Let’s Hear It for the (British) Boys: Male Audiobook Narrators and the Bookseller Who Loves Them

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 16th, 2009

We have a customer who’s an audiobook addict. She comes in every couple of weeks to perk up frequent road trips with something new, and I’m always delighted to leap around the counter and chat with her, because we tend to love (and, sadly, loathe) the same kinds of books, and – equally important with audiobooks – the same narrators.

Handselling is always key in indie bookstores; we estimate that about 80-85% of what we sell is directly recommended by one of our staff, either in person or via our newsletter or staff picks. When it comes to audiobooks, that number jumps to about 99%. Since most bookstores don’t have listening stations, it’s really helpful to have heard an audiobook yourself so you know if the narrator is going to make you want to jump out of the car window or not.

I like to recommend audiobooks as an accompaniment to the printed book for kids who struggle with reading. When I was a school librarian in New York City, I discovered how effective it was to have kids listen while they read; it seemed to help them make the connection between written and spoken forms of words, and lifted them out of the struggle enough for them to enjoy the experience of reading. This was a huge relief and delight for them, and once parents get past the idea that it’s “cheating,” it’s helpful for them, as well.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that pretty much anything narrated by a British guy is going to be good. If the stories they narrated were mediocre, or if the performances were dull, I might blame their supremacy on my shelves on the embarrassing phenomenon whereby American women turn into puddles of goo when an English man opens his mouth and says, well, pretty much anything.

But there’s quality as well as beauty there; the British men have it all. They just make everything sound wonderful, don’t they? And fascinating. If Philip Pullman, Simon Jones, Stephen Fry, Anton Lesser, Simon Prebble, and Derek Jacobi (narrators of The Golden Compass, The Amulet of Samarkand, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Ruby in the Smoke, The Daydreamer [OP, more’s the pity], and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, respectively), ran waste management seminars, I would absolutely sign up for Sewage 101.

Also, there’s something reassuring about these sonorous British voices — a sage, grandfatherly quality, a sense of the world as a place where small people can accomplish great tasks if they work hard enough and have big hearts and believe, truly believe. Graeme Malcolm, who narrates The Tale of Despereaux so beautifully, can pull up a chair and read me a bedtime story any day.

Neil Gaiman, who has a sort of Alan Rickman-esque voice, is one of those rare authors, like Pullman, who actually does justice to his own work. Try The Graveyard Book or Neverwhere. And yet he gives over the reins when another narrator can do better: his 2006 YALSA ALEX Award-winning adult novel, Anansi Boys, is performed by the fantastic British actor Lenny Henry, whose Jamaican parentage gives him a richness in the various voices and accents that Gaiman rightly must have known he could not equal. (By the way, this is my all-time favorite adult audiobook, our bestseller at the store for a couple of years now, and a phenomenally funny, lively listen — an adult book teens love, too. Anansi Boys also won the Mythopoeic Award for Best Novel 2006, was a 2006 ALA Best Audiobook, and earned enough votes for a Hugo nomination, though Gaiman declined it. It was also short-listed for the Booker Prize. See? I just can’t shut up about it. Put me out of my misery: listen to it., please. I’ve heard it twice and will doubtless listen again.)

And do I even need to mention Jim Dale, whose vocal wizardry (har har, get it? wizardry?) with the Harry Potter audiobooks led him to become the first inductee into the Audio Publishers Association’s “Golden Voices” Hall of Fame. See The Audies for more info, as well as terrific lists of award-winning audiobooks and samples for your listening enjoyment.

Out of our Top Ten All-Time (since 1996) Audiobook Bestsellers, eight are by Brits. (Okay, seven of those are Harry Potter titles, so maybe that’s not fair. That darned series skews all the curves.) The non-HP titles are, if you’re curious, are: David Sedaris, Live at Carnegie Hall; The Golden Compass; and Philadelphia Chickens. Going further down the list yields many more Brits, too. There’s just something about ’em.

I promise to give equal time in future posts to the wonderful women of audiobooks, and to the American men. But for now, I’m happy with this British wave, and I’ll be surfing it for a long, long time.

