Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

3 posts from April 2023

24 April 2023

Recording of the week: You havin’ a bubble, mate?

This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.

Last month, while preparing for a panel discussion at the Modern Cockney Festival, I stumbled across a Guardian interview with John Cooper Clarke discussing his poem 'I Wanna Be Yours'. Reflecting on his career, Clarke notes he was ‘never on the sausage’, an intriguing use of Salford (?) rhyming slang for ‘dole’ (i.e. unemployment benefit). The convention with rhyming slang, of course, is that the final element – i.e. the component that rhymes with the target word – is invariably omitted. When people say ‘give us a butcher’s’ for ‘let me have a look’, they’re using the well-established rhyming slang form butcher’s (hook) [= ‘look’]; Clarke’s use of ‘sausage’ here implies sausage (roll) [= ‘dole’]. A quick glance at authoritative reference sources such as Cockney Rhyming Slang, Green’s Dictionary of Slang and Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase & Fable (Wiley, 2010) reveals numerous rhyming slang variants for ‘dole’, including:

Adrian (Mole)

Andy (Cole) / Cheryl (Cole) / George (Cole) / Nat (King Cole)

Billy (Joel)

De La Soul

Rock & Roll / Jam (roll) / Sausage (roll)

The term ‘sausage’ itself also occurs in at least two rhyming slang forms, each with three possible meanings:

Sausage (& mash) [= 'cash/crash/smash']

Sausage (roll) [= 'dole/goal/pole']

Cockney ATM

     Cockney ATM © Bank Machine Company. Image taken from Melik, J. (2012)

The enduring appeal of rhyming slang and the fact it’s an endlessly productive process means it remains a playful source of lexical innovation for Londoners (and others). Original forms of rhyming slang are created all the time; some are adopted enthusiastically and subsequently gain wider recognition. To illustrate this, listen to these recordings submitted in 2011 to the Library’s Evolving English WordBank by three young Londoners:

Listen to Have a bubble - clip one 

'We use some rhyming slang still not an awful lot but like having a bubble you’re having a laugh'

Listen to Have a bubble - clip two

'You’re having a bubble mate I think that came from the East End of London when they spoke Cockney some years ago'

Listen to Have a bubble - clip three

'Having a bubble means to have a laugh and I think it’s Cockney rhyming slang for having a bubble bath'

Surprisingly, there’s no entry for bubble (bath) [= ‘laugh’] in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, which suggests it must be a relatively recent coinage. It does, however, merit an entry at Cockney Rhyming Slang and features in Tony Thorne’s Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (2014), where it’s classified as a modern variation on the older form TIN (Bath). Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase & Fable (Wiley, 2010) includes a citation from 2007 and suggests it’s most commonly heard in the ‘sarcastically rhetorical question you havin’ a bubble?’.

It’s difficult to predict why some rhyming slang forms take hold more successfully than others but bubble (bath) [= ‘laugh’] is somehow inherently suitable as it’s an item of everyday vocabulary. It’s also a slightly frivolous object in its own right and has the added attraction of alliteration. Not only that but it requires quintessentially ‘Cockney’ phonology to work: although the rhyming component ‘bath’ is seldom actually uttered, in order for it to rhyme with ‘laugh’ we implicitly accept a pronunciation with TH-fronting – i.e. it has to end with a <f> sound as in e.g. ‘staff’. I also wonder if the success of bubble [= ‘laugh’] is also maybe reinforced by a potential association for Londoners (well, West Ham United fans anyway) with the stereotypically Cockney song, 'I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles?' Perhaps that’s stretching it a bit, but nevertheless having a bubble certainly brings a smile to my face. Or should I say boat (race)?

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Melik, J. 2012. Cockney Cash: Lady Godivas and speckled hens. [18 April] Available from:

Thorne, T. 2014. Dictionary of Contemporary Slang. London: Bloomsbury.
Wiley, R. 2010. Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase & Fable. Edinburgh: Chambers.


17 April 2023

Recording of the week: Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Falstaff

Falstaff disc label

The famously successful actor and theatre manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1852-1917) made this recording in March 1906. It was one of a set of five 10-inch discs recorded for release by the Gramophone Company. These were originally issued in a ‘special envelope’ (which we don’t have) which included the texts and a ‘character portrait’ of Tree.

Each single-sided shellac disc featured a soliloquy from Shakespeare. Here, Tree performs Falstaff’s speech on honour, from Henry IV, Part 1.

A soliloquy was pretty much all the technology of the time would allow. In the early years of commercial recording, playing times of more than just a few minutes were not technologically possible.

Note also that age of recording with electrical microphones was still two decades away. You are listening here to an acoustic recording. Tree would have been projecting his voice, with all the vigour he could muster, into the horn of the recording device.

Listen to Herbert Beerbohm Tree

Download Herbert Beerbohm Tree transcript

The presence of the famous HMV dog on the label indicates that this is a later reissue rather than the 1906 first pressing.

Somewhat unusually, the British Library also possesses an original copper matrix from which a new edition of the record could be pressed. This was one of a set presented to the British Museum by the Gramophone Company in 1906 and subsequently transferred to the Library in 1992.

This week’s ‘Recording of the Week’ was selected by Steve Cleary, Lead Curator, Literary and Creative Recordings.

03 April 2023

Recording of the week: The sound designer: the theatre as an experimental stage

Photograph of an actor on stage

Photograph of an actor on stage. Photograph by Antonio Molinari on Unsplash.

In this 2004 interview from British Library collection ‘Theatre Archive Project’ (C1142/350), sound designer Ross Brown describes the process of sound creation in theatre.

Listen to Ross Brown

Download Ross Brown transcript

Sound design is, among many things, an art of illusion. It serves a purpose to recreate familiar sounds and convey emotions. The role of the theatre sound designer is to create a sound that can fit a certain venue. The designer imagines how the sound will fill the ambient space and how the audience will receive it within that space. Sounds create another dimension to what happens on the stage.

Brown states that the role of the sound designer was not perceived as a separate entity until the modern day, when new equipment was introduced to create sounds in theatre. With the arrival of new technologies, playback became an integral part of the performance, almost similar to a cinematic experience. Naturalistic sounds could then be stretched and manipulated before being incorporated into the final products.

This new way of sampling sound needed to be marketed. In fact, this became a niche technical aspect of the staged performances. However, budget in theatre downplayed the sound designer as a professional role until very recently. Brown’s consideration made me think of the historic way of adding sound to a film as a separate track, with the final product merging two different mediums of communication (images and sounds).

Ross describes sound creation as a parallel narrative: an experimental discipline, which combines the ability to use these new technological tools with the final making of the performance or play. Some writers, Ross continues, raised objections to this new professional role of interpreting and shaping the musicality and rhythm of speech and interaction. Altogether, it was the whole experience of the audience that would be different with the sound actually abstracting from the script. Ideas could spark from attending rehearsals. An understanding of how the characters would interact with each other was an integral part of this new process of making sounds and creating the new pace of storytelling.

This week’s post comes from Giulia Baldorilli, Sound and Vision Reference Specialist.