terry and Fearne Cotton talking about the competition and the winner. Then suddenly Sir Terry’s dulcet tones rang out and I heard the words: ‘And here she is, Sara Mendes da Costa!’
In a blur I walked out on stage, and there I was, live to applause, lights and cameras in front of millions. Terry, Natasha Kaplinsky , Fearne Cotton and me! Terry asked me a few questions and was very lovely. I can’t remember what was said, it really was all a blur but I do remember Alan Dedicoat’s disembodied voice rang out across the stage and studio and he asked me to read the monetary total out. I kid you not, try reading out a 7 digit number live in front of millions plus a studio audience, and you have to think at least twice!! But luckily I read out the total successfully and everyone hugged me and all was well in my world. Tears are coming to my eyes as I remember quite probably the most memorable and greatest moments of my life.
After one drink in the after party, it was time for me to head back to my hotel room and de-people. There, I took some time to digest the whole experience from start to finish… and the fact that I’d been chosen to take my place in history as the 4th voice of the BT Speaking Clock. I felt truly blessed.
When it came to the recording, I was taken – by Justin – to Air Studios in London. It was where the original Band Aid single was recorded and I got to go into that same studio and see the stage where they all grouped together to sing ‘Feed the World’. I remember the mixing desk was huge! I was like a kid in a sweet shop!
The recording was filmed by the BBC and a photographer snapped me throughout and I was on cloud nine being treated like a celebrity. I was rather pleased to be able to do something to earn my place as the voice of the Clock and actually do the work 🙂
The problem was I was so excited I seriously projected my voice and when I heard it back sometime later I was horrified!!! To my ears I was practically shouting the words and my voice had raised an octave – yuck! Other voices of the Clock had had marriage proposals but I certainly wasn’t going to get one of those sounding like that!! A long story short, I asked if I could record it again at my own expense. I gave my reasons why and even asked friends and family to give views on what they thought of the recording.
LUCKILY the wonderful team BT agreed – phew! It may sound a bit vain, but I was truly unhappy with how I sounded and, as it was due to be in place for many years to come, I really wanted it to sound pleasing to the ear for the 80 million callers at the time, especially as I was following in the footsteps of Brian Cobby and his beautiful Shakespearean tones! The second time around, all was good, thankfully and ‘At the third stroke…’ was all set to go.
My voice finally went live at 0800hrs on the 2nd April 2007 on Wake Up to Wogan.
It was so wonderful being asked on to the show as they never had guests so I felt truly honoured and Sir Terry was a joy to be with and so kind, funny and charming.
Since then, life has changed. My confidence has grown undoubtedly and with the amount of TV and radio appearances I’ve undertaken and the press coverage I’ve received, it’s been difficult to do anything apart from grow. I do still get nervous though! But, what a journey. I’m thrilled and extremely honoured to have been chosen as the fourth permanent voice of the BT Speaking Clock since it began in 1936 and the incredible experiences, the magical memories and the unrivalled uniqueness will stay a part of me for the rest of my life.
Cheers, love to you all