Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Narrator’s Art: Part Two – Edward Petherbridge

Wharfedale coverAs part of our Audiobook Month – ‘Talking Books’ – we decided to put the same five basic questions to Jay Benedict, Stephen Greif and Edward Petherbridge, all of whom are experienced audiobook narrators.    We wanted to see how similar (or otherwise) their approach to the task of recording audiobooks was.

They all responded without the benefit of seeing each other’s answers and their replies ranged from the very succinct to the freestyle riff, for which reason we’ve given Edward the afternoon to himself . . .!

You can read Jay and Stephen’s answers HERE.


VL: Can we start with a ‘Recording Audiobooks 101’? You’ve been engaged to record an audiobook. What’s the first thing you do? How do you prepare? Read the book all the way through first? Read it in sections as you work through it? Or what?

EP: To listen to an unabridged audiobook might take anything from nine to fourteen hours. I would expect to take at least as long, all told, to read the book to myself in preparation, possibly reading some sections aloud. It is impossible to rehearse it thoroughly like a part in a play; there is just too much of it. In the studio there is bound to be an element of (hopefully) inspired improvisation in the interpretation, as there might be with a musician sight-reading a twelve-hour piece. In recording my latest audiobook, Jill Paton Walsh’s forthcoming Wimsey novel The Attenbury Emeralds, I found that when, occasionally, I was obliged to read ‘blind’, the result was strangely more fluent than the prepared material and I enjoyed the emotional extemporization.

To anticipate your ‘cheeky’ question, one starts at the beginning and continues to the end. When I have read for BBC broadcast, time has been allowed for rehearsal and the director might also take time to amend the abridgement as part of the process, but that is a leisurely luxury. An unabridged audiobook of nearly 400 pages might be allotted sixteen hours over three or four days to include tea breaks and editing stops for fluffs and any retakes. One might feel dissatisfied with the tone or pace of a passage oneself and ask to do it again, but the aim is to keep going. Could I be blackmailed with the outtakes? Certainly – and the bad language. I know there are the experts who have near perfect eye-to-mouth coordination. I have never been in that category and one doesn’t improve with age, but I am proud of passages in the Forster novels I recorded (Howard’s End and Where Angels Fear to Tread), The Go-Between, and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

VL: One of the pleasures of a well-read audiobook is the skilful differentiation of the characters, so that as soon as a new one appears, he or she is instantly recognizable afterwards. What’s the thought process you use when arriving at the right voice and – when there are many characters in a book – how do you keep track of which ‘voice’ you use for which character?

EP: I don’t think I would describe it as a thought process. Chiefly at work are imagination and instinct as well as a reliance on accent and tone, of course; voices come from different places, geographically and within the vocal equipment. There was a cast list at the beginning of The Attenbury Emeralds, which was very long indeed, enough to stock several plays, and ranged from a gardener’s boy with two short lines to the Dowager Duchess with her characteristic way of rambling picturesquely. In fact, the book ends with a long letter from Lord Peter’s mother to an American friend. It acts effectively as a coda to the book. I might have been better as the Dowager Duchess than I was as the gardener’s boy, though I feared I might run out of voices for the many upper-class ladies, so many of them Peter’s relations. I was relieved when two cockney women turned up in a prefab under a Waterloo viaduct. Bunter doesn’t come naturally to me – a difficult mixture of lower ranks and stiff formality, supreme tact with a touch of latent tenderness.

VL: In the same vein, how do you approach the gender divide? The best readers seem to be able to suggest this without resorting to a screaming falsetto on the one hand or over-using the chest voice on the other.

EP: I can sing bass; even as a slender seventeen-year old, I sang the famous drinking song based on Ludwig Fischer’s ‘Im tiefen Keller’ (‘My lodging is a cellar here/Upon a cask I am seated …’), with its final descending ‘drinkings’ and ‘D, R, I, N, K, I, N – Geee’. But LPW is essentially a tenor. As for the gender divide, it’s all done by smoke and – not wishing to be sexist – powder compact mirrors, in ways I can’t easily elucidate. Some perfectly feminine women use chest tone, and lots of or no make-up, while some men are light-voiced. One hopes to achieve archetypes rather than clichés for the occasional one-off original. In The Attenbury Emeralds, Wimsey narrates much of the story to Harriet and quotes the characters he describes, much as the author of a book would. But does he ‘stoop’ or aspire to characterization as an actor does in an audiobook performance? I think not.

Naturally the whole job is as if one is the speaking equivalent of that sight-reading marathon musician I envisaged. There is something intrinsically musical about reading a book aloud and it demands a sensitivity to the shape and structure of the ‘music’, its inherent logic and changes of tempo. There is also something dance-like about the job. In The Attenbury Emeralds, for instance, the sentences were long and literate and had an inbuilt speed and poise. One was on mental and vocal tiptoe most of the time; even Lord Peter’s sadder moments were en pointe. I have been listening to some orchestral music by the English composer Herbert Howells, for whom I have a very soft spot and for a very personal reason that I may divulge in a minute.* At a concert I attended recently, it struck me that the symphony orchestra is one of the most magnificent of human achievements. We are all familiar with the magical way in which players in formal dress, striking, strumming, blowing, stroking and scraping as they obey the composer’s dots and the conductor’s gestures, can open up worlds and close distance for us or enchant us with the interplay of ‘abstract’ sound (perhaps music long prefigured abstract art and can unlock the divine gates in ways that the abstractions of ‘fine art’ cannot).

