“You shall pass!” bellows a voice that sounds eerily like Gandalf the Grey, while you hover at the entrance to Somerset House, overlooking the Thames. Today, Sir Ian McKellen is wearing a different sort of wizard’s hat: he’s guiding you around London’s West End using the magic of GPS, on an audio tour that combines the history of Theatreland with memories of his career on the stage.
This surprisingly intimate walk with McKellen was produced by Official London Theatre, in partnership with rapidly-growing smartphone app, VoiceMap. The app uses the same technology as sat nav devices and applications like Google Maps, but does more than just provide directions. VoiceMap’s tours, available in over 50 cities worldwide, are like podcasts that move with you, to automatically tell stories about what you’re seeing right now – and with surprising accuracy. When McKellen asks if you can see a mousetrap hidden on top of the Agatha Christie Memorial near Leicester Square, you’re standing right in front of it.
Official London Theatre, which promotes scheduled walking tours of the West End’s Theatreland with qualified guides, wanted to also offer visitors the flexibility of taking part in a walking tour at a time which suited them. “The idea of a downloadable audio tour was an obvious solution,” said Julian Bird, Society of London Theatre CEO. “Research led us to partnering with VoiceMap as experts in this field. We hope to expand over time to offer tailored tours as well as tours in different languages."
The audio tour is free and compatible with iPhones and Android devices. It starts at TKTS, Official London Theatre’s ticket booth on Leicester Square. From there, McKellen guides you on a circular route that takes in the district’s theatrical landmarks and transports listeners through centuries of history. In Dickensian London, the West End was one of the city’s most disreputable neighbourhoods, “packed with gin shops and brothels, and teeming with cutthroats and pickpockets.” Theatres burnt down regularly, wiping out their owner’s fortunes overnight. “It’s hardly surprising,” remarks McKellen along the way. “Even when I began on the stage there were ashtrays by every seat. I saw all my early audiences through a haze of smoke. I remember, if you held your audience, you knew you had them because nobody lit up.”
VoiceMap’s tours can be downloaded before you set off, and don’t require an active internet connection. Offline maps are available in case users get lost, but if you listen to McKellen’s directions, you don’t need to take your phone out of your pocket over the course of the hour long walk. Free WiFi is being provided at TKTS for theatregoers.
“The app lets you focus on your surroundings instead of the screen,” said VoiceMap CEO and co-founder, Iain Manley. McKellen sees the benefit in this too. “I know myself when I’m in a strange city that wandering around with your nose in a guidebook isn’t the best way to appreciate what’s going on. The important thing when you’re walking around a city like London is to look up and down the alleyways and round the corner – and, with a guide in your ear all this is much easier.”
“VoiceMap is a new medium,” said Manley. “When it is used well, location-aware audio can feel like magic, but we put personal perspectives and the story first. This is what drove us to create an open platform and it keeps driving us, because when you start thinking of the world as a collection of overlapping stories, we’ve only just scratched the surface.”
- Direct link to Theatreland Audio Tour with Ian McKellen: https://voicemap.me/tour/london/theatreland-tour-with-ian-mckellen
- Audio trailer: https://soundcloud.com/voicemap-1/trailer-theatreland-tour-with-ian-mckellen
- Video trailer: https://youtu.be/DVg62qRoPuw
- VoiceMap on iOS: https://itunes.apple.com/app/voicemap-city-tours/id852027939?mt=8
- VoiceMap on Android: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=me.voicemap.android
VoiceMap is a mobile application available on iPhones or Android devices that uses GPS to play audio walks, cycles and drives automatically. It has a fast-growing catalogue of tours by bestselling authors, foreign correspondents, veteran broadcasters, passionate locals, and many others.
Official London Theatre is the consumer brand for Society of London Theatre (SOLT), the not-for-profit organisation which provides a collective voice for the theatre owners, producers and managers of all the major commercial and grant-aided theatres across London.