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Simon Jones's curriculum vitae would impress the least impressionable producer. At 15 pages and change, it's long. Early on, it contains references to an ostensibly idyllic childhood in southwestern England and "public school"--mind you, in Britain, that's boarding school. Then, it's off to Cambridge University (Trinity Hall College) and the legendary Cambridge Footlights Dramatic Club, the launching pad for the Cantabrigian half of Beyond the Fringe (Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook), for Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, and Stephen Fry, and for several Monty Python players (John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and Eric Idle). (Simon has appeared in a number of Python films, and his wife, Nancy Lewis, was once the American manager of Monty Python.) The CV is filled with theatrical credits from the West End and Broadway and chock a block with major television and movie credits. Wedged between these are national ads, radio dramas, high-profile readings--and, oh yes, audiobook narrations (more than 50 of them).
Aside from his many accomplishments, what marks the document on the whole is a sense of humor. The CV isn't simply a professional gesture; it's comedy--of the deadpan variety. To wit: On his stage debut as the 3rd king in "The Christmas Story," Simon comments that he was "locked in bathroom by Christine Prosser, missed first entrance, and would have missed all had cries for help not been heard." Early in his professional stage career, he received a string of good notices from the Sunday Times drama critic, Harold Hobson: "Unusually talented"; "Simon Jones brings . . . the only touch of nature, the only feeling of compassionate reality, in the whole shoddy business"; "Simon Jones . . . has the capacity unusual among English actors of being able to speak English." These are followed by a terse entry in 1976: "Harold Hobson retires."
Lest he be accused of shameless self-promotion, Simon includes among the many raves less appreciative reviews, like this one from the prickly theater critic from New York Magazine, John Simon: "SJ is content to recycle his overused nasal snootiness." And what would a CV be without the surreal anecdote? Several years ago, he went to a voice-over audition for an animated feature and was handed a character breakdown written in gonzo Hollywoodese. It described "Turok, the dinosaur hunter" as a maniacal Scott Glenn-Gary Sinise-Dennis Hopper-type, whose "calm" alter ego "could be English like Simon Jones . . . almost like a butler." Apparently, Simon was too much of the real thing for the producers. He didn't get the part.
As any audiobook producer knows, Simon Jones lives up to his resume. He's every bit as accomplished and funny in the studio as his CV suggests he'd be. He stands among a rare group of readers so fluent that they seem able to see around corners. He anticipates the shape of a written idea as it unfolds and then nuances his performance accordingly. Combine that talent with a pleasant baritone, a knack for dialects, and a rather posh English accent, and you have a powerful voice of authority and wit. He's equally entertaining and convincing, whether the fare is Peter Mayle or Simon Winchester. That skill has translated into a good deal of work. Since 1986, he has narrated for a wide variety of major publishers and has garnered an impressive stack of favorable reviews and awards, including an armful of Earphones Awards. Now, he joins the ranks of the Golden Voices.
(A word on Simon's accent: Although he's been here for the better part of two decades, his speech is remarkably free of mid-Atlanticisms. He likens his manner of speaking to "a bee in amber," a curiosity preserved from the ravages of time and current British vogue, middle-class parlance.)
When you speak to Simon Jones about his work as an audiobook narrator, you quickly realize that he is not, after all, able to see around corners. He merely prepares his sessions thoroughly, a habit common to all the best readers. "It's impossible to do these things blind," he says. "I think of the audience--a person on a long journey, perhaps. I want to make things very clear for him, so he's not rewinding the tape and straining to make sense of what I've said. That's dangerous when you're doing seventy. I'll have no car accidents on my conscience."