Difficult to come down from those Olympian heights to the human speaking voice we all use at the supermarket checkout and the corner shop! Suddenly I recall a lady I used to hear at Oakeshott’s on the corner of Tite Street, Chelsea in 1960, ordering her groceries as if addressing the joint Houses of Parliament. Whilst collecting vintage shop voices, I can still hear, from decades ago on one of my rare visits to Bradford, the voice of a young boy assistant in a men’s wear shop. Of yore I had been used to a middle-aged man in a suit, discreetly opening drawers of socks and solicitously helping me into jackets, which he would insist were a very nice fit or could be altered, whilst speaking in a vernacular that I didn’t question. Suddenly I was confronted by what to me in Bradford was a ‘foreign’ type: he was at the till, an informally cheerful black boy who was clearly a body-builder bursting out of a T-shirt. He addressed me in such a perfect Bradford dialect that I recognized every nuance of my own heart’s language. I’ve forgotten what the question was!

VL: With the best audiobooks, you feel that the narrator is reading to YOU, specifically. It reproduces the ‘bedtime story’ effect, in a way. Sitting alone in a studio for hours on end with only a director (presumably) and a sound engineer can’t be exactly conducive to producing that effect. Do you imagine you’re reading to someone you know? Or do you have other mental tricks to keep it immediate and personal?

EP: It is again chiefly a question of Imagination. When I paint I am happiest in a messy corner; but coffee on tap and an engineer who is looking after the sound levels with patience and staying friendly, the technical trappings, even the tiny recording booth are there to help. On this last audiobook, I couldn’t have had a more sympathetic, tactful and swiftly incisive director. An audio nod and a wink is all there is time for, and Neil Gardner seemed to be right 99.9 % of the time, and we quickly reached agreement when there was an issue. So much of the delicate intimacy of a reading is between the characters, excluding the listener who becomes an eavesdropper. Sometimes the narrator goes into rhetorical mode. I found the ‘spellbinding’ element was in the shifting modes of the authorial voice as well as the characters, and I attained most fluency in the emotional passages. I don’t know why but I have found that before; having a longish emotional speech, even so lightly rehearsed that one doesn’t quite know what is coming next, is an easier ride for me than the tiptoe badinage between articulate toffs.

VL: And – a bit cheekily – are you a smooth operator, or a fluffer – or a bit of both? Do you sail serenely through your recordings, or could you be blackmailed with the outtakes?

EP: Well, all I can say is that the director’s editing job might require all his skill and fortitude.

*Ah, Herbert Howells: I am partly to be found – or lost – in his English landscapes, which seem not to be made of music stands and string sections, woodwind, bar rests, key signatures, and words such as lento and adagio, but of continually shifting distances of greenness and haze and, now and then, the detail of unexpected sound that evokes no pictures in the mind at all but entraps one as if one has been caught up in a dance or momentarily ambushed by invisible angels at play or in contemplation. It is in his Three Dances that I hear such things.

Howells may have needed the guineas when in my fourteenth year he adjudicated at the Wharfedale Competitive Music Festival and wrote of my rendition of Shubert’s song ‘The Trout’:

The voice is reaching the uncertain stage when control is weakening, but his speech was the most lustrous in the class and his final ‘lamenting’ was quite convincing. A fine young musician with a fine gift of word delivery.

Control may be weakening again at this opposite extreme of life, but one prays that the lustre may yet last awhile.


It is the cityscape that is the star of The Attenbury Emeralds; or at least it shares equal billing with Peter (at age sixty) and Harriet. It’s the London of post-World War II austerity, rationing, the rubble round St Paul’s and the havens of the parks, Hatchards, the London Library, tea at the Ritz . . .


And if you’d like to LISTEN to Edward’s answers (complete with authentic hesitations, fluffs and the occasional drinking song …) he has – in keeping with our audio theme – recorded an mp3:


4 comments on “The Narrator’s Art: Part Two – Edward Petherbridge

  1. Jackie
    September 20, 2010

    What an engaging interview! I liked the comparisons with music, that’s very relatable & a fitting metaphor. Mr. Petherbridge’s sprinkling of humor throughout the interview(especially the twist on “smoke and mirrors”) added sparkle to a very enjoyable post.

  2. Pingback: Talking Books: Audiobooks month – the Foxes Reflect « Vulpes Libris

  3. Pingback: AUDIOBOOKS | Peth's Staging Post

  4. Gwyneth
    February 22, 2016

    Why am I not surprised that one of my favourite actors should be a fan of one of my favourite composers? Albeit ironically revealed in a post about recording audiobooks on the fly, as it took considerable listening to still my 20th-century brain to the glacial pace–as if in geological time–at which Howells’ harmonic rhythms unfold, achieving what Minimalist and New Age music are presumably trying–but to my ears failing miserably–to do (except for listeners too stoned to be bored to the point of fury by the lack of dramatic arc).

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