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Licence Renewed and For Special Services read by Jeremy Northam: review

15 Jul

Thirty years after they were first published, Orion have released a hardback reprint of five of John Gardner’s James Bond novels. Mr Gardner wrote fourteen in total (more than any other Bond author, including the originator of the series, Ian Fleming).

From Orion:
Swordfish, the new imprint from The Orion Publishing Group, is celebrating the 30th anniversary of John Gardner’s first James Bond novel with the publication of his first five Bond titles in a highly collectable hardback edition. Featuring the original cover art, the first three titles – Licence Renewed, For Special Services and Icebreaker – will all be published in a distinctive new livery on 23 June 2011 (hardback, £16.99 each/eBook at £8.99). Nobody Lives For Ever and Role Of Honour will follow suit on 7 July 2011 (hardback, £16.99 each/eBook at £8.99). All of John Gardner’s Bond novels will be released in paperback in 2012.

If you’d like to find out more about John Gardner, I recommend a visit to the official website: JohnGardner.com

Jeremy Northam has recorded the first two novels in the series as audiobooks: Licence Renewed and For Special Services. Naturally, yours truly has been having a listen …

Written and set in the 1980’s, in Licence Renewed James Bond is older and times have changed. M is still his boss, but ’00’ status no longer officially exists (though M refuses to acknowledge this), and Bond’s duties are far more mundane. That is, until he is required to return to his old role and save the world, yet again, from a mad genius intent on world domination.

I always think of Bond stories as adult fairy tales, with Bond as our invincible handsome prince on the side of good and all that is right, saving damsels in distress from the big bad wolf. It helps me to accept the casual sexism, xenophobia and general lack of political correctness that are an inescapable part of the best James Bond stories (a reflection of the time they were written). Jeremy plays it straight when it would be easy to colour it with a 2011 perspective, and this helps to create an authenticity and connection with Fleming’s originals, something I never really felt with Sebastian Faulks’ Devil May Care (also read by Jeremy). By doing so, Jeremy also avoids all comparisons with Mike Myers’ extremely successful Bond pastiche, Austin Powers. (Yeah baby!)

Despite being older, James Bond has lost none of his skill, nerve, and prowess with the ladies, though he drinks less and smokes low tar cigarettes (especially made for him, of course).

Bond’s gadgets come from Q branch, as before, but this time via a woman, nicknamed Q’ute. John Gardner was careful to make all of Bond’s gadgets realistic, and he maintained that a Saab with the modifications Bond has installed would have been an option for anyone with the money to afford it.

Bond must stop Anton Murik, Laird of Murcaldy (aided by international terrorist Franco) from taking over six nuclear plants and holding the world to ransom. Needless to say, there is a glamorous Bond girl with an appropriately ludicrous name (Lavender Peacock, known as ‘Dilly’, pronounced with great relish by Jeremy as Bond) and an enormous villain (reminiscent of Jaws) named Caber.

Some of the novel is set in Scotland, and though Jeremy’s ability to create believable, consistent and appropriate voices for his characters is nothing short of amazing, his Scottish accent is a little shaky (I’d be prepared to offer lessons, being from that country myself …), but I am being needlessly picky, and it’s a hell of a lot better than Mel Gibson’s!

It’s a typically tense, fast-paced romp, punctuated by testosterone-fuelled battles, car chases and romantic interludes. Anton Murik is a Bond mad scientist villain who sounds like he could have been played by Charles Gray (I particularly loved Gardner’s description of the mad and dangerous gleam in his eyes resembling lava). Dilly squeals, simpers and looks gorgeous, and of course Bond was always going to come out on top (ahem).

The second novel, For Special Services, picks up where the first left off and is more filmic, thanks to Gardner doing a better job with setting the scene, and, of the two, this was by far my favourite. James Bond is on secret loan to the US government and, teamed with his old friend Felix Leiter’s daughter Cedar (a CIA agent), he must stop legendary secret organisation SPECTRE and their evil leader ‘Blofeld’ who are, of course, up to no good on a grand scale. Blofeld was responsible for killing Bond’s wife Tracy (in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and was later killed by Bond. Who is the new ‘Blofeld’? We don’t find out for sure until the very end of the book.

Cedar Leiter is a match for Bond, and a forerunner of Halle Berry’s character in Die Another Day. Naturally, she is also very beautiful.

