Sunday, 1 September 2013

Afrika Reich: the audio book

Not every novel is recorded as an audio book, so I was thrilled when I learnt the audio rights to Afrika Reich had been sold. A year later that excitement turned to curiosity and trepidation when the finished package arrived. What if I didn’t like the reader? What if his interpretation of the book was at odds with mine? Thirteen CDs and over sixteen hours later any concerns I might have had were assuaged.

Richard Burnip’s reading of The Afrika Reich is brilliant. Thoughtful and textured, it captures a tone that is by turns brutal, wry and moving. His pacing is impeccable. Perhaps most exciting of all are the dramatic array of voices he uses. During my first listen through I keenly anticipated the arrival of each character to hear what new accent he had chosen. If you enjoyed the novel, I recommend you listen to a copy [it’s published by Oakhill and should be available at your library].

In the meantime, here’s brief interview I did with Richard about the recording of the book:

GS: How did you first become involved with the audio version of The Afrika Reich?

RB: Douglas Kean, the producer, brought me in as I’ve read other audio books set in world war two. I’ve also spent time in Germany so was familiar with the language.

GS: How much preparation did you do?

RB: I treated the book the same way I would do a script. I read it from beginning to end before going back over it more thoroughly marking up the characters and any details that helped me understand them. Next I noted anything in the text that puzzled me or I felt needed stressing. Some things that work on the printed page don’t translate when you’re reading aloud – the repetition of ‘Peace for Empire’ is an example, or flashbacks – so you need to nudge them up when you read to make sure the listener is aware of them. I also had to research the pronunciation of the African and Portuguese words.

GS: How long did it take to do the recording?

We recorded it in November 2011. It took four days, recording about four and half hours of finished material each day. I read it straight through, as if it were a live performance, stopping only if I made a mistake or if there was a noisy page turn.

GS: You use an extraordinary array of different voices for the characters; I particularly liked Hochburg and Patrick. How did you go about choosing them?

RB: As part of my preparation I drew up a table of all the characters and scoured the text for clues as to how they might talk, seizing on any description of accents. With your book I was grateful to have so many different voices. The main team alone has a British accent, American, Welsh, Rhodesian and Polish, so it was easy to make each member sound distinctive. I like to be bold with accents. With Patrick the line, ‘his voice was Boston-Irish churned with two decades of French Sahara’ gave me everything I needed. I listened to recordings of Massachusetts accents and that gave me the basis to which I added a rough, gravelly quality to capture the dryness of the desert.

The Hochburg influence: Christopher Lee in Ill met by Moonlight

GS: To my ear Hochburg sounds like a young Christopher Lee, was that intentional?

RB: You heard correctly, though I didn’t want to do a direct impression: he was more of an influence. While I was preparing for the book I saw the film Ill Met by Moonlight [1957]. There’s a scene near the beginning where Christopher Lee plays a German officer and it put his voice in my head. Hochburg is such a weighty character, not a brute or a stereotypical villain, and I felt that matched the powerful intellect of Christopher Lee’s performances. They both take their time to talk, are always so in control.

GS: Did you have a particular listener in mind when you were recording?

RB: My main aim, and I suspect this is true of most actors recording a book, is to serve the writer’s intentions, so you’re recording for the author. Clarity is the most important element. Beyond that, it’s important not to superimpose anything that’s not in the text. The book should tell you everything you need to know.


Richard Burnip has appeared with many theatres companies in Britain, Germany and the Middle East. His audio work ranges from computer games and synthetic speech to recordings for historic sites in Old and Middle English.  He has provided voices for characters as diverse as Napoleon and Gustav Mahler, and has narrated many documentaries.  He has recorded more than 80 audio books covering many genres from children’s stories and detective fiction to major political texts.