What are the audiobooks you’ve loved so much you’d listen to them again? Narrators you’ll listen to even if the book is on crab-fishing and you’re a mysteries-only kind of reader? Which audiobooks have you found that turned reluctant readers into avid book lovers? We’d love to hear.

36 thoughts on “Let’s Hear It for the (British) Boys: Male Audiobook Narrators and the Bookseller Who Loves Them

  1. Jacquie Tremain

    We’re all different but I find the American accents so harsh they great and read far to quickly to relax and enjoy.
    I do love male British voices but as I not very phone savvy I struggle to find them.
    On the whole I’m so grateful for audio books and hope my tech skills improve.

  2. john

    British and Aussie narrators make my fillings ache – can’t get used to their voices. Have tried several books – but now will not listen to any book by them.

    1. terence munro

      Not being funny but truly I feel exactly that way about American narrators. Tried to listen to The Dragon Reborn but the accent just didn’t seem to fit the book. After a page I just gave up as it just grated.

  3. Amber

    Alex Jennings is marvelous. Speaking of children’s books, he does the Chronicles of Narnia and the Dark is Rising series. The Brothers Karamazov, Oliver Twist, the Odyssey, tons and tons more… Richard Armitage does a great job with the novelizations of BBC’s Robin Hood series. Hugh Laurie with Alexander McCall Smith’s Portuguese for Beginners and that series…

  4. Rachel

    “BLOW!” As for female narrators, my absolute favorite is Susan Ericksen, particularly for her work on J. D. Robb’s (Nora Roberts) In Death Series. I enjoy her work so much I have intentionally sought out books read by her regardless of my usual reading preferences. She has yet to disappoint me. She is especially skilled at reading highly charged sex scenes, which are so often butchered by male narrators British or not, as well as other more soft spoken female narrators.

  5. Rachel

    When I first did not immediately see you mention Jim Dale I almost screamed out loud. But I see he deservingly got his own mention further down. He is hands down my favorite narrator. I have listened to the Harry Potter Books both read by him and Stephen Fry and to me there is no comparison. I am surprised so many like Fry’s version. To me he always seams like he has a stuffy nose and I can’t help but itch with a desire to hold a tissue up to his nose and say “

  6. Sondy

    I’m a HUGE fan of male British narrators, too. Rupert Degas does a great job with Skulduggery Pleasant. (Irish?) A female narrator who nails the French accent of a character is Cassandra Campbell reading The Higher Power of Lucky. I had to check the cover to make sure there was really only one narrator. I’m going to listen to Lucky Breaks on audiobook just to enjoy her narration again. (I already read the book — excellent!)

  7. P.J. LaBerge

    What about Christopher Timothy reading the books by James Herriot (All Creatures Great and Small). Not only does his voice turn me to goo (Yes,I admit it!) but he adds a whole new layer of humor. I had to pull my car over more than once because I was laughing so hard!

    1. Mkk

      I agree. I have all the audiobooks for the James Herriot books read by Christopher Timothy. Not only does he have a mesmerising voice, his various (fairly convincing) British accents add a lot of depth to the narrative.

  8. SueC

    Gotta agree those Brit guys make melt, especially Gaiman. But I also especially loved the audio of the McCall-Smith Ladies No.1 Detective Agency series. The woman narrator has a native-sounding Botsawan accent (which maybe for real…) and this really lends an authenticity to the story. Also gives the unique speech patterns, and expressions a delicious richness.

  9. children''s librarian

    I’m giving a shout-out for the Artemis Fowl series read by Nathaniel Parker. (Well except the most recent book because whoever was in charge of making the audiobook decision on that book took a crazy pill and went with a different narrator…). If Jim Dale is my king of audiobook narrators– which he is– then Nathaniel Parker is one of his princes. Foaley with an Australian accent? Brilliant. Root as a New Jersey cop? Priceless. You must listen to these!

  10. Terri

    You haven’t lived until you hear Sean Bean read “King Arthur.” It’s a YA version, but 5 minutes in, you’ll be so hooked you won’t notice. Another great one , but I think it went out-of-print (no idea why!) is Ralph Fiennes reading Peter Carey’s “Oscar & Lucinda.” I just picked up the Pullman. I have to admit I was nervous when I saw it was read by the author, but glad to hear you think it’s great!

