Saturday, 17 October 2009

In which I insist that Peter Firth should read everything in the entire world

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I was going to wade into the Jan Moir row, but my friend the intellectual says that everyone's blood is too hot at the moment, and it would be like a young nurse dashing into the battlefield between the Waffen SS and the advancing Red Army. He is a tremendous man for a vivid image. But because I can't ever help myself what I will say is that Jan Moir wrote something nasty and stupid (I use the word stupid not as a playground taunt, but as an empirical observation, since the article contained some of the most asinine reasoning I have ever read in a national newspaper); and the tremendous Twitter outbreak of protest was thrilling and heartening, until suddenly people started tweeting that she was a c***. (I'm sorry for the asterisks, I am not a prude, but it is the ugliest of swearwords, it refers to the female anatomy, and my mother does read this blog, so I am not going to print it under feminist principles and the basics of good manners.) As Lord Mandelson would be able to tell you after his run-in with Rebekah Wade, you really don't win any arguments by referring to people as what he would eumphemistically call a 'chump'. And that's all the moral high ground we have time for this week.

So, moving swiftly out of the path of rumbling Russian tanks, I am instead going to sing a little hymn of praise to the magnificent Peter Firth. If you are lucky enough to have access to the BBC iplayer, do go and listen to the current episodes of the book of the week. It is a fascinating story, an unprecedented examination of the inner workings of MI5, although it is slightly frustrating because it is a very long book, and has been radically truncated in order to fit into one week. The BBC really should have run it over the entire autumn, like This Sceptred Isle. But that is not the point. Even if it had been the telephone directory, I would have listened to it because of Firth's stellar reading. Oh actors, you may be thinking, of course they can read; it's just bread and butter for them, they come into the studio and phone it in. But the astonishing thing is that even the most talented actors have a horrible ability to ruin a book. They think they must earn their money, so they do the special reading voice (almost as bad as the special poetry voice). They put in odd pauses and strange emphases; they declaim; worst of all, they try to act.

Reading an audiobook is a very fine and rare art, and hardly anyone can do it well. Print is a more fragile thing than you might suppose; even the greatest prose can be trashed all to hell by an irritating voice. It does not take much. There is one actress who drives me demented because someone obviously once told her that she must take care to pronounce her consonants; she lingers so much over her Ts that I have to leave the room. Any self-consciousness, any careful modulation, any excessive regulating of timbre, and the thing is spoilt. But lovely heavenly brilliant Peter Firth knows that a book, especially non-fiction, must be read flat. He knows that it is not all about him; it is about the words on the page. He reads quite fast, with no intrusive inflections. It is such a pleasure to listen to him that I now think there should be some kind of statute enacted to force him to read everything there ever was. It is a consummate performance, and I take all my hats off to him.


  1. As a fan of Peter Firth, I have listened to all his audiobooks by now. Always a delight to hear his voice, always a pleasure to notice he has found the right tone, the right pace. A great reader indeed and I'm surprised that it was not mentionned when he was made Doctor of Letters last July.

    Thank you for writing those lines,

    A devoted fan of Peter firth

  2. He is a very fine actor with a wonderful voice- and as you say knowing when not to act is part of that.

    I have been away so haven't been listening but will see if I can get a podcast or something- I am interested in this book but it's so enormous I haven't got any further than looking at it in the bookshop.


Your comments give me great delight, so please do leave one.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin