For a London Underground commuter there is probably nothing more grating than young visitors on the Tube endlessly repeating “Mind the Gap” in a loud voice to their friends as if it was the funniest expression on the planet. Still in more considered moments it is a sign that this expression has now gained a life of its own and has been the subject (and title) of books, articles, campaigns and even a movie!
“Mind the Gap” is not just an announcement that you’ll hear on London’s Underground railway system when a train arrives at a station. Much more than just a warning about the “gap” between a carriage and the platform, it’s a phrase that has entered popular culture and become synonymous with London. People who have visited England’s capital city say “Mind the Gap” to each other – often accompanied by knowing glances and subtle nods – while the rest of the world wonders what they are on about.
“Mind the Gap” is part of the London mindset. The phrase originated on the Northern Line, where the gaps between the curved train platforms at Embankment Station and the train itself were particularly large.
The biggest gaps one needs to mind are at Bank Station on the Central line and at Waterloo Station on the Bakerloo line. Basically, early in the history of Tube-line building the companies had to build their railways beneath public roads, so sharp curves were required at some points. Allegedly, the slightly-off-putting gap at Bank is so large because the tunnel diggers of the time had to swerve a lot to miss the Bank of England’s vaults.
Pity then the dolorous tale of one Emma Clarke who has enjoyed many years of anonymous fame as the voice heard by millions of Tube travellers each day, warning them to “Mind the Gap”. But now a gap has opened in the career of Emma Clarke after she criticised the Underground system and spoofed her own announcements on the internet.
TfL bosses have said that they will not provide the voiceover artist with any more work. A Transport for London spokesman said: “London Underground is sorry to have to announce that further contracts for Ms Clarke are experiencing severe delays.”
Ms Clarke, 36, from Altrincham, Cheshire, criticised the system in a newspaper interview after she produced spoof announcements on her website. She apparently said that while living in Highgate, North London, she used to take the Tube every day, but had refused to use it any longer because it was “dreadful”.
Ms Clarke, whose voice is now well known to the estimated billion passengers who use the Tube network each year, put her joke messages on the website she created this month after asking friends what they would most like to hear.
Ms Clarke said she was “very disappointed” and upset at the reaction of TfL, but still harboured hope that the row with the network could be resolved. “The first step is for us to have a conversation,” she said. “I hope they hear my point of view, and take on board that I wasn’t criticising London Underground or the Tube system.”
In a report in The Times, she said that the comments had been taken out of context. “I did not say that the Northern Line was dreadful. I did say it’s a challenging line. What I did say was dreadful was the thought of being in a Tube train listening to my own voice.” Emma, who is also an actress and playwright obviously moved to the country (Cheshire) from London for a lifestyle change and put up a rather good website to showcase her talents; http://www.emmaclarke.com/ It includes a whole page on the Tube with lots of links and background information which shows some affection and admiration for the Tube but even its most ardent admirers do, at times, get fed up when things go wrong but more especially with the sometimes selfish and inconsiderate behaviour of fellow passengers who forget notions of neighbourliness in Tube carriages.
These are reflected in some of Emma Clarke’s Tube spoofs on her website;
In one spoof announcement she said: “Here we are crammed again into a sweaty Tube carriage . . . If you are female, smile at the bloke next to you and make his day. He’s probably not had sex for months.”
Peeping Toms were singled out in another message when she said: “Would the passenger . . . pretending to read a paper but who is actually staring at that woman’s chest please stop. You’re not fooling anyone, you filthy pervert.”
In another one spoof, Ms Clarke attacked the mindset of some Londoners. She said: “Residents of London are reminded that there are other places in Britain outside your stinking city and, if you remove your heads from your backsides for just a couple of minutes, you may realise the M25 is not the edge of the Earth.”
In another she said: “Passengers should note that the bearded rucksack contains the following items only: some sandwiches, a library card and picture of a bare ankle, and is no cause for concern.”
“Passengers are asked not to drop litter on the train. Please use the tramps provided”
“Passengers are reminded a smile is a friendship signal, not a sign of weakness”
“We would like to remind our American tourist friends that you are almost certainly talking too loudly”
“Would passengers filling in their Su Dokus please accept that they are just crosswords for the unimaginative and are not more impressive because they contain numbers.”
