(1 May 1909 – 19 September 1996) Aged 87
Voice of the Speaking Clock from 24th July 1936 until 8th May 1963
Ethel Jane Cain was a British telephonist and she became the first voice of the Speaking Clock in the UK. Following a nationwide competition among 15000 women telephonists, namely ‘Search for the girl with a golden voice’ she won and was awarded ten guineas. She was appointed as the original voice of the Speaking Clock on the 24th July 1936 and her reign lasted until 8th May1963. On its first day, the service received 40,000 calls and extra lines had to be installed.
During Ethel Jane Cain’s first year, when it was only available to London, the Speaking Clock received 20 million calls – each costing a couple of pence.
Jane went on to become a radio announcer for the bandleader Henry Robert Hall. Henry was an English bandleader who performed regularly on BBC Radio during the British dance band era of the 1920s and 30s through to the 60s. During this part of her career she was offered a film part by Columbia Pictures. This she accepted, playing the role under the name of simply ‘Jane Cain’. She played Vanity Faire, the lead in the 1935 black and white film Vanity – the story of an actress who fakes her death to achieve adoration, and Judge’s wife in The Simple Truth (Thirty Minute Theatre) 26th September 1963. She also appeared on a cigarette card.
Jane’s voice lives on as the voice of the ‘operator’ in the UK, on CNet: a Worldwide network of old telephone exchanges preserved by collectors, which uses a voice recognition system when you dial ‘0’ or ‘100’ for the ‘operator’.
In the mid to late 1950s, Jane was a member of Perth Repertory Theatre Company.
Ethel ‘Jane’ Cain’s reign as the Speaking Clock lasted 26 years, nine months and 14 days… precisely!
This is a rather wonderful TV commercial starring Pat Simmons, Brian Cobby and Heineken.
(1920 – 29 October 2005) Aged 85
Voice of the United Kingdom’s Speaking Clock from 8th May 1963 until 2nd April 1985
A competition was held in 1963 to find a replacement for Miss Jane Cain’s voice for the Speaking Clock. It was won by Miss Pat Simmons, an Assistant Supervisor in Avenue Telephone Exchange, London. She was awarded prize money of £500 and began her reign on May 8th 1963.
Pat spoke to up to 300 million callers every year providing them with perfect and accurate time checks.
She had a whole host of fans and became so much more to her listeners than simply someone providing the time. She attracted a steady stream of fan mail and even a few marriage proposals. However, Pat never did marry.
Back in November 2005, a childhood friend of Miss Simmons, Eileen White, told the Daily Telegraph Miss Simmons was “perfect because she had a beautiful voice. She became quite famous. But she used to laugh and laugh about the marriage proposals and fan mail”.
From the 1930s until the 1980s Pat continued the tradition of a female voice for the Speaking Clock until Brian Cobby took over.
On 2 April 1985, Pat Simmons’ last words on the clock were: “At the third stroke it will be 10:59 and 50 seconds”, followed by the voice of Brian Cobby
Miss Simmons, died at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, east London, aged 85.
A specialist telephone service from Telephones UK still provides a speaking clock service which uses the unmistakable voice of Pat Simmons. Whilst they don’t proclaim that it’s as accurate as the current BT Speaking Clock, it is still wonderful to be able to revisit a bygone era. If you’d like to experience 90 seconds worth of Pat’s voice, please dial (0044) (0) 871 789 3642. Call’s cost 10p per minute.
There is also another separate, non-BT service to access a speaking clock using the voice of Pat Simmons. You can reach this by calling (0044) (0)20 3598 2801.However the number of calls it can receive at any one time is limited.
In 2000, a project called TIM 2000 was run by the Telecommunications Heritage Group to recreate the Pat Simmons speaking clock. Around 75 electronic speaking clocks with the Pat Simmons voice were sold.
The Speaking Clock machine that was used by Pat Simmons was displayed on an edition of the BBC television programme, Antiques Roadshow, originally broadcast on 19 October 2008. It had been on display as a working machine at the museum of the British Horological Institute. About forty-four minutes into the programme, Alan Midleton, who had made past appearances as a watch and clock expert on the show in previous episodes but was appearing as a curator of the museum, claimed that the electric motor of the machine, which had been running at the institute, broke down on the same day that Pat Simmons died.
A wonderful film featuring Brian, created by Matthew Cobby and Brian’s brother Clive Cobby.
(12th October 1929 – 31st October 2012) Aged 83
Voice of the BT Speaking Clock 2nd April 1985 – 2nd April 2007
Brian was born to parents Sydney and Amy Cobby in Gravesend in Kent, England. He spent much of his early life in Oxford.
Brian started singing while attending Ealing Academy before becoming a chorister at Worcester College, Oxford and later attended the City of Oxford High School for Boys where he won a competition to perform at St Paul’s Cathedral. During this time, Brian’s love of acting grew and he used to visit the Oxford Playhouse each week. On one such occasion, he spotted an advert for a job sweeping the stage at the Playhouse but when Brian approached the manager, he encouraged him to continue his studies instead – at least for now.
After his education, Brian was called up for National Service at the ripe young age of 18. He served with the Royal Engineer’s Postal Service before becoming a corporal and running the officer’s mess. He also raised money for the Red Cross by performing puppet shows. He was then approached to work for the British Forces Network Radio station in Hamburg, Germany where he became a DJ, interviewer and announcer.
