The Complete Sherlock Holmes – 56 stories and 4 novels – is longer than War and Peace... so the magnitude of David Timson’s achievement in having recorded the whole Holmes canon for Naxos AudioBooks deserved special recognition.
And it came in a sizeable box set of 60 CDs containing everything from The Study in Scarlet which chronicles the first meeting between Mr Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson to The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, the final collection. In the box, making it a real collector’s item, is also The Adventure of the Wonderful Toy, a new Holmes story written (and read) by David Timson himself.
With the CDs comes a thick booklet containing background information on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and his most famous detective who, residing at 221b Baker Street, became a legend in his own lifetime – even though he never really lived! This booklet was written by David himself, for in addition to being a master reader, he has become something of an expert on Holmes... so much so that there is a commentary on every individual story.
David and Naxos AudioBooks spent ten years in producing this cycle – the first time it has been done for CD, with classical music enhancing the production.
And where better to mark its conclusion than by holding a reception at The Audiobook Store, formerly The Talking Book Shop, in its new premises in Baker Street itself... not far from 221b.
Actually, the shop – the only bookshop in England dedicated to audiobooks – is at No. 36 Baker Street, next door to No. 34 which, according to the best authorities (including Mr Roger Johnson, Editor, The Sherlock Holmes Journal, who joined us for the event) was the scene of The Empty House.
Leading UK journalists and audiobook reviewers including Karen Robinson (The Sunday Times), Christina Hardyment (The Times), Sue Arnold (The Guardian), Kati Nichol (The Daily Express) and others crammed into the shop with booksellers, actors (Sean Barrett, Neville Jason, Glen McCready, Rupert Degas, Clive Swift and more) fellow audiobook publishers, salesman, studio engineers and fans.
They had come to celebrate the event – and hear David read three sections from the canon: the first meeting, the famous conclusion from The Speckled Band, and the last event, where Holmes and Watson stood over the captured Germans.
Brilliantly presented, David showed why he has joined the greats – Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Peter Cushing – in the portrayal of the world’s most famous detective.
‘I had no idea, when I read the first collection of stories, that it would lead to this’
Even though these passages where known to everyone, and he was standing in the bookshop surrounded by shelves and party-goers holding glasses of wine, he weaved the spell of the story-teller, magically evoking tension, humour, character, plot and excitement.
‘This was an unforgettable evening,’ said Frances Goldberg, owner of The Audiobook Store, who has championed audiobooks for many years, and took the courageous decision to open her new shop in Baker Street late last year, despite the difficult economic climate.
‘We who love audiobooks know the spell that a reader can weave, but this was something quite exceptional,’ she said.
For David himself, it was quite a night. ‘I had no idea, when I read the first collection of stories all those years ago, that it would lead to this,’ he explained. ‘We just thought we would do one set, but one lead to another, and then a third, until we were doing two sets each year.’
After the first set, Naxos AudioBooks let David himself guide the project – it was so evident that he knew the stories extremely well. He let slip that he first read them when a pupil in school, reading them after finishing exams... to let off steam!
He prepared with great care, deciding to go back to the original publications in The Strand, rather than their later appearances in book form. ‘What we have here are Conan Doyle’s first intentions,’ said David.
The cycle is one of the greatest challenges for a reader, and even David, who has made over 1000 broadcasts for BBC Radio, and has appeared with many leading British classical actors in a career approaching four decades, was tested to his limits. He developed the characters of Holmes and Watson, and explained that he tried to show them ageing during the course of the series: from their 20s to their 60s! He had to develop individual traits for each and further mature them over the decade of the recording process. And then there were more than 200 other characters who appear in the stories, apart from assorted walk-on parts, including the Baker Street irregulars!
A few times each year he would settle down in the studio. He always came in with the script and a facsimile of The Strand magazine. After he had finished reading, the recordings would be edited and music added – the Naxos AudioBooks hallmark – by editor Sarah Butcher, who is also a cellist with the London Mozart Players. She selected and edited almost all the music cues – over 300 – taken from the extensive Naxos music catalogue.
‘Every time a new recording came in, I knew it was going to be fun – David’s readings are so exciting and full of atmosphere,’ said Sarah.
The Sherlock Holmes project was fitted in around David’s numerous other activities – he has always many projects on the go. He teaches at RADA and other major UK drama colleges; he directs plays for Naxos AudioBooks (including Kenneth Branagh’s King Richard III) and for BBC Radio 3; he has read the exceptional Naxos series introducing the major operas (Opera Explained), and, among many other audiobooks, Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, itself a 28 CD set. He is equally active as a writer, having created The History of Theatre for Naxos AudioBooks among other scripts.
He also creates special projects for Naxos AudioBooks, including The Essential Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a 6 CD set which surveys the life and work of the writer on this, the 150th anniversary of the writer’s birth. It contains a biography, selections from Holmes and also Brigadier Gerard, another outstanding Conan Doyle creation, as well as journalism and writings on spiritualism.
Nevertheless, The Complete Sherlock Holmes must take centre stage in the panorama of David Timson’s work, and now becomes one of the pinnacles of audiobook history worldwide.
David Timson recently talked to Mark Lawson on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row programme about The Complete Sherlock Holmes:
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SHERLOCK HOLMES ON NAXOS AUDIOBOOKS