“Would the passenger in the pinstripe suit and £1,000 glasses who obviously works in the media please take one step forward on to the track”
The fame of “Mind the Gap” is widespread. “Mind the Gap” was the name chosen for a pictorial book put together by Simon James. As well as the excellent, often quirky pictures of the London Underground, this book also features a commentary on stations to be found at the end of Tube lines. In the book’s foreword, Michael Palin,- campaigner for better public transport (and well known traveller) – writes:
“”Mind the Gap”, perhaps the most famous phrase associated with the London Underground, must surely have the creators of the system spinning in their graves. It’s an acknowledgement that the thing doesn’t quite work. That however fast and frequent the service, however comprehensive the network, the trains don’t always fit the platforms. There’s not much in it – but enough to warrant painted signs and recorded warnings.
It is very much a book about gaps, not just gaps between the train and the platform, but between the designer and user, staff and passenger. And between dreams and reality, “Mind the Gap” in capturing the elusive appeal of the stations at the ends of the lines, gives gentle but perceptive insights into the way we live now.”
There was a short-lived TV game show called Mind the Gap. Hosted by Paul Ross, the set mirrored a tube platform.
The set is a side-on Underground platform – very nicely executed, with the proper London Underground symbols and typography. The tunnel contains a massive screen which displays the Underground map, and seems to use a projector rather than a TV wall. Music is a jazz-style affair, with a kind of scratching sound effect of a man going ‘M-M-M-Mind the Gap’ over the top. Looks like it’s destined straight for the Challenge TV channel on cable.1
One of the funniest urban legends about ‘Mind the Gap’ is as follows:
“Once you are on a train platform, beware! Approaching trains sometimes disturb the large Gappe bats that roost in the tunnels. The Gappes were smuggled into London in the early 19th Century by French saboteurs and have proved impossible to exterminate. The announcement ‘Mind the Gappe!’ is a signal that you should grab your hair and look towards the ceiling. Very few people have ever been killed by Gappes, though, and they are considered only a minor drawback to an otherwise excellent means of transportation.”
The female voice for the recorded announcement of ‘Mind the Gap’ is nicknamed ‘Sonia’ by tube drivers. Why? Because her voice ‘gets so on yer nerves’, they collectively reply. Apparently ‘Sonia’ is thought to be a bit too posh in some circles. In recent tests somebody mimicking the voice of Marilyn Monroe proved to be a favourite.
The “Mind the Gap” announcement has been sampled into music tracks by at least two dance bands. Lectrolux’s Mind the Gap can be heard on an album called Sounds of the Hoover 2 (CD2). It is also on Pumpin by the musicians Novy Vs Eniac.
And like most minor celebrities “Mind the Gap” has had a bit part in the movies. A 1970s horror film sporting the somewhat off-putting name(s) The Death Line or Raw Meat featured ghoulish man-eating underground troglodytes. These beasts constantly repeated the phrase ‘Mind the Doors’ (OK, so it’s not “Mind the Gap”, but it’s close). The film ‘stars’ Donald Pleasance and Christopher Lee. Its fairly absurd plot revolves around a turn of the century cave-in on the London Underground. Pleasance plays a detective investigating a string of murders who is handicapped by a distinct lack of corpses. Presumably, they were eaten by the cannibal Tube dwellers from days of yore. “Beneath modern London buried alive in its plague-ridden tunnels lives a tribe of once humans” the poster for the film screams. “Neither men nor women, they are less than animals… they are the raw meat of the human race.”
Indeed, these are not sentiments Tube commuters would agree with! As for Emma Clarke herself the torrent of publicity can only have clients queuing at her door and she is obviously a “Star” so I hope TfL and she will have the “conversation” she has asked for. I leave the last word to a supportive email she received from the United States published on her website;
“I read with dismay about your ‘sacking’ by Transport for London. I have visited England a few times as a tourist since you began your tenure with TfL. My wife and I always use the Tube to get around London and did admire its service. I want to register a protest with TfL for its lack of a sense of humour! In this day and age we should recognise what is important, and what can add a bit of a smile to our days. Your “spoofs” were separate from the Tube and could not have confused or dismayed any passengers travelling. In the US, Southwest Airlines is known for its flight attendants joking commentary made before, during and after a flight. No one at Southwest has felt it necessary to reprimand or “sack” an employee who has injected some levity into their travel. It’s time for TfL to get a sense of humour, rehire you and maybe even use a few of your “spoofs” either in advertising or in the Tube. Please forward this e-mail to TfL.”