John B Keane: smooth expression a valuable asset

I CAN always tell a man who paid attention during his elocution classes. He enunciates with care and deliberation and all of his words, great and small, can be heard in the most out-of-the-way places by one and all.

I CAN always tell a man who paid attention during his elocution classes. He enunciates with care and deliberation and all of his words, great and small, can be heard in the most out-of-the-way places by one and all.

Never does the whisper go up: “What’s he saying?” or “What’s he at now?” No, indeed, and although his sentences may lack meaning and purpose of enlightenment the words are never lost, and although they do little for the listener a man can, nevertheless, make what he likes of them.

A man who has taken care of his voice and its projection has as much power as a man with an accent which belongs to another country, and no matter what a man from another country says we will listen to him because his accent is different from ours.

Little did I believe that elocution at primary school level would one day be an advantage in a poker school.

I’ll grant you it was a small school by Western film standards, but if it was a major school to those who endeavoured to benefit from it.

A big pot came along and it was opened for three halfpence. All played and when the hands were filled the opener, who was myself, bet the sum of twopence.

Without a moment’s hesitation the chap next to me said, “I’ll see that twopence and I’ll raise you fourpence.”

He could have been bluffing, but there was something about the measured flow of his words which put me on my guard.

Cards were thrown in by the other gamblers and all eyes were fastened to me. The words of the fellow who had raised me were still ringing in my ears. He was not a native of our locality. In fact, he was on holiday. Surely, I thought, a man with a voice like that is not in the habit of bluffing.

“I’m dead,” I said, and I threw in my hand of cards. My opponent scooped in the pot. It had made such heavy inroads into the finances of those who had contributed to its upkeep that it was decided to abandon the game altogether.

Afterwards a small boy who had been standing behind the pot-winner told me that all the scoundrel had was a pair of sevens, whereas I had nines and fives.

I profited from the lesson and some years later at a football match when I was wrongly accused of tripping an opponent and offered to fight I employed the same tactics as the boy who had the pair of sevens.

As soon as I was asked to fight I knew by the manner in which I was addressed that my opposition was convinced that he had my measure.

“For your sake,” I said in exactly the same tone as the poker bluffer, “I hope there’s a hospital open somewhere.”

He looked at me briefly, uncertain of himself, but I was ready for him with a look which was equal to my words. He no longer had any doubt. A smile spread across his face and he extended his hand to be shaken.

It was some years before I discovered that I was, unwittingly, a student of that great Western elocution teacher, Joel McCrea.

The young chap in the poker school had seen McCrea and had spoken just like him. When I first saw McCrea in a film I realised that I was indebted to him.

The dear reader may think or may have presumed that a cinema is not a proper place to learn elocution. I disagree. Film actors have excellent voices and they know how to make the best possible use of those voices.

On the whole they are better-looking than school teachers, but after all this is no reflection on school teachers, who entered the profession not to act but to teach.

Elocution in the classroom has its uses, too, and it has produced many a fine voice.

I remember the somewhat haphazard elocution classes which I personally attended while at school.

Every boy would be expected to stand upright and render a poem of his own choosing.

The poems were the shortest and simplest to be found, and “Four Ducks In a Pond” because of its brevity, took precedence over all others.

Any boy who chose a long poem was rightly regarded as a bit of an eejit. With a short poem like “Four Ducks” it was difficult to falter, but the longer the poem the more likely one was to forget or to err.

Sometimes in my travail through life I meet up with some of the gentlemen who occupied those elocution classes. Those who favoured long poems lagged behind in the race of life whereas those who adhered to “Four Ducks” were all doing nicely.

They had, in brief, mastered what they could and by-passed what they couldn’t.