Since he is so technically fluent, he can devote his time to what he likes most: preparing character voices. "For each character, I try to find a good voice," he says, "something that suggests a personal history." You can hear that in his performances. Every character seems alive in his or her own way, each with a distinct voice, each with a unique tone and attitude. Some of his choices surprise even the authors. In his recent recording of Cornelia Funke's THE THIEF LORD , featured on the cover of the December 2002/January 2003 Audiofile, Simon went so far as to give an interesting minor character a slight speech impediment. "I needed to make a group of urchins distinguishable from each other," he says. "I tried a number of approaches and struck on the idea of giving this particular one a lisp. It worked quite well, I think." Although she'd never conceived the character in that way, Cornelia Funke was delighted with his innovation.
But Simon Jones was doing character voices and reading before a microphone long before he started doing audiobooks. His best-known association has been with his close friend at Cambridge, Douglas Adams, the creator of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," the now-classic adventure tale, more madcap than sci-fi. In two series of BBC radio dramas first broadcast in the late '70s and early '80s, Simon played the hero, Arthur Dent, a young man fleeing earthly Armageddon and traveling with his friend Ford Prefect to the ends of the universe. (He also played the lead in the BBC-TV version.) It was in this setting that he got a strong sense of performing solely for the audience's ear. "It made me appreciate conjuring up a picture," he says, "and leaving the listeners to fill in the gaps." After Adams's death in 2001, Simon narrated portions of THE SALMON OF DOUBT , his friend's final book.
Like many of the best in his field, Simon listens to the work of other audiobook narrators. (He counts Martin Jarvis and Barbara Rosenblat among his favorite performers.) Buying programs second-hand at a local flea market, Simon gets to them whenever he gets a chance--and when he does, his notebook is out, because "it's always fun to see how someone else does this or that." If there are tricks to be learned, there are also pitfalls to be avoided: "The sure sign of a bad performance," he notes, "is a telltale monotone that creeps in. You have to keep a tight leash on that. Every now and again, I like to say a word quite sharply to wake up the director, the engineer, and anyone else who's listening."--John McElroy [December 2004]
December 2007: Had a banner year on stage in New York and London and managed to pick up another Audie Award for the Quintessential Phase of THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY .
December 2006: Every audiobook narrator wishes for the kind of audiography Simon has enjoyed with Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide series. The original audio dramas--some new, some remastered from the BBC programs of the late '70s--found a new audience with American audio listeners as part of the build up to the 2005 film. THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY: THE TERTIARY PHASE , already an Earphones winner, was honored as 2006 Audiobook of the Year. Simon also picked up the Unabridged Fiction Audie for A SLIGHT TRICK OF THE MIND --along with seven other nominations! We see another in the works for his bravura performance of IMPERIUM by Robert Harris.
December 2005: Simon has been appearing in a successful run of Harold Pinter's "Betrayal" at the Singapore Repertory Theatre. Earlier this year, he recorded the third in the Lionboy series as well as the final book in Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy. Simon performed the role of Arthur Dent, Douglas Adams's hapless hero, in the full-cast recording of THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY: THE TERTIARY PHASE , which won an Earphones Award in June. He won another in August for THE ILLUMINATOR by Brenda Rickman Vantrease.
2002: While most actors are avid theater-goers, surprisingly, narrators are not always audiobook fans. Yet Simon Jones is an avid listener with eclectic tastes, and his enjoyment and appreciation of audio narrative informs his dynamic storytelling style. Reviewers note Simon's skill in casting an atmospheric spell, whether it's in the Venice of this issue's cover title, THE THIEF LORD , or in the Provence of Peter Mayle's FRENCH LESSONS , or in the Victorian-era London domain of Anne Perry's Inspector Monk. In titles like Simon Winchester's THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN or THE CLOUD SKETCHER by Richard Rayner, Simon captures the essence of complex characters. With smooth handling of humor or intrigue, Simon always brings a vibrant tone to his performances. Away from the studio mike, Simon is a busy Broadway actor appearing recently in Waiting in the Wings and Ring Round the Moon. He is active with the National Audio Theatre Festivals (NATF), promoting workshops and programs. His TV credits include "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and "Brideshead Revisited."
Photo courtesy of narrator
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