Friday 3 March 2023

Reading versus listening

Berlin Game audiobook on cassette, read by Paul Daneman

I was recently contacted by email from a reader asking if I knew anything about the actor who read the audiobook of Spy Story, whose performance he particularly enjoyed. I didn't, as it happens, but it made me think about the audiobook phenomenon.

To that end, there were also postings on Deighton Dossier facebook group asking why readers could no longer get many of Deighton's stories on audiobook format in the US (according to the author's agent, this is a temporary phenomenon, as the rights to said audiobooks is currently being renegotiated).

Judging by a number of posts indicating people prefer to read/listen to Deighton's book in audio form, there's clearly demand for this author's books - and, indeed, many authors' books - in listenable format.

As a collector of Len Deighton books I have - alongside my first editions, special editions, paperbacks and other phenomena - many of his books as audiobooks. Yet, I've never listened to an audiobook from start to finish.

Why is that?

I have nothing against audiobooks per se. They are a perfectly legitimate form of media alongside the printed page, and their popularity has grown massively over the past thirty years or so, particularly with the rise of comapnies like

I can see how they can provide a different experience to a reader, akin to listening to the radio.

Thinking about them prompted me to take another look at (or should that be, listen to) some of the audiobooks of Len Deighton's novels and see if my feelings were still the same.

First task: find a tape recorder (remember those?). Most of the audio books I own of Deighton's works are on audio cassette. I managed to find a very old flat, desktop player, which I - literally - had to dust off.

I have, in storage, about 25 different audiobooks of Len Deighton novels: all ten books of the Samson series; Bomber, The Ipcress File, Spy Story, and a number of others. Most are UK editions by Chivers Audiobooks, but with a couple of US editions too.

Bomber, read by James Faulkner

The publisher

A little bit of online research identified that Chivers Audiobooks was a British publisher based in Bath, and they seem to have had their heyday in the 'eighties and 'nineties, when audiobooks - often back then referred to as 'books on tape' - were a small but popular part of the book world, and evidently popular in libraries (a number of mine have library stamps). It was one of the first audiobook success stories, and expanded to have a US arm, Chivers Sound Library

Chivers was subsequently amalgamated with BBC Audiobooks into a new company owned by BBC Worldwide; it, in turn, was then sold to a US company called AudioGo. That company eventually ran into financial trouble and ceased trading around 2015. I suspect it, like other similar companies, was a victim of the growth of online e-books and streaming and the rise of audible (owned by Amazon), the behemoth of the modern audiobook world.

Chivers was one of the first companies, according to Wikipedia, to employ British stage and TV actors to narrate their books. Understandable, given that a key function of any audiobook is not just clarity and diction but the capacity, using just the spoken word, to bring characters to life.

Interestingly, the Chivers audiobooks were published just over a decade after the original spy novels were published, and in quick succession. So, Berlin Game the book was published in 1983, but the audiobook only came out in 1992; XPD was first published in 1981, but the audiobook came out in 1997; Spy Line came out in 1989, and its audio version only four years later.

Spy Line, read by Paul Daneman

This leads me to think that in the 'late eighties and 'nineties, audiobooks weren't on the radar of the publisher as a core product, with the rights being sold to Chivers who I guess spotted the potential of the market as the idea of books-on-tape grew, secured the rights, and then rushed the back catalogue out.

Most of the audiobooks I have are UK versions, but there was/is clearly a US market too. I have a couple of audiobooks - this time, on compact disc - from US publisher Blackstone Audio, which is still in existence and is one of the largest independent audiobook publishers.

Faith, read by Robert Whitfield

The actors

The main British actor which Chivers used in the 1980s to read Berlin Game and many of the other Bernard Samson novels, was Paul Daneman, a RADA-trained actor who did mostly stage and TV dramas in the UK. He certainly has a clear, relatively accentless voice and does a reasonable job as both narrator and interpreting the characters' dialogue, both for male and female characters. His background at RADA means you get more of a 'performance' in each audiobook: they are more than just someone simply reading each of the words in sequence, and his diction and timing seem, well, professional.

By contracting him for the first six books of the Samson series, there is a continuity for the listener in having the same narrative voice throughout. Based on my collection, Daneman seems to have been Chivers' go-to narrator for their other Deighton books, having also narrated The Ipcress File, Spy Story, Funeral in Berlin, among others.

But he didn't do all of them: James Faulkner was brought in to read the last three: Faith, Hope and Charity. Evidently, he's still an active actor, having been in Game of Thrones.

Another British actor called Michael Jayston - a member of the Royal Shakespeare, no less - provides the narrator for the short story series Declarations of War, and while the timbre and volume of his voice is obviously different to Daneman's, they both do a perfectly serviceable and entertaining job with the text provided.

Interestingly, my US edition of Faith also uses a British narrator - Robert Whitfield, but he was not an actor but a former BBC continuity announcer. I imagine form followed function, in that it made sense to US audiences to have an English accent for what was essentially an English spy novel.

The design

Among the Chivers audiobooks - all on tape - the packaging is in dimensions very similar to the hardback book, but instead of pages there is a brittle plastic casing, with formed spaces into which up to 16 audio cassettes are placed.

One things I noticed on many of the audiobooks is that these plastic forms did not always hold the cassette in place very well - and are damaged easily - which must have meant many readers at the time opening the audiobooks and experience three, four or five cassettes falling out one after the other, as I experienced upon re-examining many of these for the first time in many years.

Declarations of War, illustrated by Gordon Chubb

For the Chivers' editions, many of the covers use the same illustration as on the book: Declarations of War uses the illustration by Gordon Chubb used on the paperback versions of the book; whereas Spy Hook uses a brand new uncredited design based around the Berlin Wall, Spy Line uses a line drawing of a barbed wire barb, hinting again at the Wall.

The experience

Removing the requirement to read - which takes concentration and a modicum of energy - and simply asking the reader to listen is an altogether different phenomenon from simply opening a book. For a start, the narrator has a distinct, external voice; when one reads - and I assume it's the same for everyone - the narrative voice sounding out the words is likely to be your own, familiar voice. 

So, there's something new for a reader who maybe is used to reading and 'hearing' their own voice, as I am. It's certainly not an unpleasant experience, and it's best done sitting down in a chair, relaxed, with a nice drink, because it does require concentration. On tape or CD, you do also as a listener/reader have the option of pressing pause - just as you can always put the bookmark in the book - if the doorbell rings, or if you wish to get a drink.

I did try listening to one book in bed, but - and I'm sure this isn't a new phenomenon - I found myself drifting off to sleep and, consequently, waking up with the narration having moved on. So, I don't think for me an audiobook would work in the same way - or be as satisfying - as simply being tucked up in bed with the novel itself.

Most importantly, the big difference I found was the odd sensation of hearing the words of Bernard Samson, or the unnamed spy of the first few novels, differently to the 'voice' I'd attributed in my imagination to that character whenever I'd read them.

And yet, I don't feel this sense of oddness, and dislocation, when watching the ITV adaptation of Game, Set and Match or any of the Harry Palmer movies. And I think that's because on the movie or TV screen, as a viewer you have multiple sources of information - dialogue, visuals, background sound, music - to concentrate on, so you don't notice voices quite so intently as when there is just one, the narrator.

Audiobooks are - invariably - a single voice, performing all the functions that, as a reader, you perform yourself. So, it felt a little like being in the mind of a second reader, which perhaps shouldn't be surprising. I can certainly see the value of audiobooks to some readers, and on picking out the odd example from my collection I could imagine myself one day listening to one, from start to finish.

But, I don't foresee myself doing so any time soon.


Whether it's Len Deighton's books, or any other novel, I like to be my own narrator, and build the characters for myself. Audiobooks, for me, remove that degree of control and therefore provide a slightly different, but maybe no less rewarding, 'reading' experience.

I don't currently have an audible account or own any books in .mp3 format, or stream them. Yet, many readers clearly do and for any author, what counts is not whether the 'reader' experiences the book in paper, electronic or tape format ... but whether they enjoy what you've written.

And in whatever format, as a long-standing reader, I continue to enjoy Deighton's novels.

What's your experience of using audiobooks - either for Len Deighton novels or for any other novel. Do you use audiobooks alone? Do you like books and audiobooks? Or are you, like me, sticking with paper?


  1. The Ipcress File is compelling reading, but I think Len Deighton's most enthralling book by far was Funeral in Berlin. Deighton took it upon himself to counter both Ian Fleming and David Cornwell aka John Le Carré with what I call "raw espionage". It is rumoured that on the few occasions they met, near nuclear arguments ensued. They had a lot in common as spy fiction writers although paradoxically while on occasion Deighton arguably produced the most realistic stuff he had no direct experience of military intelligence. In that vein it is a shame more espionage thrillers aren't fact based. Courtesy of being factual extra dimensions are added. First, you can read about what’s in the novel in press cuttings and history books. Second, if even just marginally autobiographical, the author has the opportunity to convey his/her genuine hopes and fears as experienced in real life.

    An example of such a "real" thriller is Beyond Enkription, the first espionage novel or memoir in The Burlington Files series by Bill Fairclough (MI6 codename JJ) aka Edward Burlington who was one of Pemberton’s People in MI6. It's worth mentioning in this context because, coincidentally, some critics have likened its protagonist JJ to a "posh and sophisticated Harry Palmer" and the first novel in the series is indisputably noir, maybe even Deightonesque but unquestionably anti-Bond. It's worth checking out this enigmatic and elusive thriller. Not being a remake it may have eluded you! It’s a must for all spy illuminati so not being a remake I would be surprised if it had eluded you! For starters read this intriguing brief News Article dated 31 October 2022 in TheBurlingtonFiles website. It’s about Pemberton’s People and is truly gobsmacking.

  2. Audiobooks are great for the blind and partially blind people, as well as those who have illnesses that are debilitating and hence lack the energy to focus to read a printed book.
    They are very useful for children which train them for listening and comprehension skills.
    For other adults like me, I stop at e-books these days. In the aftermath of the vicious Covid pandemic of 2020, in which I became a victim tom that infection, e-books to me are a great comfort these days, as I do not need to browse in a bookshop, with the chance of getting infected again. The e-books have become an integral part of my mobile phone functionalities.
    I like to read the words myself, at a place I like, and often I trace back to earlier pages if I lose the drift of the narrative. In the case of Samson series for example, I often stopped at a page where Deighton described a scenario in a place for example in East Berlin, and compared my experience of visiting East Berlin in early 1980s..It is this freeze, which is so powerful in written words.
    E-books , my friends say are good for them, whenever they struggle to sleep at night, as they are powerful sleep-inducing remedies!.

    1. Apologies for a typo in the above post.
      Adding to the above, the audiobooks work best for certain category of topics, for example, the children books and books dealing with thrillers where there is a main character a hero, dealing with a set of events, as for example Lee Child's Reacher series, C J Box's Joe picket series etc.. The plots are uncomplicated involving actions. The narratives are straight forward.
      In the case of Deighton's books, the plots are crafted with multiple issues, complex problems, and as I mentioned in the Samson's series, Deighton educates the reader about the complexity of the cold war. The reader has to slowly read each page, understand what the author is setting out to achieve in each page within a broader framework of spy craft. There is a one-to-one relationship with the author and the reader.. A narrator, however good the person's narrative skills are, becomes at best an intruder in the above one-to-one relationship between the author and listener, who is also the reader.. In my opinion, Deighton is a master of written words where he crafts his unique knowledge of the subject matter in captive sentences. Hence, his novels are best in the written form.

  3. Great to have a new post from you Rob. I listened to the complete Samson + Winter on Audible a few years ago, the narrator was credited as James Lailey. Those were really nice audiobooks with full narration including that edition's introduction and notes from the author and cover designer. Soon I picked up paperbacks of MAMista and Violent Ward and reading them for the first time the voice in my head was doing a solid impression of Lailey. As you noted those editions seem to be (temporarily?) unavailable on my shores at the moment but if you get your hands on them they'll make a great companion on a train or car trip.

  4. The various comments on this post are all fair - audiobooks in and of themselves are simply another media for the story. And I can certainly see their advantage for people with visual problems or maybe those driving on a long trip. I think perhaps part of the reading experience for me has always been the tactile nature of doing so - turning the page, flicking between pages, that sort of thing.

  5. There's another audio version of Bomber. Produced by the BBC and is actually a dramatisation Tom Baker, Frank Windsor etc. (Available on Amazon)
    Did you ever cover this? Regards Terry Kidd