‘Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, Winnie-the-Pooh lived in the forest all by himself’.
Some audiobooks are truly unforgettable, and Alan Bennett reading Winnie-the-Pooh is one of the very best. His marvellous lilting voice brilliantly captures the gentle humour and eccentricity of Pooh, and has become synonymous with the book itself – and yet doesn’t detract one iota from the experience of actually reading it yourself. You can still read and love A.A. Milne’s classic and not hear Alan Bennett – to make of it what you want, to interpret and imagine the story in your own way.
For people of a certain age, the slightly sarcastic intonation of Peter Jones IS the voice of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He played the narrator of Arthur Dent’s saga, as he travels round the universe wearing his dressing gown and armed only with a towel. Hitchhiker’s began its life not as a book, but as a radio play, and Jones went on to be the voice of the titular know-it-all guidebook in the television series too. And it’s his performance that brings Douglas Adams’ cheerily world-weary and sometimes surreal voice to life. Again, the performance was so perfectly suited to the words that it has became synonymous with the text.
There are such diverse and exciting possibilities with audio: authors reading their own books (not always successful; Roald Dahl is a particularly grumpsome narrator of Fantastic Mr Fox); much-loved personalities (Stephen Fry doing Harry Potter; Martin Jarvis reading Just William); full-cast renditions (Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials; and then there is the unexpected thrill of an absolute unknown with a voice that crackles out of nowhere to bring a new magic to a familiar work.
Recently I was lucky enough to attend the auditions to find the narrator for our very own Maggot Moon audiobook, by Sally Gardner. As soon as we heard 16-year-old actor Robert Madge, we knew we had found our hero Standish Treadwell. It was an amazing, spine-tingling, and somewhat humbling experience, to hear a book that continues to stun and move me every time I read it be brought to life in a very different way by this very talented young man, who captured the absolute essence of the narrator of the novel. He was certainly helped in this by Sally Gardner’s perfect prose: in audio any duff sentence or dodgy dialogue will stand out horribly, and the fact that Sally reads all of her writing out loud to herself as she writes could not have been more evident. There was not a single word out of place.
There are now so many ways of communicating and disseminating a story – for every book we publish we think about the print edition, the ebook, and whether we might have an app, or some kind of enhanced ebook edition, or any number of other ingenious platforms. Audio is another branch of that – one that has been around for a long time, but whose longevity bears testament to its power. Whether it’s Richard Burton’s mellifluous performance of Under Milk Wood, or the rather more schlocky Alfred Hitchcock-inspired The Secret of Terror Castle that kept me and my sisters entertained on many a long car journey, audio can have an unmatched emotional resonance.
At Hot Key we are passionate about audio and hope to be able to do much more of it. So what are the audiobooks and performances that get your spine tingling?