On returning to England Brian went on to attend one of the leading drama school’s in Britain – the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, London. His first theatrical part was that of God in a Strindberg play at the Watergate Theatre, London. During the 1950’s, he acted in repertory theatre and toured with productions of Ladies for Hire, Intimate Relations, Peter Pan, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Macbeth.
During the 1960s, Cobby voiced many television advertisements, including ones for Stork margarine, Surf washing powder and Big Fry, for which George Lazenby’s voice was dubbed over with Brian’s. He had a rich acting career including many TV programmes and films, which included a lead in the first ever nudist film ‘The Nudist Story’ in 1960. He also appeared, albeit briefly, in the film version of Evita in 1996, standing next to Madonna in the balcony scene. In 2004, he guest-starred in the audio drama version of the time travel series Doctor Who – The Creed of the Kromon.
Brian was said to have claimed to have been the voice of 5,4,3,2,1 Thunderbirds are go, for the television puppet series of Thunderbirds. This was reported as false by the show’s creators. However, Brian told me personally that he had been contracted by the BBC to voice the same countdown but whilst there was talk it was for the show, he didn’t actually know where the words were used in the end, and in fact thought it may have been for something different. Some say it was for a Tracey Island Thunderbirds toy.
In the 1980s, British Telecom, now BT Plc, replaced the machinery behind the Speaking Clock and took this opportunity to look for a new voice. Brian was working as an assistant supervisor at the Brighton BT Telephone Exchange in Withdean at the time the search began, and he entered the Golden Voice competition which had 5000 applicants. The competition came down to 12 finalists, all of whom – apart from Brian – were women and Brian Cobby was announced as the winner on 5th December 1984
Brian said at the time ‘I was the only clock with a pendulum’ J
The selection was broadcast live on BBC Breakfast Time from the top of BT Tower.
Brian Cobby held the prestigious title of the Voice of the BT Speaking Clock for almost 22 years with two brief interruptions – Lenny Henry’s gig to raise money for Comic Relief and 12-year-old Alicia Rowland’s week long stint after winning a competition in aid of ChildLine.
I believe he rather liked the role and was often asked to tell the time and run the countdown at New Year’s Eve parties.
I was extremely lucky to know Brian Cobby and am proud to have been able to call him my friend. Quite by chance, Brian lived about a ½ mile from me. We would chat on the phone, meet at his amazing flat, do photo shoots, even TV together and most importantly dine out at his favourite restaurant The Melrose on Brighton Seafront.
It was in fact only when I took over the role as the voice of the Clock, that Brian finally admitted to the lady whose family owns The Melrose that he had been the voice of the Clock since 1985. She was flabbergasted and couldn’t believe he hadn’t told her in all the years he’d been going there. For some years after that the Melrose displayed a signed framed photo of the two of us (below) above our favourite table.
Brian sadly passed away in 2012 and I was very touched to be asked, by his brother Clive, to speak at his funeral. It was a short eulogy but one that included the fact that Brian made the strongest gin martini I’d ever had the pleasure of drinking! He was a star and a legend – like no other I’ve ever met or am likely to meet. He had stories galore about the rich and famous, his youth, his acting career and his escapades around the world. Who else do you know who’s been on the back of a moped driven by Rock Hudson? I’m so very glad to have known Brian.
His family asked me to join them when they scattered his ashes between two trees where Brian used to park his disability scooter and sit and drink up the atmosphere of St Ann’s Wells Gardens in Hove. We drank champagne in his honour, each said a few words and one by one took some of Brian’s ashes and spread them across the park in that area. It was a very touching experience indeed and I feel very connected to Brian and his family, particularly his wonderful brother Clive.
Whilst there have been four permanent voices for the Speaking Clock, temporary voices have also been used on certain occasions, particularly for raising money, through call fees, for charities through Comic Relief, Sports Relief and Childline:
Lenny Henry: comedian, temporary voice for Comic Relief: from March 10 to March 23, 2003.
Alicia Roland: 12-year-old schoolgirl, temporary voice for the children’s charity Child Line, from October 13 to October 20, 2003, having won a BBC TV Newsround competition and stating, before announcing the time, “It’s time to listen to young people”.
Mae Whitman: temporary voice as part of a deal to promote the Disney production of Tinker Bell, for three months from 26 October 2008 until 2 February 2009.
UK celebrities: Kimberley Walsh, Cheryl Cole, Gary Barlow, Chris Moyles, and Fearne Cotton for Comic Relief charity: from 3 February to 23 March 2009.
UK celebrities: David Walliams, Gary Barlow, Chris Moyles, Kimberley Walsh, Fearne Cotton and a mystery voice for Sport Relief charity from 7 March to 9 April 2012.
Clare Balding: temporary voice for Comic Relief from 12 February to 15 March 2013 (with the help of a barking dog, time announced as “at the third woof”.)
Davina McCall: temporary voice for Sport Relief from 27 January to 23 March 2014.
Sir Ian McKellen: temporary voice for Comic Relief from 2nd February to 13th March 2015.
Jo Brand temporary voice for Sport Relief from 18th January to 20th March 2016.