The NAB Blog

Roy McMillan: From Don Quixote and Pirates! to the history of the British Empire.

By Nicolas Soames

1 June 2011

Followers of Naxos AudioBooks will know that we build close associations with people: actors, writers, producers/directors. Their names become quite familiar over the years, particularly those whose accomplishments encompass all three disciplines.

One of these individuals who has contributed considerably to the life and expansion of the label in the past few years is Roy McMillan, who features in all three capacities this month: he read Don Quixote and wrote (and produced) Pirates!, a highly entertaining account for junior listeners. In fact over the last seven years or so, there have been times when it seems Roy has taken up residence in the Naxos AudioBooks studio in North London – on one side of the microphone or the other.

Roy McMillan

Roy McMillan

One of the main non-fiction features this year is Jan Morris’s engrossing trilogy Pax Britannica, and Roy’s reading of the first volume, Heaven’s Command, has drawn high praise not only from Morris herself, but also from critics on both sides of the Atlantic. Roy spent nearly a month in the studio recording the trilogy, which will span 45 CDs when released in its entirety. The preparation took a huge amount of time, for Roy had to become familiar not only with the nuances of Morris’s imaginative and precise prose, but he also had to research the correct pronunciation of all the foreign names and places. At its height, the British Empire covered a quarter of the globe, so this was no mean task. It was, McMillan says unequivocally, a challenging but enriching thing to do; and it was only toward the end of the third part, Farewell the Trumpets, (to be released in Spring next year) when he came across over a dozen Congolese individuals and villages that needed pronunciation checks, that his sense of humour was stretched.

No sooner than he had polished off the trilogy, I asked him if he would like to take on a magnum opus of a different kind: Cervantes’s Don Quixote which, unabridged, runs to 29 CDs – over 35 hours. Without hesitation he agreed, and immersed himself not just in the book but in the fascinating background to the novel: the author and those intriguing times (what would have happened if Cervantes had met Shakespeare – they are rumoured to have died on the same day!). Like most of us, he knew the work but hadn’t read it in its entirety until he prepared it for this recording, and he became increasingly impressed with it despite its foibles. He was in the studio for some ten days reading it, and, after reading the end, he mused upon it out loud for a while. We offer the result here: – and I urge you to listen to his fascinating observations and comments. He is in no doubt that it is one of the greatest (while most neglected) European classics and worthy of attention on various levels.

Only the other day I popped into the studio while Roy was producing Nicholas Boulton’s unabridged recording of David Copperfield (due for release next year). Nicholas was in the recording studio with the sizeable script around him; Roy was in the control room, with the mixer on his left, the script in front of him, the talk-back to one side. And nearby was his list of every single character who appears in the novel. There are 107 of them, and beside them all (not just the main personnel, but the minor characters as well), he had put brief comments about their personalities, their habits, the way they looked, talked and walked. Nicholas had prepared carefully, as is the case with most exemplary readers, but the producer (called a director in the stage/film world) is there to support and advise, and Roy wants to be able to respond and comment instantly. Only detailed preparation of his own, he says, will enable him to spot if the sound of a character has moved off-centre… even if that character last appeared 200 pages back!

Audiobook readers rarely experience the spotlight, and producers never do

It is Roy McMillan’s varied background that allows him to move easily between the roles of actor, producer and writer. He studied English at Durham University and then went to drama school, ending up as an actor and writer; among his works was a play on the life and work of Spike Milligan. A sidestep into radio led him to become deputy news editor on Manx Radio on the Isle of Man: he lived there for some seven years before returning to the mainland in 2005 where he joined the Naxos AudioBooks team.

He began producing, abridging, editing and writing numerous liner notes. He read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (he has a Scottish background), wrote biographies of Milton and Poe, and worked with some of Naxos AudioBooks’s principal readers, including Juliet Stevenson (Mansfield Park, To The Lighthouse, Middlemarch) and Anton Lesser (Tristram Shandy). Widely read in contemporary literature as well as the classics, he cast and produced our series of Murakami novels as well.

During this time he was also producing plays for BBC Radio, working with Peter Ackroyd on an adaptation of Chatterton, as well as new plays including The Fiery World (about William Blake). He also directed The Duchess of Malfi and Anouilh’s Becket.

More recently, he has started to produce children’s texts for Naxos AudioBooks, including Pirates! and adaptations of classics for younger listeners.

He lives with his wife, the actress Rachel Bavidge (whom he met in the Naxos AudioBooks studio – she was recording The Woman in White) and their two children in Surrey; he is often found on the train coming up to London to the studio, bearing an enormous script (David Copperfield runs to over 1,000 pages), but with another book which he is ‘prepping’ in a side pocket. His energy is prodigious, as is his enthusiasm and imagination.

Audiobook readers rarely experience the spotlight, and producers never do. But the literary and dramatic flair that happens in the Naxos AudioBooks studio should not go unnoticed!

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