Down memory lane – unabridged!

Juliet Stevenson in the studio.UNABRIDGED VERSUS ABRIDGED. It is a discussion as old as audiobooks.

It is partly about simple commerce – unabridged audiobooks can seem high priced, though the hours fly by. But it is also about convenience: I think there is still a place for abridged texts, for not everyone wants to listen to twenty-eight or thirty hours of a novel.

However, I am glad to say that the advent of downloads, and a greater appreciation of the full work, has seen the audience for unabridged texts on audiobook grow.

This has resulted in trips down memory lane for me, because I find that not only are we doing novels which we did in abridged form in the early years of Naxos AudioBooks, but we are recording them, often, with the same actors – though sometimes a new voice takes up the baton.

This is true of two of this month’s recordings: Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse read by Juliet Stevenson and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer read by Garrick Hagon.

It is a coincidence that we are releasing new unabridged recordings of these masterpieces with the original readers, but in both cases, the abridged recordings were the first to introduce us to readers who have featured regularly on Naxos AudioBooks in the decade and more that followed.

To The Lighthouse was the first recording we made with Juliet Stevenson, and I well remember her coming into the studio with the script and putting it on the table. I glanced down and saw that there wasn’t a mark on it. Of course I knew she knew the book, but I wondered quietly to myself, ‘Crumbs, is she going to sight – read Virginia Woolf?’

I need not have worried. Ms Stevenson read as consummately as it sounds on the CD, not once… NOT ONCE making an error over who is speaking, though occasionally one needs to be halfway through a sentence before the context explains clearly who it is.

When I asked her afterwards, she explained that she rarely marks a script. ‘I don’t need to… I just seem to remember when I prepare it,’ she said. That was in 1995, and I still recall her words.

Her reading had a profound effect on me because the subtlety of her presentation made Virginia Woolf come alive to me in a way she never had on the page, and she went on to do the same with many other works, including many of the Jane Austen novels and evenLady Windermere’s Fan.

Garrick HagonIt is ten years on and more since that first day and I was intrigued to find out if the decade would make a difference.

I am glad to report that the answer is an emphatic no. There is a slightly more leisurely tempo which is required from an unabridged reading, but the ebb and flow of event, enquiry, inference and surprise remains the same. Why, I have to ask myself, did we wait so long to ask Juliet Stevenson to do the full version?

And the same applies to Garrick Hagon’Tom Sawyer. When I presented the abridged version to the sales team in the mid-1990s, I played the opening, with Tom’s aunt expressing all her frustration with the boy she loves regardless of the exasperation he causes her. The salesmen were entranced by the voice of the aunt which opens the book, and Tom’s little ploy which allows him to slip past his persecutor without feeling the weight of the switch.

Garrick Hagon has read many books for Naxos AudioBooks since then, including the unabridged Huckleberry FinnClassic American Poetry and Classic American Short Stories. He has become one of the leading American voices living in the UK (though actually Canadian by birth) and spends as much time directing audiobooks as acting (he is Philip Pullman’s preferred director!) – he directed our unabridged multi-cast versions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.

Once again, the luxury of having the unabridged text to work with (and what a wonderful text) meant that Garrick could take time with the humour and rumbustious fun… and as musicians know, you can take time without going more slowly!

This month also sees a third unabridged version of a major classic novel which we did in abridged form years ago. Anna Bentinck presents Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and it took her back to the familiar world (for her) of the English West Country.

Finally, there is more unabridged work from marathon reader ‘War and Peace’ Neville Jason, who continues his Arthurian saga care of T. H. White.

Unabridged recordings do take more time… but one savours them all the more.