This audiobook really is a Bond film performed entirely by one man and can only be described as a tour de force. There are many plot twists and turns (some of which you’ll see coming), some great set-piece scenes worthy of the best Bond movies, and a large cast of vivid characters, all of which are created with verve and gusto. The New York gangsters, Texan millionaire Markus Bismaquer and skull-faced Walter Luxor (who will make your flesh creep) are characters you’d never believe could possibly spring from Jeremy’s lips, and yet they do, brilliantly. Jeremy has proved, in several audiobooks, that he can successfully perform female characters, but you have never heard anything like the steamy love scene he creates in this book. Much as I’d have loved to be a fly on the wall in the recording studio, perhaps you need to be alone in such circumstances … !

The relationship between Bond and M is rather touching, and Bond and Moneypenny continue to have a little flirt (a scene without which any Bond film is incomplete). This book has everything you could want from a Bond novel, and Orion absolutely picked the right man for the job in Jeremy, with his success as a leading man and his gifts as a character actor.

If you enjoy James Bond (novels or films), you will adore these audiobooks. Laura has written about Jeremy being her ‘intellectualizer‘, introducing her to books, periods of history and other subjects she might not otherwise have felt inspired to explore. In this case, I haven’t been ‘intellectualized’ in the slightest. I’ve had a good, healthy dose of pure entertainment. And why not? After listening to every last syllable of Homage to Catalonia, I think I deserve it!

For Special Services and Licence Renewed, read by Jeremy Northam, are available as CDs and digital downloads (digital download not available in USA) from Orion and a range of audiobook retailers. It is possible that more of John Gardner’s James Bond novels may be released as audiobooks. Orion’s Audio Editor Pandora White told me:

“He did such a good job with the Faulks book and he’s a fantastic reader and the right age and tone of voice.  If these work then yes, we will do more and with Jeremy.”

Let’s hope so!

Many thanks to Louise Court at Orion.

by Gill

The Voice

1 Jul

Let me say it right now. If a search engine pulled up this post because you’re looking for the American reality-TV singing competition called The Voice, you’re in the wrong place. The only Voice in question here is that of British actor Jeremy Northam. An educated guess on my part says that Mr. Northam would rather have bamboo sticks shoved under his fingernails than sing on a reality show. Well, I’ve never met the man, so for all I know he’s actually pining to be asked to sing on Pop Idol… I just wouldn’t put any money on it, if I were you.

If you’re still reading this then you probably know that the Jer Blog is exactly the right place to be if the subject is great voices. You know that Jeremy’s is a truly glorious voice, one that deserves to be referred to in initial capital letters. So let’s give The Voice our full attention. I mean his speaking voice, of course. Although he was wonderful when he sang as Ivor Novello in Gosford Park, modest Jeremy disparages his singing and sticks to roles that don’t require him to use that particular talent.

It’s not exactly breaking news that his speaking voice causes people to sit up and take notice; critics as well as admirers have long heralded it as one of the features, along with his good looks and oodles of acting talent, that make him such an arresting presence on screen. Adjectives used to describe his voice include melodious, deep, rich, resonant, seductive and mellifluous.

I was a little fuzzy on the exact meaning of that last word, so I looked up mellifluous in my Merriam-Webster’s (11th ed.) and found this definition: “having a smooth rich flow.” Jeremy’s voice certainly does have that quality. The word’s roots are in the Latin for “honey” (mel) and “to flow” (fluere). Honey suggests sweetness, which is also entirely appropriate here. Now add to those ideas my own phrase, “capable of making a grown woman melt into a puddle,” and you’re approaching a good description of the Northam Voice. Don’t take my word for it: a female interviewer once called it “one of the sexiest voices Hollywood has ever pumped through loudspeakers.” I guess she was left feeling a little “puddly” after hearing The Voice, too.

Sir Robert Morton, 'The Winslow Boy'

A great voice is a gift, but Jeremy has taken his gift and honed it like a fine instrument. He has learned how to bring out all its varied qualities and use it to its best advantage. He can make the rafters ring with its most sonorous tones or draw the listener in close with its most intimate murmurs. He can give it the gentle touch of a butterfly’s wing or the hard, cold edge of steel. He can make us laugh with its silliest accents or move us to tears with its heartfelt emotion. Although you can hear the effect time and cigarette smoke have had—it’s deeper and gruffer than it was twenty years ago—his voice has lost none of its strength. Rather the reverse is true, I think. With every year that passes, with each new role, Jeremy comes closer to realizing the full extent of its power.

Dr Matt Proctor, 'Miami Medical'

His voice has been in my mind quite a bit lately, and probably in yours too, because it has been a year since we’ve seen the man—since we saw Dr. Matt Proctor gazing off into the sunshine from the roof of MT One in the final frame of Miami Medical. While going a year without seeing Jeremy Northam is definitely a bad thing, it’s not as bad as going a year without seeing or hearing him. He has at least made his presence felt this past year by putting his splendid voice to excellent use in several audiobooks.

Nor is going a year with only his voice as devastating as it would be if we were talking about a lot of other actors, because Jeremy is an extremely talented audiobook performer. I use the word performer and not reader or narrator purposely; it is the only term that does justice to the way his considerable acting skill brings to life the words on the page. Whether reading narration, exposition or dialogue, he is adept at creating atmosphere and characters by giving his voice various inflections (arch, indignant, dejected) or qualities (raspy, smooth, velvety).

Dean Martin, 'Martin and Lewis'

In an audiobook Jeremy gets to play every part. His use of accents and those wide-ranging voice effects make for characters as vivid as any he’s given us on screen. I don’t need to see gloomy Puddleglum in The Silver Chair or breathy, effete Antony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited to be left helpless with laughter at their comic antics. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, the voice Jeremy gives Jack Miller, the narrator of Dark Matter, is so moving that it literally haunted me for days after I finished listening to Michelle Paver’s ghost story.

For a Master Class on Audiobook Acting just listen to the European Traders’ Association Lunch passage in Our Man in Havana. I’ve lost count of how many different accents and voices he creates in the scene, but it’s a jaw-dropping tour de force which is nonetheless completely in service to the story. Jeremy’s voice effects always add to, and never distract from, our appreciation of an author’s words. For more on his audiobook performances, I refer you to Gill’s excellent Jer Blog reviews of Down and Out in Paris and London, The Aspern Papers, Dark Matter and most recently Homage to Catalonia.

Lane Woolwrap, 'Guy X'

Of course, given our druthers, we like to see as well as hear Jeremy’s acting virtuosity. I’ve been aware for a while now that how a character sounds is part of the persona he creates, but recently, with the audiobook work in the forefront of my mind, I’ve been reconsidering how he utilizes his voice when he’s acting. To what degree does he alter his voice? How? And to what effect?

When I think of Jeremy modifying his voice for a role, his uncanny Dean Martin impersonation in Martin and Lewis leaps to my mind. It shows how completely he can change the way he speaks and sustain it throughout a performance. Another obvious way he changes his voice is the nearly flawless American accent he has adopted for a number of films. Yet think how different from one another Walter Hagen’s heartiness, Morgan Sullivan’s mildness and Lane Woolwrap’s gruffness sound; Jeremy’s not just “doing an American accent” for those roles.

Heseltine and Warlock, 'Voices from a Locked Room'

Now consider his two characters in Voices from a Locked Room; they sound quite unlike each other, too. Philip Heseltine’s smooth, educated accents and Peter Warlock’s deep working-class growl are distinct enough that until we see Warlock for the first time 43 minutes into the film, the secret about the two men is almost as hidden from us as it is from Lily Buxton.

Prince Amerigo, 'The Golden Bowl'

What about the controversial Italian accent Jeremy has as Prince Amerigo in The Golden Bowl? Yes, it’s distracting at first to hear him speak with that accent, but for me it very quickly becomes part of the character, like his beard or the expressive hand gestures. Even if you think it the most ludicrous Italian accent ever perpetrated, which I am far from doing, it serves a vital purpose. It reminds us more effectively than anything else could that Amerigo is a foreigner; and that, however fluent in English he may be, he speaks a different language than the other characters. Without the accent we lose a key to understanding both the Prince’s motivations and also one of the film’s important themes.

Clearly the voice Jeremy chooses for a character isn’t just pulled out of the air; it’s thoughtfully designed to inform the character’s identity and personality. Let’s go back to Morgan Sullivan in Cypher. Changes in his appearance signal the gradual transformation Morgan undergoes as the story progresses, but Jeremy adds to the effect by subtly altering the way he sounds as well. His voice starts out soft, hesitant and with a nasal timbre, a typical nerd’s voice. (You know the line. Say it with me now: “Independent contractor.”) But this quality disappears along with Morgan’s eyeglasses and the Brylcreem in his hair. A slight deepening and strengthening of his voice accompany those visual clues.

