"John Banks is one of the UK's most prolific audiobook narrators, working for the likes of Big Finish, Audible, Random House and Games Workshop.

He is a true multi-voice, creating everything from monsters to marauding aliens.

He is also an accomplished stage and TV actor."

audible.co.uk 2018

Soul Wars

Hello...

...I'm John Banks - welcome to my website.

The majority of my working life has been spent in the theatre with companies including
York Theatre Royal, Cheltenham Everyman, Sheffield Crucible, Bristol Old Vic, Manchester Royal Exchange and the National Theatre in London.

Television work includes Emmerdale, Coronation Street, and 'Allo, Allo!'. I have also worked on a number of radio drama and comedy productions with the BBC.

Since March 2009, I have enjoyed playing a huge variety of characters in more than 250* audio-drama stories with Big Finish Productions, together with The Black Library/Games Workshop, details of which can be found in the postings below.


There are also details listed here of the 165* audio books I've recorded since March 2013,
including the unabridged New Revised Standard Version of The Bible, for companies including audible.co.uk, Hachette, HarperCollins, RNIB, W.F. Howes, Little Brown Group, Penguin Random House, Games Workshop, Orion, Fantom Films & Ladbroke Audio.

(*figures at April 2019)

I hope you find something of interest here and come back soon for further updates.


For all posts, reviews and audio samples, please scroll down...

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Saturday, 21 December 2019

The House of Niccolo - an audio adventure...



Good afternoon and welcome to today's posting, which is quite unique in all the years I've been sharing stuff here on this weblog. I mentioned back in November, that I'd been asked to write an article for the winter edition of Whispering Gallery, the Dorothy Dunnett Society's quarterly magazine, outlining my experience of recording the eight volumes of Dunnett's The House of Niccolo, during the summer months of 2018. 

It had been quite some time since I'd written an 'essay' and I confess to having had a sense of trepidation at the thought of making some kind of cogent analysis of the process of recording such a vast story arc to the readers of Whispering Gallery. However, once begun, the act of writing became quite cathartic and I only just made it under the 4,000 word limit the magazine's editor had suggested!

The article made it into the magazine uncut and is reproduced below in full, along with illustrations of all the projects I was working on, as they ocurred chronologically throughout that hectic 15 week period. 

This will take a while to read, but if you're up for it, let's go...


The House of Niccolo for Whispering Gallery Magazine

A few weeks ago, I enjoyed a highly convivial meeting with Betty Moxon (of the Dorothy Dunnett Society); we are it seems, relatively close neighbours and rather than a long exchange of email, I thought it much better to meet in person, where we could chat to our heart’s content about The House of Niccolo, due to be released in audio book format the following week. It was agreed that I should write an article for Whispering Gallery, to give an idea of the process and challenges involved in recording such an epic project, as a result of which dear reader, here we are.

In my forty or so years as an actor and latterly, in my six or so years as an audio book narrator, I’ve often thought that a combination of naivety, ignorance and an astonishing level of often unfounded optimism has seen me through. I can confirm that I was able to bring all three of those doughty attributes to the recording of The House of Niccolo!

Before this month of October draws to a close, I’m scheduled to record two audio books and an audio drama. The bulk of preparatory work has been done and there’s time to look over details of the text and character notes before going into the studio. Each of the books should have a running length of around eight to ten hours, which is about average and of course, the audio drama will be considerably shorter. 

I mention this now, in order to present a benchmark norm of my regular working life; the recording of a couple of audio books and perhaps also a couple of audio dramas each month, is about average and perfectly manageable. Such a schedule means that I never really fall out of work mode; my voice and hopefully, my brain tick along quite effectively and there’s very little sense of stress. In fact, it’s usually all good fun; both rewarding and satisfying.

Now, I’m not about to suggest that the process of recording the Niccolo books was in direct contrast to the above, though I think it fair to say, I did experience a degree of physical stress, which, in my optimistic naivety, I hadn’t fully anticipated.

Allow me to elucidate.

Since recording my first audio book, Strange Meeting for RNIB in 2013, my involvement in the audio industry has grown quite rapidly, to the point where it has become my primary occupation. Despite many years as a ‘jobbing actor’ in theatre, television and radio, acquiring the skills to perform an audio book has proved to be quite a considerable challenge and indeed, has been all the more enjoyable for that; to quote Miriam Margolyes from the Spring 2017 Equity Journal: "I believe that recording an audiobook is the highest and most difficult test for any actor."

As late spring turned into early summer last year, I was approached by producer Neil Gardner, a long-time collaborator, who floated the idea of us recording all eight books of The House of Niccolo together. I had previously recorded quite a number of books with Neil and with Penguin Random House, so there was a degree of ‘pre-approval’, which gave me the confidence to think that I could step up to the mark and give a good account of these novels, about which, I confess, I knew very little. Naivety, ignorance and optimism; if in doubt, say yes! 

Perhaps ultimately, The Dorothy Dunnett Society also gave their approval; I’ve often found the process of being invited to perform an audio book slightly mysterious and certainly beyond my control. Unlike theatre or television, there is no interview to attend, although in a quite literal way, there is of course, an audition. I know of one author who gave his approval after listening to my version of H.G Wells’ The War of The Worlds as he wandered around a supermarket.

The last few years have been very kind to me in terms of work; as a freelance ‘jobbing’ actor, that hasn’t always been the case and so, when offered such a fabulous opportunity, to record all eight audio books of a series, I leapt at it. As my audio career has developed, I’ve said ‘yes’ to an increasing amount of work, the more varied and challenging the better. You might be surprised to learn for example, how tricky it is to ‘narrate’ a cookery book; in my case, James Martin’s Home Comforts, read with just a soup├žon of a Yorkshire accent.

Having gleefully accepted the offer to record The House of Niccolo in May 2018, I thought I’d be in for a very busy summer; when the text of Niccolo Rising arrived, I had no doubt. The first thing I did in preparation, was to order copies of Elspeth Morrison’s two volumes of The Dorothy Dunnett Companion, only to realise that I had no time to read them. Instead, they were consulted when needed, throughout the recording period. And the recording period was looming large on the horizon.  
Both 2016 and 2017 had seen busy times in the studio and on several occasions, I noted in my online ‘web-log’*, that I found myself to be working ‘at capacity’, meaning that I couldn’t squeeze in any more work and indeed, had to regularly turn down job offers, which, unsurprisingly, went very much against the grain. Little did I then realise what working ‘at capacity’ really meant.




The recording schedule for the Niccolo books meant that I needed to be fully prepped and ready to begin Niccolo Rising at the end of June and to have the entire project completed as soon as possible thereafter, as we had a publication deadline of mid-November. In order to allow time for editing and proofing, as well as for any ‘pick ups’, I had to finish recording by early October. That gave me fifteen weeks to record all eight volumes; a week to prep, a week to record, or thereabouts. And just to add a little extra piquancy to my long, hot summer, I should mention that I had already agreed to record four other full-length audio books and four audio dramas with a different company, during those same fifteen weeks.

Before I started to record audio books, my experience had predominantly been in theatre. With an Honours Degree in Drama and Theatre Arts from the University of Birmingham and a year as a post-grad at East 15 Acting School, I had a pretty good idea of how to technically approach the job of acting. In 2009, after a very ‘lucky break’, I started to record a variety of stories with Big Finish Productions, who are best known for their Doctor Who audio dramas. Playing a wide variety of characters in more than 200 Big Finish dramas, from a ‘fog’ to a ‘gestalt swarm of leeches’, as well as the odd human, I felt confident, when the opportunity presented itself, to take on an audio book. 
 
In contrast to my life in the theatre and even as an actor in audio drama, I had no idea of how to approach the job of narrating an audio book, of how to perform all the characters in the book, of how to pace myself or use my energy properly, of how to sustain a credible performance over many hours, constantly switching between character voices and narration. I had to devise a strategy pretty swiftly, if audio books were to become a feature of my professional life.

After an inevitable period of trial and error, I began to understand the demands of the job and what I should do to make it all a bit easier. When preparing to rehearse a play, I highlight my character in the script and add any notations that might be useful. I also make a note of positioning or ‘blocking’ on stage and when learning the lines, occasionally add stress and pace indicators under important and operative words, to give myself a feeling for the path an arc of text might take.

I began my learning curve as a narrator by using techniques familiar from working in theatre and adapting them as I learned more of what I needed to do in order to ‘perform’ an audio book. For example, rather than simply marking up my character in a play, as I will be performing all the characters in an audio book, I usually begin by individually highlighting each character’s speeches with a different colour, using an application called iAnnotate. Marking up in this way is an extremely time consuming process, though it helps to clarify and anchor character details in my imagination and the different colours allow my brain to recognise and anticipate who is about to speak, allowing me to switch seamlessly between narration and speech when recording. With Niccolo Rising, and the other seven volumes of the series, I quickly ran out of easily distinguishable colours! 

Like most current voice actors, I read from a ‘tablet’ in studio rather than a paper script; turning a page or even moving a sheet of paper is quite noisy and any recorded paper shuffles have to be edited out. I use an iPad Pro, which also allows me to silently scroll through an entire text and to alter the size of the text and brightness of the screen if necessary. I found the typeface used in The Niccolo Books quite hard on the eye and tiring to read over long periods; my original texts also had what I can only describe as a smattering of ‘small black blobs’, perhaps done with the intention of imbuing the pages with a flavour of antiquity. The blobs were easily mistaken for punctuation marks and were very distracting, so we promptly had to ask for clean versions of the texts.

The experience I’ve gained in recording audio books over the last few years, has led me to the conclusion that I should prepare less in advance of recording and rely more on sight-reading and the inspiration of the moment. It’s not a technique I would universally recommend, though it seems to work for me. After six years and some 200 or so titles along the way, I have the confidence to trust myself and trust the process I’ve become comfortable with. Perhaps I should briefly explain what I mean by preparing less. The process of working on a play, of understanding the text and the character one is playing, almost takes the form of a forensic investigation, with potentially weeks of rehearsal and interaction with the director and other members of the cast. As a narrator of fiction, the entire process becomes your responsibility.
With a book, as long as I’ve been able to assimilate the characters, know how to pronounce names and places and have a familiarity with the text, the performance can be allowed to occur ‘in the moment’. To emphasise the point; unless I’m playing a completely alien entity (see fog and leeches above!) I very rarely practice a character voice before recording begins and even then, I’ll probably have no more than a vague idea of how the character might ultimately sound. I do sometimes wander around the house, testing vocal ideas, which can be a useful exercise. However as soon as I’m in a professional studio, rather than bouncing off the living room walls, my voice is instead being piped through myriad electrical devices and fed back to me via headphones, which of course, changes things quite significantly. Many’s the time I’ve had an idea about a character voice, only to abandon it as soon as I get behind the microphone.

Usually then, when a character voice pops out, it’s the first time I’ve heard it. Such spontaneity is incredibly liberating and amongst other things, it means I don’t have to overly concern myself with remembering how characters sound; the character appears as a direct result of the given circumstances of the narrative and my innate reaction to that character should consistently trigger the same response and produce the same sound. Which in a broader sense, is really to define the Holy Grail of acting; to be ‘in the moment’, not to project or demonstrate an emotion or an intention, not to ‘play the effect’, but to simply allow theatrical ‘truth’ to manifest itself, to subsume ego, to ‘get out of your own way’ as an actor and allow the character you’re playing, to express themselves as the author intended – and to do no more.

