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Martin Jarvis: Voice of the nation

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, Audible.co.uk, 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.'"