Martin Jarvis: Voice of the nation

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Described as the Olivier of audiobooks, actor Martin Jarvis is the go-to guy for aural adaptations. Tim Walker talks to the man behind the mic

Talking to Martin Jarvis on the telephone can be disconcerting. One minute I'm listening to the actor himself, his rich, RADA-inflected tones warming my eardrum; the next minute it's Fagin filling the receiver, then Bertie Wooster and his friend Gussie Fink-Nottle – before, finally, God comes on the line.

This, however, is what I should have expected when I asked to interview "the Olivier of book readers" – as Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter recently described Jarvis.

Thanks to digital downloads, the audiobook industry is booming. The country's largest provider of downloadable audiobooks,, has seen its business grow by about 30 per cent every year since its 2005 launch. Carter recently persuaded his recalcitrant columnist Christopher Hitchens to listen to Jarvis's audiobook recordings of PG Wodehouse's novels; Hitchens, in his monthly column, confesses to being a convert. Jarvis, he writes – quoting VS Pritchett on TS Eliot – is like "a company of actors inside one suit".

"It was vastly flattering to read that," admits Jarvis, 68, whose face is as familiar as his voice. He appeared in such landmarks as the BBC's 1967 version of The Forsyte Saga and James Cameron's Titanic. He has guested in series from Doctor Who to Walker, Texas Ranger. He starred in TV adaptations of Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield, both of which he later recorded as audiobooks. Last year he was seen playing a veteran BBC foreign correspondent in BBC2's satire Taking the Flak, and after finishing filming on a new series of Miss Marple, he has now joined the cast of Eastenders.

But Jarvis has been familiar with the recording studio since the early days of his career. "I was playing the young lead opposite Donald Pleasance in the West End soon after leaving RADA," he recalls. "And a very nice man from the radio repertory company joined the show. He suggested I might be a natural broadcaster. As a young man keen to fill my days as well as my evenings with acting, I wrote to some radio directors and they picked me up."

Nowadays, Jarvis is such a regular on Radio 4 that Dead Ringers sees fit to mock his ubiquity with an impersonation. He and his wife Rosalind Ayres run a radio drama production company that recently recorded a version of Ian Fleming's Goldfinger – their second James Bond radio adaptation for the BBC – with Ian McKellen as the eponymous villain, and Toby Stephens as 007. Jarvis provided Fleming's narration.

The actor has read and recorded everything, from the Highway Code to, now, the voice of God for Word of Promise, a 76-hour unabridged recording of The Old Testament, available as an "audio bible" CD set. "Apparently there's a 2007 version, with Samuel L Jackson as God," he notes. Fleming, meanwhile, is just the latest in a long list of British authors to whom Jarvis has given a voice. For some 25 years, he has read Richmal Crompton's Just William books for Radio 4. As well as Wodehouse, he is the go-to guy for audio adaptations of Dickens, Michael Frayn, Kenneth Grahame, Jeffrey Archer and the late Dick Francis.

"I don't take on thrillers much," he explains. "But I met Dick 15 years ago and liked him very much; he was a very charming, witty man. There's always got to be a good reason for doing a book. Usually that's because it's a wonderful book, but with Dick – though he was an expert entertainer – my reason was also because I knew him and liked him and he asked me to do them.

"I'm not interested in making my own mark when I read an audiobook, only in serving the writer. My aim is to make people forget they're being read to. I try to be the book, be the characters, to midwife to people the images and attitude the writer intended.

"My director when I'm reading his novels is Wodehouse himself: his narrative, the way that he describes his characters. They're wonderfully plotted, comic and very moving. It's the same with Dickens, who's a great director just by his narrative."

Jarvis wears cotton clothes while recording, as they don't make any distracting rustling sounds. He marks each character's lines with a different coloured pen. As there's no question of recording characters separately ("you have to maintain the storytelling flow"), the differentiation is crucial – especially when he's dealing with groups of similar characters, like Wooster's cronies or William's chums.

"On the screen, you won't have two blokes or girls looking the same. But on radio if there are two or three characters in a scene, say brothers or friends – you have to find different tonal things between them. It's hard if you've got to voice Bertie Wooster, Gussie Fink-Nottle and Bingo Little. Luckily Wodehouse describes Gussie as having a high, bleating voice. It sometimes feels like I'm conducting a seance. When you're on a roll, these minds and voices emerge from your mouth, and you almost feel there are two or three different characters in the studio with you."

So if Jarvis is the Olivier of the audiobook, then who are the Gielguds, the Ralph Richardsons? "Stephen Fry is a perfect facilitator of the Harry Potter stories," he replies. He also admires Nigel Anthony; the US actors Joe Mantegna and Stacey Keach; and "my wife has done some fantastic audio versions of Miss Marple". He emails later to recommend Miriam Margolyes, Judi Dench and his old pal Alfred Molina.

But my question has set him off at a tangent again, and he begins to tell a John Gielgud anecdote."We did Paradise Lost on stage together, as a recital," he remembers. "Gielgud read for Milton, who's the narrator, and performed the opening speech from the lectern. He was wonderfully moving and made himself and the rest of us weep! But when he came and sat down next to me, he turned to me and said..."

And here Jarvis adopts a perfectly judged imitation of the elderly Gielgud's distinctive timbre: "'It's all wrong you know, Martin. I shouldn't be reading it – Milton was blind.'"

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album