'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. This Entry introduces some little known facts about the phrase and its usage.
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.
A Photographic Study
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.
The TV Game Show
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
The Urban Legend
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.2
The Recorded Announcement (Male)
The stern, shouting, male voice announcement for 'Mind the Gap' is being phased out. Fortunately, you can download Peter Lodge's 'performance' - and numerous other train announcements - from this Sound File site. As the webmaster of the site says:
His barked orders to cowering passengers continue to ring out in a recording which is already an historical document3.
The Recorded Announcement (Female)
The female voice for the recorded announcement of 'Mind the Gap' is nicknamed 'Sonia' by tube drivers. Why? Because her voice 'gets 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 Celebrity and the Sitcom
A recent article published in London's Evening Standard newspaper reports on Miss Mind The Gap in the shape of 31-year-old Emma Clarke. Her voice is used on announcements for three tube lines. She says:
What I have done for the Underground is not something I tend to brag about. When I am on the Tube myself I just want to punch the person who is telling me there is a mechanical fault when you have been stuck in the dark for five minutes.
However, as a successful playwright, she has been commissioned to write a six part sitcom for Radio 4 next year. Miss Clarke also makes announcements on British radio stations including Classic FM, Virgin and Capital FM. She says that she would like to meet the faces behind the voices of the remaining 10 tube lines.
The Dance Music
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 a album called Sounds of the Hoover 2 (CD2). It is also on Pumpin by the musicians Novy Vs Eniac.
The Horror Movie
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 Pleasence and Christopher Lee. Its fairly absurd plot revolves around a turn of the century cave-in on the London Underground. Pleasence 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
More On The Underground's Ghosts
For more on 'real' ghosts on the Tube see London Underground Ghosts.