May and early June 2018 had been busy with five audio dramas, some voice over work and an audio book, the recording of which, took me to the 21st June. A little bit like ‘weekly rep’ in the theatre, I had started to mark up and make character notes on Niccolo Rising as I got on with performing my other work. Dovetailing activity in this way is quite usual and usually, quite manageable. However, Niccolo Rising has 107 named characters; highlighting their numerous and extensive conversations took days rather than hours. I also had to put quite a bit of time into researching the pronunciation of personal and place names, knowing that in performance, I would have to articulate such names fluently and almost subconsciously. It’s so tempting to say ‘Med-eechi’ rather than ‘Medd-i-chi’! 

Indeed, deciding to what extent names and character voices should be accented, especially in a series of books featuring such a hugely diverse range of people and ethnicities, was quite a task and something the producer and I discussed as we recorded. My feeling was that our listener needed a ‘home’ sound to identify with, in this case, my version of ‘standard English’. I say ‘my version’ because my native Yorkshire accent will always find a way of putting in an appearance. A character from ‘home’, i.e. Bruges, would therefore speak in fairly standard English. Variations in pace and pitch would also, hopefully, convey gender, age and status. This in turn, allowed ‘foreign’ characters to express themselves in accents suggestive of their origin. In performing 107 men, women and children, not to mention the odd parrot, I needed all the help I could get! 

I alluded earlier to the physical stresses involved in recording an audio book and perhaps now ought to put that into some sort of context. A standard length book of eight to ten hours might be recorded in two or three days in the studio, depending on how competent and eloquent a reader one might be, how tricky the text might be to articulate and what the proportion of dialogue is to narration. Inevitably, dialogue sets its own pace as characters express themselves to each other; there are some very slow, intimate exchanges in the Niccolo books for example and they have to be performed in their own naturalistic time frame. Narrative can usually be taken at a ‘comfortable on the ear’ pace. My narration isn’t always entirely neutral; I regard the narrator as, hardly surprisingly, the teller of the story, an unidentified character who sets the scene and invites the listener to engage, who acts as a guide and an occasional commentator.

As I’m sure you can imagine, there’s quite a lot going on both mentally and physically, hunched there in a darkened soundproof room, trying not to make a noise by moving around too much or making too many mouth noises – or any other anatomical noises for that matter. I was so physically tight and hyper aware of making a ‘mistake’ in some of my early recordings, that Pavarotti like, I always kept a handkerchief at the ready to dab the sweat from my brow. I was once asked to remove a noisy shirt, which apparently could be heard crunching and crumpling, as I wriggled around in my chair. Mercifully, experience allowed me to gain confidence, to understand that the occasional vocal ‘trip’ was inevitable and ultimately, to simply relax. Being in such a relaxed and focused state, allows the subtlety of a performance to emerge and then the whole recording/performing process becomes a joy. 

To record a standard length eight to ten hour audio book in two or three days then, really isn’t especially demanding. To record Niccolo Rising in a similar amount of time, is incredibly demanding. My version of the story took four days to record and has an edited running time of 23 hours - 28 minutes; roughly the equivalent of recording two and a half or three standard length books. 

I’m assuming at this point, that anyone reading Whispering Gallery, will be fully conversant with Dorothy Dunnett’s novels, indeed, far more conversant than I am and will know how densely written and complex her stories are. From the perspective of an audio book narrator, my feeling is that articulating her work is about as difficult and challenging as it gets. In comparison, my unabridged recording of the NRSV Bible was a breeze!

As Niccolo Rising was being recorded, my evenings were taken up with preparation for the next day, along with preparation for the following week’s work, which took the form of two audio dramas and another full length, 10 hours - 10 minutes, audio book (The Lords of Silence, as illustrated below).




As I recorded those stories, I spent my evenings in a hotel room, preparing The Spring of The Ram; recorded in five days and a snip at 23 hours - 55 minutes. 



As I recorded The Spring of The Ram, I was preparing another audio book, (The Serial Killer Files) recorded in the first three days of the following week, which came in at 12 hours - 25 minutes and as I was recording that, I was also preparing Race of Scorpions, recorded in five days of the following week and running at 26 hours - 54 minutes.