  11. elizabeth O. Dulemba

    Gotta give another call out for Stephen Briggs. Listen to the three books in the “Wee Free Men” series by Terry Pratchett and be sure not to be drinking any carbonated beverages while you do – lest it come up your nose (very uncomfortable). Mr. Briggs switches between accents with blinding speed and is laugh out loud hilarious. I’d enjoy that man reading the phone book – he’s fantastic! 🙂 e

    1. Mkk

      I prefer Richard Briers as Bertie & Micheal Hordern as Jeeves in the BBC Radio 4 books. More characters, richer and beautifully read. I haven’t laughed so much even when I the read the books. They also remind me of the voices of Hugh Laurie & Stephen Fry from the BBC tv series.

  12. Tara

    Graeme Malcolm does a great job as Hamish Macbeth for us at BBC Audiobooks America. Also David Suchet is an excellent Poirot. And the BBC Radio dramatizations always have at least one of those greats you mention (Prebble, Fry, Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Alan Bennett) in the cast.

  13. Carol Bates

    Simon Jones, reader of Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, is the best reader I have ever heard. His snarky, wicked tone is a perfect match for the writing, and really fun to listen to. After reading the previous comment, though, I am going to go check out the Gregor audiobooks!

  14. Elisabeth

    When the 4th book in Suzanne Collins’ Underland Chronicles, narrated by Paul Boehmer, came out – I found that I had missed his voice since the last one! As a regular audiobook listener, it actually surprised me that I had such an immediate and strong reaction to his voice. I think I might have a voice crush. 🙂

  15. Lyndsey

    James Marsters (who played british bad boy Spike on “Buffy” and “Angel”) does a wonderful job on the audiobook versions of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. He captures the tone of the novels wonderfully, and has a real talent for voices.

  16. Laura Scott

    Elizabeth, As you can see from your comments, many people agree with you. You can be especially proud of yourself when you notice how many TV commercials are narrated by British men. They are great, except for the GEICO chameleon,just not upper class enough. Mr. Darcy lives on!

  17. Connie Rockman

    That’s Nathaniel Parker narrating the Artemis Fowl books, at least the first 5 in the series – and I second the vote, he is truly marvelous. Many laugh-out-loud moments, just because of his wonderful inflections and character voices.

  18. MW

    The Artemis Fowl audio books are wonderfully read, also by someone with a British accent, but I don’t remember who. My entire family enjoyed listening to those on our long car trips.

  19. ERIN MURPHY

    My two most recent favorites are Terry Pratchett’s NATION and the Bloody Jack books–outstanding. I think my all-time favorites are the Sally Lockhart books and the Abhorsen books–Tim Curry doing Moggett is priceless! Right now I’m listening to the gravelly-voiced narrator of THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE–that’s a good match of material and voice, and not British, which is unusual for me, too.

  20. Margaret

    Let me add kudos for Stephen Briggs’s FABULOUS readings of Terry Pratchett. (And since Stephen Fry has already been mentioned, he also narrates the British audiobook editions of Harry Potter; on the basis of his recording of HP and the Philosopher’s Stone, I’d pick his performance over Jim Dale’s.)

  21. Christine McKay

    One of the vendor support offices I had to call to troubleshoot problems staffed a British guy. You’re right about them making everything sound wonderful. He could tell us that all our data was lost and we had a week’s worth of work and we’d just sigh and wish he’d keep talking 🙂

    1. Mkk

      I used to have to call the HMRC often when I worked in the UK & they seem to staff a lot of Scottish people. It was fascinating & honey coated the drudgery like nothing else. Thats how I learned my Scottish. Calling the IRS in the US feels like absolute torture by comparison.

  22. Kim

    When I first heard that “Inkspell” was narrated by Brendan Fraser, I was disappointed. Afterall, “Inkheart” was narrated by none other than Lynn Redgrave. Well . . . I just finished listening to “Inkspell” and I am eating crow. It was wonderful! Mr. Fraser immediately took me into the Inkworld and even after 19 hours I wanted more. Give it a try.

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