My very first audiobook – Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest, narrated by Philip Battley

Exciting news! You may recall that after appearing on fellow mountain writer John D Burns’s podcast in April, I announced that I had finally got to grips with the task of recording my own books as audiobooks, opening them up to those of you who prefer the spoken word to the written one.

I’m delighted to say that barely two months later, my very first audiobook Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest, is now available in major audiobook stores Amazon and Audible, with iTunes and other stores to follow. I have been enormously privileged to work with a highly experienced, professional stage and screen actor as my narrator, and I would like to introduce you to him in this post.

An audiobook is a collaboration between writer and narrator: in this case writer Mark Horrell and actor Philip Battley. Can you guess which is which? Hint: only one of them is suitable to put in front of a camera.
An audiobook is a collaboration between writer and narrator: in this case writer Mark Horrell and actor Philip Battley. Can you guess which is which? Hint: only one of them is suitable to put in front of a camera.

It all started when I released an audition script for Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest (the same extract that John narrated) on Amazon’s audiobook publishing service. I was overwhelmed by the response. Over 40 narrators from both sides of the pond auditioned within 3 days of posting, and I spent an enjoyable weekend listening to them all.

The auditions were of an extremely high standard, including several by experienced actors. It was a tough decision, because there were a number I would love to have worked with, including the guy who narrated England striker Michael Owen’s autobiography, another who narrated one of Doug Scott’s books, and one actor I’d actually seen just a few months earlier climbing up and down the scaffolding in the stage version of Touching the Void.

These were all great auditions, but one man, Philip Battley, stood out by the way he varied the pace and tone of delivery, and his ability to do a range of voices. He even provided two versions of the script in different regional accents. His versatility should be no surprise. His TV credits include Downton Abbey, Emmerdale and the BBC TV series Doctors. He has appeared in over a dozen films, and even produced and starred in one of his own, the award-winning Sogni d’Oro. He also has a distinguished theatrical background, having appeared in a number West End stage plays.

Philip also has dashing James Bond-style looks and a smooth way with the ladies, as you can see from this clip of him chatting up the actress Emily Blunt in the crime caper Wild Target. This does mean, however, that he would only be able to play me in a screen version of Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest if somebody attacked him with a set of clippers and a cricket bat.

Philip Battley in crime caper ‘Wild Target’ from Philip Battley on Vimeo.

Philip’s menagerie of voices really helps to bring out the comedy in Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest, and I frequently found myself laughing out loud during the recording. I wish I could always have him on hand when I tell people my jokes.

He has been impressively professional throughout the recording, and I’m delighted to say that he has kindly agreed to be interviewed for the Footsteps on the Mountain blog.

So here, without further ado, I bring you Philip Battley

(Round of applause and whoops of joy, streaker appears behind as virtual bouquet of flowers thrown towards laptop…)

MH: Philip, aside from narrating audiobooks, you’re an accomplished stage and screen actor. I don’t know how many readers of the Footsteps on the Mountain blog are fans of TV soap operas or period dramas, but I understand you’ve been in a couple of rather popular TV shows called Downton Abbey and Emmerdale. Where do these two roles stand in your overall acting resumé, and what are some of your other acting highlights?

PB: Yes, they’re very well-known shows! That said, I was on both of them for relatively short periods of time. So they’re nice touchstones to have. The experience was more akin to doing a temp job in a very cool company. Huge fun though.

As far as acting highlights are concerned then, my favourite work has definitely been in theatre (which, as we speak, has an uncertain future). Touring the world with a production of The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby, in which 27 actors played 146 characters (I played 15, I think) was a great experience, as was another classic – The Comedy of Errors at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, which also toured the UK and Europe.

MH: One of the things I’ve really noticed during the recording process is how much dialogue helps to bring an audiobook alive. Your audition stood out from the others by the way you varied the pace and tone, and your talent for voices is something we’ve really made use of to bring out the comedy. It’s something I will be more conscious of next time I write. What are some of the main differences and challenges you’ve noticed narrating an audiobook compared to your other acting work?

PB: Audiobook narration is certainly a different discipline to stage or screen, you’re right.

