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.

In Conversation With: Martin Jarvis

Portrait by Sven Arnstein

Ask the fabled Man on the Clapham Omnibus to name an audiobook narrator and it’s odds-on that he’ll say ‘Martin Jarvis’.  Vulpes Libris was therefore delighted to be offered the opportunity to ask the man himself a few questions about his life, work and reading tastes.  They entrusted the task to Moira – which may not have been the world’s best idea, since the very first thing she did was demonstrate that she can’t tell Desmond Bagley from Alistair MacLean.  Fortunately, Mr Jarvis is not only an extremely versatile actor, he’s also a gentleman  . . .

VL: I started trying to count how many audiobooks you’ve recorded over the years – and, frankly, wimped out  – but I believe that the very first one you recorded was Desmond Bagley’s ‘Where Eagles Dare’ – some 25 years ago?

MJ: You’re mixing up two books here. ‘Where Eagles Dare’ (by Alistair MacLean) was the first audiobook I recorded. Then I recorded a Desmond Bagley thriller, ‘Running Blind’. That was an exciting and well-written spy adventure set in Iceland in which I was able to develop my theories on how to depict female characters. My methods?  Trade secret. I was surprised – and pleased – to learn later that the sweet blonde-haired heroine was quite fancied by a number of male listeners.

VL: Did you immediately feel comfortable reading audiobooks, or is it something you’ve grown into?

MJ: I felt reasonably at home with these early attempts, as I had already performed a number of short stories on BBC radio, several serialised novels on ‘A Book at Bedtime’ and some children’s stories on BBC TV’s ‘Jackanory’. I was also lucky in that I had seen the film of ‘Where Eagles Dare’, so I could run it, as it were, in my head. This is where I began to learn that performing an audio book can be a little like projecting ‘a movie in the mind’. If you, as performer, can ‘see’ the pictures, then your audio-listener has a good chance of experiencing those mental images too.

VL: Do you believe it’s a skill that every actor can acquire, or is it rather like playing the piano – everyone can learn it, but only a few excel?

MJ: Some fine actors are not comfortable with performing a book. Equally, many excellent audio readers are not necessarily at their best on stage – or screen. I tend to think the art (or craft) of performing audio is a bit like conducting a séance: many different personalities have to enter the medium’s head, many voices emerge from the mouth. Are they real? Or is the medium faking the whole thing? Who knows? But the effect – the result – has to seem like the truth.

VL: When I started listening to audiobooks many years ago, they were just moving onto cassettes from LPs, and I distinctly remember being able to hear not only the narrator’s clothing rustling and the odd stomach rumble but also the sound of the page being turned, which was a bit distracting to put it mildly.  You can still occasionally pick up background sounds these days, but nothing like as often. (Not that I specifically listen for it, you understand …). Have audiobook producers wised up – or has the technology improved – or is it a bit of both?

MJ: As a producer/director myself, as well as an audio performer, I make sure there is plenty of fruit available for the actor in the studio as anti-stomach-rumble ammunition. Many more throat gurgles, sniffs and page-turns can be swiftly vanished away than in the past, because of the sophisticated editing technology now at our disposal. But nothing beats an occasional bite on a crisp apple to alleviate any harsh lip-smackery that might otherwise be picked up by the unremitting ear of the microphone.

VL: Something I’ve always wondered – and a question I don’t think I’ve ever seen asked – is summed up by Harrison Ford’s complaint to George Lucas about the script of Star Wars (and I paraphrase): “You can type this stuff, but you sure as hell can’t say it.”  How do you deal with the clunky bits – that are just about passable on the page, but would never normally pass the lips of ordinary human beings?  Are you ever tempted to indulge in a little creative editing, or do you just grit your teeth and do your best with what you’ve got?

MJ: Being fairly choosy about the books I record, I haven’t really had that problem. Having been lucky enough to record many of the great authors of literature, Dickens, Wodehouse, Frayn, Richmal Crompton, Rudyard Kipling, Jerome K. Jerome, Robert Graves, William Golding, Neil Gaiman etc etc, my task is the reverse – to try to match up to their standards. In an abridged novel, uneasy passages can be tactfully finessed. But I see my job, anyway, to serve the author’s intention and to ensure that nothing sounds ‘clunky.’

VL: “Ubiquitous” is a word that’s very often applied to you.  When I was doing my research on you, I found this on the internet, and I’m afraid I laughed immoderately.

MJ: I love that. I think it may have been written by the brilliant David Mitchell. It might have been part of a radio sketch suggesting I was ‘everywhere’ on Radio 4. I’m not, of course, but I feel privileged to be asked to direct and perform on what I regard as the greatest speech network in the world.

VL: Assuming that you’re not actually bent on world domination – and if you can be objective about it – have you any idea what it is that makes you so, I suppose the word is, “employable”?  Or is that an impossible question to answer?

MJ: Impossible.

