Heard au­dio about the books fly­ing off the shelves...

Move over Kin­dles – there’s a new sto­ry­teller in town

Scottish Daily Mail - - Terror On The Bridge - by Simon Cal­low

Progress is a won­der­ful thing. Peo­ple are al­ways des­per­ately keen to em­brace the new, and to con­sign the old to the dust­bin of his­tory. There’s some­thing so sat­is­fy­ing about it. A clean break with hor­rid, old-fash­ioned, clumsy ways. But what is fas­ci­nat­ing is how many things which are writ­ten off refuse to die.

only 50 years ago, tele­vi­sion was sup­posed to be sound­ing the death knell for live the­atre. To­day, box-of­fice tak­ings have never been health­ier.

rail­ways, in the six­ties, were con­sid­ered hope­lessly out­moded but now they are more pop­u­lar than ever, to the point of in­sane over­crowd­ing.

And when vinyl was su­per­seded, first by cas­settes then by CDs, spo­ken word record­ings, which had been highly pop­u­lar — es­pe­cially with me — were also sup­posed to be a dreary old thing of the past. Bo-ring!

Now it turns out that the ap­petite for the spo­ken word is ad­vanc­ing rapidly.

sales of au­dio­books in the UK are set to over­take those of ebooks. Ac­cord­ing to the con­sul­tancy firm Deloitte, au­dio­books will gen­er­ate rev­enues of £115mil­lion next year, up 30 per cent on 2018. Mean­while, the global au­dio­book mar­ket is fore­cast to grow by 25 per cent to almost £4 bil­lion in 2020.

That this is so seems to have come as a sur­prise even to the pub­lish­ers. It’s partly down to the fact that you can lis­ten to an au­dio­book on a piece of tech as ubiq­ui­tous as the smart­phone. But those of us who work in the the­atre or tele­vi­sion or film know and have known from time im­memo­rial, since the first man or woman stood up in a cave to tell a story, that it is one of the cen­tral hu­man ex­pe­ri­ences.

Any­one who has ever been a child read to at night knows this. Any­one who has ever told a great joke in a pub knows it, too. As soon as peo­ple want to know what’s com­ing next, they are putty in your hands.

say ‘You’ll never guess what just hap­pened to me’ with enough con­vic­tion and a unique kind of si­lence falls: a spell is cast.

The great sto­ry­teller knows how to spin it out un­til not know­ing what comes next is almost un­bear­able for his au­di­ence — whether to five mates in the Fox and Crown or to 2,000 peo­ple in the Lon­don Pal­la­dium — as stephen Fry re­cently demon­strated by re­count­ing the sto­ries of the greek gods in his show, Mythos.

had any one dropped a pin, it would have been heard in the rapt si­lence he com­manded. But no one would have dropped a pin; they were in his thrall.

Nov­els are, of course, in­fin­itely more com­plex. In­deed, the Czech writer Mi­lan Kun­dera, pos­si­bly the great­est nov­el­ist alive to­day, re­marked that nov­els have only one theme, and that is that ‘things are not as sim­ple as they seem’.

And some­times peo­ple are daunted by read­ing these great com­plex tomes. But hav­ing them read to you — that’s a dif­fer­ent thing al­to­gether.

Charles Dick­ens cer­tainly knew that. he toured the Bri­tish Isles and the United states read­ing his works to huge au­di­ences in vast halls, en­gen­der­ing elec­tri­fy­ing levels of ex­cite­ment and emo­tion in his lis­ten­ers.

Not only were they gripped in an iron vice by the com­pelling bril­liance of the nar­ra­tive, they were as­tounded at his abil­ity to trans­form his voice and his body for each new char­ac­ter.

he was a superb per­former, in both tragic and comic se­quences, mov­ing the au­di­ence al­ter­nately to gales of laugh­ter and deep sobs, but his con­nec­tion with his lis­ten­ers — who adored him, feel­ing, as they had al­ways done, that he spoke for them — was pal­pa­bly in­tense, the ap­plause at the end thun­der­ous and never-end­ing.

Dick­ens be­came ad­dicted to the ex­pe­ri­ence, push­ing him­self on to give more and more.

When he was at his low­est ebb, phys­i­cally and men­tally, he added a new se­quence, the death of Nancy from the last chap­ter of oliver Twist, which he ren­dered with such bru­tal re­al­ism that peo­ple fainted.

he seemed pos­sessed by the char­ac­ters and the story: now thug­gish as Bill sikes, now help­lessly vul­ner­a­ble as Nancy, plead­ing with god for for­give­ness. The pas­sage when sikes clubs Nancy to death again and again and again hor­ri­fied his lis­ten­ers and it left him shat­tered, un­able to speak.

It’s a kind of magic, and, mys­te­ri­ously, it can be even more pow­er­ful than hav­ing the same story per­formed by a cast of 20.

ra­dio lis­ten­ers (and there are more and more of those, too, these days) know that listening to a play or a story ig­nites the imag­i­na­tion in a way that a visit to the the­atre, for all its charms, can’t match.

one’s mind fills with pic­tures, one’s emo­tions are much more di­rectly en­gaged, one’s con­nec­tion to the story is so much more ur­gent.

so when Miriam Mar­golyes de­liv­ers her ex­tra­or­di­nary and prize-win­ning in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Bleak house, play­ing men and women, young and old, rich and poor, grotesque and ten­der, evok­ing Dick­ens’s ter­ri­fy­ing fog­bound world, it is as close to be­ing in the room with Dick­ens as you will ever know.

WheN stephen Fry takes you on the great odyssey that was the harry Pot­ter sto­ries — or reads, as he has re­cently done — the com­plete sher­lock holmes, he is right in­side your head, and takes you in­side harry’s head or sher­lock’s un­fath­omable mind.

And when Neville Ja­son reads the whole of Proust’s great cy­cle of nov­els, In search of Lost Time — one of the great­est of all book record­ings — you feel that you are almost a char­ac­ter in it your­self, so in­ti­mately do you know the lives of these up­per-class Parisians of a hun­dred years ago. If an au­thor records an au­dio­book of one of their own works, listening to their voice brings an ex­tra di­men­sion to the ex­pe­ri­ence — the sense of be­ing con­nected di­rectly to the writer. A num­ber of house­hold names have voiced their own bestseller­s, in­clud­ing sir el­ton John, who nar­rated his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Me, with the help of the ac­tor Taron eger­ton, who played him in the film rock­et­man. other reader-writ­ers in­clude Bill Bryson, Mal­colm glad­well and, of course, stephen Fry. I’ve recorded more than 50 books my­self: nov­els, bi­ogra­phies, his­tory. There’s no branch of act­ing that I love more — even when I had to play 25 Nor­we­gian nuns in roald Dahl’s The Witches.

I have been thanked by many peo­ple for sav­ing their mar­riages with the record­ing I made of The Twits, which is a re­li­able standby when driv­ing the kids down to the seaside for a hol­i­day. In­stant si­lence de­scends on the car.

once I had to record a short story spe­cially to calm dogs on Bon­fire Night: the au­thor’s dog fell into in­stant slum­ber af­ter half a sen­tence, not the ef­fect I nor­mally like to have on my au­di­ences, but it did the trick.

And for my record­ings of all the Jeeves sto­ries of P.g. Wode­house, I was given an award that is rather hard to live up to: Male Per­former of the Year.

But it has all been joy­ous, and it’s the best news imag­in­able that ever more peo­ple want to be read to, be­cause it’s so deeply sat­is­fy­ing to do.

Pic­tures: ANDY BARNES / BACKGRID; SHUT­TER­STOCK

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