The NAB Blog

The Voice of the 48 Characters

By Nicolas Soames

3 May 2007

charles dickens is one of the great pillars of English literature. It was not just because he reflected his time so acutely, nor because his novels were real page-tuners – which they remain today. The heart of Dickens is his humanity, his understanding of characters and situations, so real though imagined, that we move with the tensions, the dilemmas, the joy and the tragedy as the novels unfold.

In the hands of outstanding readers, they become more than novels, they become life – only from a different time. This is what has prompted us to pursue with some vigour the unabridged recordings of the great novels.

Anton Lesser was the voice of Charles Dickens for Naxos AudioBooks for the first ten years. His recorded eight abridged versions of some of the greatest titles, including Great Expectations which won a Talkie for the best classic of the year; Hard Times, which has a 3-D Mr Gradgrind; and A Tale of Two Cities… and to be honest I can only hear that famous opening line (‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’) with the Lesser expression, a harbinger of the drama and tragedy to come.

And then, with downloads making unabridged recordings more accessible, we decided to undertake the complete novels. This meant sometimes going back to titles we have already done, and sometimes going into, for us, uncharted territory.

First of all, there was the question of the reader. Should Anton, without doubt one of England’s greatest readers, continue to do them all? Well, he is a busy actor on stage and screen, and he doesn’t have the time – though his range is not in question: listen to the comic genius of The Pickwick Papers as a contrast to the drama of Oliver Twist.

We started the unabridged series with A Tale of Two Cities, and he had to do it. Great Expectations, also, he had made his own (15 CD August release). He recorded these, (and The Iliad and The Odyssey) while playing Leontes in A Winter’s Tale at Stratford. We found a little studio in the Oxfordshire countryside near his home and Stratford to make it easier for him. Then, we had some insistent (!) requests for Little Dorrit (2008 release), which he has now done, and as I write, he has back in Oxfordshire studio doing more, though now we move into the realms of trade secrets!

But there were others we wanted to do. Bleak House called for two readers, and Sean Barrett and Teresa Gallagher proved the perfect team as the narrator and Esther Summerson. We first issued it in complete form on 28 CDs last year, and this month offer it as an 8 CD abridgement.

The top spot for this month, however, goes to David Timson’s unabridged recording of Our Mutual Friend on 28 CDs. David Timson is a well-known personality on Naxos AudioBooks. He reads the Sherlock Holmes canon (to be completed next year) and writes all the remarkably comprehensive notes. He directs many of our Shakespeare recordings, including Kenneth Branagh’s King Richard III. Now, he proves he is equally at home in the world of Charles Dickens – and if you haven’t already heard his podcast, I urge you to go and listen.

Here is an actor totally in command of his subject. David is a writer and theatre historian and knows the political, literary and biographical background of the works he reads – as you can hear from the podcast. This informs his reading of Our Mutual Friend, making it a particularly rich experience.

And towards the end of the podcast, he gives a short masterclass on reading – as he can do with authority: he teaches reading and broadcasting at RADA, one of the top London drama schools.

What happened was this. I was in the studio on the last day of David’s recording of Our Mutual Friend. He was in full flight bringing the story to its conclusion. Studio 3 of Motivation Sound in North London is a small studio, but there was no sense of that from the sound coming through the speakers! And when he finished, with a Timsian flourish, he gave a little chuckle. He came out for a cup of tea, and, still in full flow, started to speak about the novel, its place in Dickens’ oeuvre, the characters and their interaction.

I said, ‘Stop!’ I took his cup of tea, lead him back into the studio, turned on the mikes, and got him to start again. Dickensian to his boots, he launched into what you can now hear on the podcast. It was fascinating!

David scarcely needed prompting. Actually, he had played the same role as I did now with Juliet Stevenson after the conclusion of Emma. Just a judicious question to start the thought processes. So he knew what was required, and he did it without a note or a moment of preparation or forethought. Really, working with actors like David is truly a privilege, and in this case I am delighted to be able to share it with you.

(The lunch-time conversations in the Naxos AudioBooks studio only too often disappear into the ether when they should have been recorded. I remember, in particular, a fascinating interchange with Samuel West, who was recording Keats’ letters and poems Realms of Gold, on the poet’s use of the dash in his letters!)

I exhort you to listen on to the end of David’s podcast. Here, David gives a little master-class in reading. There are 48 characters in Our Mutual Friend. Where do his charactersations come from? How does he do it? He starts to explain – and then (you can hear it!) he slides, without effort, into the characters themselves. He simply can’t help it. They are not marked on the script. He didn’t have a script in front of him! But they were living for him, in that studio, on that day.

This is the art of reading at its most elevated. By a star.

Nicolas Soames

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