VL: I thought you might say that!  Fortunately, Rosy Barnes thought to put the self-same question to CSA Word, and they were only too happy to answer … Leaving audiobooks just for a moment – you have a long list of acting credits on stage, television and film – one of the most recent of which was playing Harvey Freeman for eight episodes of ‘Eastenders’. Was that fun?  Or was it tricky – given that the Eastenders cast are such a well-established ensemble?

MJ: It was one of the happiest filming jobs I have done. The ’Enders gang welcomed me warmly. I much enjoyed the shifty character of ‘Harvey’ and Barbara Windsor and Pam St Clement were a joy to work with.

VL: Do you read much for pleasure/leisure?  In fact, CAN you read just for pleasure, or is the professional bit of your brain always there, processing the book as a potential audiobook?

MJ: I always read for pleasure, though much of it is, inevitably, tied up with a professional approach.

VL: What do you enjoy reading:  Novels?  Biographies? Travel?  Or what?

MJ: I especially enjoy biography as so much of my professional life is concerned with fiction. I have just completed Michael Frayn’s superb book ‘My Father’s Fortune’ – and yes, I am thinking of it as an audio. I also enormously enjoyed Peter Mandelson’s riveting autobiography ‘The Third Man’ and, no, I never once thought about performing it!

VL: You also write, of course.  I’ve just finished an immensely enjoyable gallop through your memoirs – ‘Acting Strangely’ – and I was very much struck by how totally dependent actors are on their voices.  It’s obvious, of course … but it made me wonder what you’d do if the nightmare scenario of total and permanent loss of voice actually struck? You have other strings to your bow of course – the production company you run with your wife, Rosalind Ayres, for instance … but acting is so much in your blood …

MJ: Yes, an actor’s voice is vital. In my second book, ‘Broadway, Jeeves?’ I try to emphasise the importance of the actor’s eyes, his physicality – his, ahem, brain.

VL: Any more books in the pipeline?

MJ: Yes. The second audio volume of ‘Very Good, Jeeves’ by P.G. Wodehouse. ‘In Chancery’ by John Galsworthy (the second novel of ‘The Forsyte Saga’.) ‘Professor Branestawm’ by Norman Hunter. All works of genius – and all a fascinating challenge to the performer’s imagination.

VL: If you could turn back the clock and start your life again – and with the benefit of hindsight – what, if anything, would you do differently the second time around?

MJ: Learn to swim.

VL: Finally, we have a tradition on Vulpes Libris of asking our guests to name their five favourite books – and give reasons.  The floor is yours …

MJ: ‘Spies’ by Michael Frayn. Superb picture of a suburban childhood – a masterly interpretation of an innocent misunderstanding.

‘Uncle Fred in the Springtime’ by P.G. Wodehouse. Glorious humour (and confidence-trickery) set in the sunshine of Blandings Castle.

‘On Chesil Beach’ by Ian McEwan. Heartfelt story of a young marriage in the 1960s.

‘Just William’. The first of many wonderful short story collections by Richmal Compton spanning 1919 to 1970 – all celebrating (through the eyes and ears of scruffy 11 year-old William Brown) the absurdity, blessedness and hilarity of the British way of life. For children from 9 to 90.

‘David Copperfield’ by Charles Dickens.  Autobiographical novel – a work of genius.

VL:  Lovely choices … and I think I’d have been a little disappointed not to see William Brown there.   Thank you very much indeed for finding the time to answer our questions in the middle of what I know is an insanely busy schedule.

5 comments on “In Conversation With: Martin Jarvis

  1. Hilary
    September 24, 2010

    Wonderful interview, full of wit and wisdom (both of you!). Fascinated by the insights into the approach, mental and physical (never occurred to me to think about the physical) to reading an audiobook – and the effect it has on one’s personal reading, with the professional mind partly engaged.

    Faintly disappointed that Moira did not manage to extract the secret of successfully crossing the gender divide 😉 .

    And … Professor Branestawm! Unjustly neglected and sadly forgotten! How wonderful that Martin Jarvis is going to revive him. I really can’t wait!

  2. Phillipa Ashley
    September 24, 2010

    Thank you for this fascinating interview, Moira. I always wondered how a narrator gets through an author’s ‘clunky bits’. Then again, I suppose, Martin is one of those people who would make the telephone directory sound gripping.

    I went to a talk by Ulverscroft on audio books, and they cited stomach rumblings as the bane of a producer’s life.

  3. rosyb
    September 24, 2010

    I’m now going to be listening for stomach rumblings in every audio recording from now on! Thanks both. Made me chuckle.

  4. kirstyjane
    September 24, 2010

    I loved loved loved this interview – and even more tempted to try out audiobooks now I know Martin Jarvis has recorded so many of my all time favourite authors. Thank you Moira and Martin for this entertaining, informative spot. (Glad you haven’t gone into liquidation, Martin.)

  5. kirstyjane
    September 24, 2010

    Oh, and another one for Professor Branestawm here! In fact looking at the clock I see it is now a reasonable hour to have a celebratory glass of something.

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