Another audio book (Blood of Iax) at 9 hours - 30 minutes took up most of the following week and, you’ve guessed, as I recorded that book, I was preparing Scales of Gold, which has a running length of 24 hours - 22 minutes. The notion of ‘one week to prep, one week to record’ was clearly compromised by this time, though you may be pleased, indeed relieved, to hear, that the following week was free! In fact, not quite free. It was taken up with preparation for The Unicorn Hunt, all 29 hours - 20 minutes of it, recorded in seven days; which left just enough time to prepare To Lie With Lions, recorded in six days and with a running length of 28 hours - 29 minutes.




I’m sure by now, that you can see a pattern emerging; working ‘at capacity’ indeed! My days were almost entirely spent in the studio; the pressure to comply with the mid-November deadline was crushing, so Neil and I would often work until 8 or 9 pm, sometimes later. I would then drive home, have something to eat and start to prep for the next day, which had to be done and which often took until the wee small hours of the morning to finish. I remember once, hearing our milkman outside the house and thinking that I really ought to go to bed, as I had to be back in the studio in a few hours. 

Having completed To Lie With Lions, the following week had me back in my studio chair to record Caprice And Rondo, which was recorded in five days and which had a running length of 26 hours - 41 minutes. The studio chair became quite a challenge in itself. Having spent so long, sitting in the same position in front of the microphone and trying not to wriggle around, the chair had almost imprinted itself on me. The backs of my thighs particularly felt quite bruised, to the point where as soon as I sat, I was immediately in pain. It occurred to me that DVT might be something to consider, so with that in mind and in order to alleviate the pain behind my knees, we rigged the studio so that I could stand up. When recording an audio drama, we all usually stand up, as it can become quite a physical activity; we don’t usually stand to record an audio book, but in this instance, it came as a great relief. 

The week after Caprice And Rondo, I recorded another non-Dunnett book (Sacrosanct); an anthology of short stories which came in at 15 hours - 16 minutes and had, as I remember, a huge number of characters. Still not quite approaching Dunnett territory though. By this time, I had long been surviving on a few hours sleep each night and a steady supply of a well known energy drink, which apparently “Gives You Wings”. It did and boy did I need them!

The end was in sight. As I recorded the anthology, I was prepping Gemini, scheduled to be recorded the following week. We began on October 1st and completed all 31hours - 47 minutes of it on the 8th. which meant that after final edits, proofing and the odd pick up, we had finished slightly ahead of time and the mid-November publication deadline had been met. I could look forward to a little time off and to some much needed sleep.

Because we had so little time to record The House of Niccolo and despite a sense of familiarity with some of the principal characters, I confess to not really knowing or remembering the books very well. Since completing Niccolo, I’ve been involved in quite a number of other projects and like the words of a long ago performed play, once so familiar, my recollections of this vast story arc are quite scant. Which of course means that I can look forward to listening to the entire saga with fresh ears; I’ve just finished listening to Niccolo Rising and look forward very much to Spring of The Ram!

You may perhaps be aware that last November’s deadline for publication came and went, which was disappointing, given the effort that went into complying with the original schedule. The audio books were finally published in September 2019.
The House of Niccolo has an overall running length of 215 hours and features 1,473 characters, the vast majority of whom, I had to create voices for. During the course of those fifteen weeks of summer, I recorded the equivalent of around 25 standard length audio books and 252 hours - 11 minutes of narration, as well as taking part in four audio dramas; working ‘at capacity’!

Hopefully, what I’ve written here will offer an insight into the mysterious art of audio book narration, or at least, my understanding of it. It was never my intention to discuss the content of the books, for the reasons given above, if nothing else. Instead, I hope I’ve been able to convey something of the process of recording an audio book; in this instance, a whole series of incredibly tricky audio books and also, something of the approach I take to acting and how I apply the experience of many years of performing to the demands of creating a world in audio. It’s almost impossible to talk about acting, without running the risk of sounding incredibly pretentious. An audio producer friend and I often round off our working day with a civilised snifter, at which point, we check our watches and see how long it takes me to go from a standing start to full-on pretentiousness; it can be measured in seconds and if I’ve drifted off into absolute twaddle in this article, I hope you’ll forgive me.