I do love the camaraderie and teamwork of theatre and screen work. And you certainly don’t get that while narrating audiobooks in a sound studio on your own with a microphone. But there are loads of other great challenges too.

It’s a huge undertaking, to be trusted with somebody’s book which they’ve spent months, if not years, putting together.

MH: (Sotto voce) Ahem… years.

PB: But I suppose the joy of narrating audiobooks is doing exactly what you’ve described – you get to play all the parts! In that way it can be a lot more varied from a technical point of view than many other acting jobs. And it is often just as, if not more, fulfulling – I’m given a manuscript and I deliver a fully rounded audiobook.

Working on audiobooks, it’s wonderful to have such close contact with the author of a work. It’s very unusual for a playwright or screenwriter to have much contact with the actors in a production – audiobooks are very different in that respect.

It’s a massive test of concentration and stamina – and your voice. It probably takes about 30-40 hours in front of the mic to record 12 or so hours of audio. That’s without the preparation time. And I also engineer and produce the audio, so I get to know the book pretty well by the time I’m finished.

MH: What made you choose to audition for Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest, and how does it compare with some of the other books you’ve narrated? Does it work well as an audiobook?

PB: I jumped at the chance to narrate Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest. A few flattering words for the author here: not only is it very well written; it is engaging, exciting, and funny. And that was all pretty obvious from the small section I got to read for the audition.

Most of all though, I suppose it’s just the sort of book that I would pick off a bookshop shelf myself anyway. If given the choice, non-fiction tales of adventure and overcoming hardship are right up my street. I also love outdoor pursuits. I’ve got young children right now, but I can’t wait until they’re old enough to go on a few rambles.

MH: I’ve just finished reading a book called The Last Great Mountain, a history of Kangchenjunga by the journalist and mountain historian Mick Conefrey. It’s a mountain I know a lot about myself; I had the pleasure of trekking round it a few years ago. But you narrated a story about Kangchenjunga that I’d never heard about (and doesn’t get mentioned in Mick’s book either). Can you tell us a bit about that?

PB: Yes, last year I narrated A Step Away from Paradise: The True Story of a Tibetan Lama’s Journey to a Land of Immortality by American journalist Thomas K. Shor. It tells the true story of the charismatic lama Tulshuk Lingpa and a remarkable expedition that took place in the 1960s. Against the wishes of the kings of both Sikkim and Nepal, he and over 300 followers ventured up the slopes of Kangchenjunga. Their aim: to open a crack in the very fabric of reality and find a legendary hidden land of paradise.

Forty years later, Thomas Shor spent over five years tracking down the surviving members of this extraordinary expedition. He has woven their stories together with humour, wisdom, and scholarly research into Tibetan traditions of hidden lands.

It’s a pretty extraordinary story, beautifully researched and written.

And it was also a huge challenge for this English actor – as with Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest, I definitely had my work cut out with all those Nepalese and Tibetan pronunciations.

MH: During the recording process, we discovered that you and I have something in common. In Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest, I talk about how a windfall I earned from the sale of a dot-com startup enabled me to quit my job and take up high-altitude mountaineering. You also had the good fortune to make a bit of a money from a dot-com startup, but you opted to spend it more wisely than me. Can you tell us what you spent your windfall on and how that worked out?

PB: Ah, well yes, twenty years ago I got some money from some share options from an internet consultancy for which I was working. It became a deposit for a flat in London. Soon after, I took out a loan against that flat to pay for drama school. A massive career change in my late 20s, and I’ve not looked back – I’ve been an actor ever since.

MH: A great story – not an easy profession to get ahead in, but well deserved.

Thanks for your time, Philip. And what’s next for you?

PB: Well, Mark, I’m currently hard at work narrating your second book Feet and Wheels to Chimborazo.

MH: Well, bugger me sideways, so you are! I knew that, of course, but my readers didn’t, so thank you for the plug.

That’s right, Feet and Wheels to Chimborazo will also be available as an audiobook next month. Strap yourselves in for a double-volume feast of my audiobooks, all narrated with a delicious spoonful of Philip’s mellifluous tones. So grab your smartphone, a glass of your favourite tipple and put your feet up!

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