This article was originally published in the Publisher's Weekly/BookBrunch London Book Show Daily, 16 March 2017.
In his preface to Pygmalion (a story perhaps better known to some as My Fair Lady), George Bernard Shaw avers that “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” He was writing in 1912 (forgive his lack of inclusive language; we know he meant ‘man or woman’). That work may be the best known example where speech-based prejudice is at the centre of the story, but the idea is apparent very much further back than that. Chaucer made his Pardoner self-aware of the way language can disguise character: as Coghill’s modern-English version puts it, “For though I am a wholly vicious man, Don’t think I can’t tell moral tales. I can!” And Charles Dickens, in 1861, has Magwitch in Great Expectations railing against the preferential treatment Compeyson gets in their joint trial because “He was a smooth one to talk, and was a dab at the ways of gentlefolks.”
There’s a modern academic counterpart to this: in 2002 researchers from Lancaster and Worcester Universities asked participants to judge innocence or guilt when they heard what purported to be a recording of a police interview. Half the participants heard the suspect speak with RP (received pronunciation, or ‘BBC English’) and half heard him with a Birmingham accent. Sad to say, the Brummie speaker was significantly more likely to be judged guilty. The particular ingenuity of this experiment, however, was that the speaker was actually the same person – someone who had grown up in Birmingham but gone to drama school, and who could switch vocal identity at will.
As Australian-American linguist Chi Luu observed when citing this last research in JStor Daily, “obviously some listeners believe they can predict the criminal element through accent alone. Yet American listeners, not having access to the same common social stereotypes, often rate the Brummie accent as pleasant-sounding.”
As audiobook producers, we have a great opportunity to challenge some of these stereotypes when we are choosing who is going to perform* an audiobook. Do we choose a performer who matches our prediction of listeners’ likely prejudices, or do we find one who will do a sincere job but might well not match those expectations? And if the latter, will our audience listen to the recording for long enough to be won over by the inherent quality of the performance? Will they decide our possibly daring choice is inspired, or distracting?
Two particular examples come to mind from my time as audio producer. One was about fifteen years ago, when I recorded the English translation of Lothar Günter-Bucheim’s book about a U-boat in 1941, Das Boot. It would have been easy to get any of the alpha-male, RP readers used at that time for war stories, but I felt it was necessary to make it constantly clear that this was from the German point of view. I wanted to prompt the thought that the two sides actually had much in common. To have a classic English voice might have added an overtone of complacency or condescension; however hard the performer might try to avoid it, he might be subconsciously thinking ‘we won’. So I looked in the casting directory Spotlight and found that Wolf Kähler had been born in Kiel in 1940 but now lived in north London. His voice is not unaccented, and some critics questioned the ease of listening, but I think that this reminder of the narrator’s point of view increases the power of the story. His performance is naturally imbued with the sense, absolutely the author’s intention, that the crew desire to be professional and carry out the tasks for which they are trained, but are increasingly doubting the morality and value of what they have to do.
Fifteen years on, Orion Audiobooks has asked Strathmore to record Marcus Chown’s The Ascent of Gravity, his account for a general audience of current understanding of the physics of gravity. The ‘straightforward’ option would be to find a traditional white male to read, but Orion had the inspired idea of asking Adjoa Andoh. She is British–Ghanaian and grew up near Bristol. You have only to look at her catalogue of audio recordings to see how immensely versatile she is, from Joanna Trollope to Hanoverian history via the Mma Ramotswe stories, but this a further extension of her range. Orion’s imaginative casting will encourage potential listeners to take a risk on what they might initially consider a challenging subject.
AUTHENTIC BUT NOT PREDICTABLE
The crucial element in both fiction and non-fiction is to be authentic. But that doesn’t mean predictable. As Gemma Arterton recently remarked+, “In theatre we’ve got people from the poshest you can get, down to me [she’s the daughter of a cleaner and a welder]. There’s a real mixture. We should just get over the whole class and race thing and cast people who are right for the part.”
That’s a great principle for casting audiobooks. Our industry could be leading the way in this, since it is not constrained by the physical appearance of performers. The sole criterion for casting should be a performer’s capacity to communicate clearly and compellingly, demonstrating understanding and appreciation of the text. Sometimes a performer established in one genre may be able to bring an audience across into a different genre which that audience might not otherwise try – such as Adjoa Andoh and physics, we hope.
A listener picks up meaning not just from vocabulary and grammar, but also from what is known technically as ‘prosody’ – the pitch and intonation that communicate things like emotion, irony, sarcasm, emphasis, urgency. Most humans are very good at detecting it, but imparting it requires sincerity and engagement – or good acting based on knowledge and honesty. This is true not just in speech: as classical singer Janet Baker puts it, “If you sing only because you want people to love you, it never works. The music must always come before the performer.”
It is an actor’s job to be many different things. Elizabeth Bower, recently in our studio to perform Date with Death, a delightful light-hearted detective story set in the Yorkshire Dales, describes herself in her Twitter profile as “Professional Pretender”. Elizabeth is from Yorkshire, so she meets the ‘based on knowledge’ test. But I shall leave the final thought to Ed Nelson, lead actor in the ’60s US soap Peyton Place. At the end of its five-year run, he was asked what he had learned from his time on the show. “I’ve found that the most important thing for an actor is honesty. When you learn how to fake that, you’re in.”
* Readers of my previous columns will know that I use ‘perform’ rather than ‘read’ to avoid any possible confusion with the audience for the spoken or written word.
+ Interview in Town and Country magazine, Spring 2017