I’m quite proud of what we did with The House of Niccolo; if you decide to give the audio books a listen, I hope you enjoy them. It’s surprising perhaps, what naivety, ignorance and blind optimism can achieve!


 John Banks October 2019

*john-banks.com

* * * * *

If, after all that, you'd like to see details of The House of Niccolo books, ie a short synopsis of each volume, they appear below in their own posting from 10th September of this year. To access the posting, simply scroll down the blog home page to 'Older Posts', click through to the next page and it's there. 

Thanks for ploughing through such a dense chunk of text; hopefully, some of it at least, will have been of interest. The audio books are available via the usual outlets, though, annoyingly, the samples on audible.co.uk are, from books 4 to 8, identical and taken from the introduction rather than the actual narrative - very odd! 

To date, I've only listened to Niccolo Rising, the first episode of the series, though I look forward to hearing the rest of the story as 2020 gets underway. Should you choose to give the series a try, I very much hope you will enjoy it!


...all for now; more just as soon as it happens!

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Reviews & comments:

The Malazan Empire

Over the course of this 8 book series, the amazing John Banks has had to create and voice 648 distinct characters!

Neil Gardner - producer

The Door In The Wall & War of The Worlds

Not often I buy another version of an audiobook I own, but after hearing John Banks' narration of The Door in the Wall by Ladbroke Audio, I had to buy their version of The War of the Worlds. Banks has a great reading voice.

Andy Frankham-Allen - writer

The Books of Babel: Senlin Ascends, Arm of The Sphinx & The Hod King

Mr. Banks does superb work, and I recommend the audiobooks wholeheartedly!

Josiah Bancroft - writer

Mervyn Stone: The Axeman Cometh

John Banks is a voice genius...

Nev Fountain - writer

Mervyn Stone... played by the note-perfect John Banks.

Matt Hills - Reviews in Time and Space

Dr. Who: The Sleeping City

I also must draw attention to John Banks who is an exceptional voice artist and in this one story performs more characters that I can count. ... it is listening to episodes like this one that really do let his talents shine through.

Tony Jones - Red Rocket Rising

Highlander:

...playing several parts, was the brilliant Big Finish regular John Banks - it was as if there were about 40 different actors in the other booth.

James Moran - writer

I went for the best of the best and brought in voice artiste extraordinaire John Banks.

Paul Spragg - producer

Vienna:

...also features the mind - bogglingly versatile and reliable John Banks

Jonathan Morris - writer

Dead Funny:

The acting is first rate… wonderfully played by John Banks as Richard – his impersonation of Eric Morecambe is worth the admission money alone.

Beverly Greenberg: Bolton Evening News

Mr. Happiness:

This early and unfamiliar play by David Mamet is a character study of a 1930s radio counsellor, dispensing suave advice to his devoted listeners. John Banks brings out the wry comedy of this – comedy quite unappreciated by the character – with a clever range of gesture and vocal tone.

Jeremy Kingston: The Times


All My Sons:

This is a beautifully crafted piece ...and it affords a wonderful opportunity for John Readman* to do his All-American Boy act as Chris Keller. This most polished and well observed performance as the blighted son of a blighted father must rank as one of his finest accomplishments yet. ( * see Profile)

The Stage

The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes

Kudos should also go to John Banks. Lestrade can be a thankless part, but Banks rose to the challenge, playing a pivotal role in this decades long arc.

Raissa Devereux - SciFiPulse

The Judgement of Sherlock Holmes

John Banks is multi-tasking, both as the superb Lestrade and also the villainous and no doubt moustache twirling Sebastian Moran. They sound completely different and I bow to his talent.

Sue Davies - SFcrowsnest


Further reviews and comments are included with specific postings throughout the site.

The War Doctor

The War Doctor
December 2015