With Lucy Liu in 'Cypher'

The best place to examine Jeremy’s vocal dexterity in Cypher is the hotel bar scene. Morgan is chatting with a group of salesmen when he spots Rita Foster sitting at the bar. After he removes his glasses, he sits down next to her, lights up a cigarette and orders a drink. As you watch the scene, he becomes more masculine and attractive. Now try closing your eyes and listening to the scene (yes, I know, but do it anyway!). Compare how he sounds when he’s talking to the other men to when he orders his Scotch, feeds Rita that first line, and begins trying to pick her up. He starts to sound more masculine and attractive, doesn’t he? Until she shuts him down with the “no rings” remark, that is. Then the glasses reappear and so does the nerdy voice. By the end of the movie, when Jeremy looks like a sex god incarnate we shouldn’t be surprised that he thoroughly sounds the part as well. (My definition of a sex god includes a British accent, you see.)

Randolph Henry Ash, 'Possession'

Pick pretty much any character Jeremy has played and you’ll be able to hear the understated changes he makes to his voice to suit the character’s persona. Recently I had occasion to watch Possession and Enigma on successive days and I was struck by not only how different his characters look in the two films but also how different they sound. I started thinking about what makes them sound so different. First, Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash and WWII Secret Service Agent Wigram are obviously distinguishable by their vocabularies and diction. Ash speaks in images such as “a brilliant dusty hutch of mysteries” and “walked the landscape of my life,” while Wigram uses slangy phrases like “crack codebreaker,” “shiny new shooter” and “seeing each other’s brains out.” And they are worlds apart in tone, too. Ash is earnest and heartfelt, while Wigram is sarcastic and detached.

But it’s more than differences in word choice or vocal inflection; Jeremy actually changed his voice to give each character a unique sound. For Ash, he used his lower vocal registers and emphasized what I think of as the “velvet” quality of his voice. Ash’s voice is deep but hushed; it caresses your ear, brushing against it as if it had an actual nap. Wigram’s voice, by contrast, really is smooth as silk. Jeremy accentuated the higher and lighter components of his voice for the snarky spy. Wigram’s words glide and slip insinuatingly into your ear.

Wigram in 'Enigma'

Many other actors would have been content to use their regular speaking voices for these roles. Unlike most of the other parts I mentioned, here there is no absolute reason for an alteration of his voice. He’s not imitating a famous person, establishing a character’s nationality, underscoring a personality change, or distinguishing between two characters he’s playing simultaneously. But nevertheless, he makes Ash sound like a passionate man under the spell of an all-consuming love affair, and he gives Wigram the voice of a man whose job is ferreting out secrets among people he considers his inferiors. Their voices fit these two very different men perfectly. That Jeremy completes the characterizations with his voice shows what a consummate actor he is. It also gives new insight into the famous Northam ability to disappear into a role.

Although I have seen both movies many times, this was the first time I noticed this aspect of Jeremy’s portrayals of Ash and Wigram. The change in his voice is subtle, doesn’t call attention to itself, and yet it is as essential to defining their characters as their hairstyles are. You could no more exchange their voices than you could switch Ash’s flowing mane with Wigram’s clipped and pomaded cut. Just try to imagine hearing Wigram’s voice say ”I know you live very quietly, but I could be quiet.” or Ash’s voice say “Think of all those Polish names in the U.S. of A.”

Completely absurd, isn’t it?

Almost as absurd as trying to imagine any other actor playing R.H. Ash or Wigram. Or trying to imagine Jeremy Northam singing on an American reality-TV show.

by LauraP

The “one of the sexiest voices” quote comes from a JN interview on The Winslow Boy by Jane Wollman Rusoff for Entertainment News Service, 6/1999.

The JN audio recordings I mentioned that aren’t reviewed by Gill elsewhere in the Jer Blog are: The Silver Chair, by C.S. Lewis, HarperAudio (2004); Brideshead Revisited (abridged), by Evelyn Waugh, CSA Word (2008); Our Man in Havana, by Graham Greene, CSA Word (2009). They are readily available from the usual outlets in both CD and downloadable audio format, as is most of JN’s superb audiobook work.

As always, thanks to Gill for allowing me to contribute to the Jer Blog and for doing such a terrific job choosing the pictures that accompany my posts.

Jeremy Northam as audio James Bond: preview

21 Jun

I’d guess many of you are looking forward to Jeremy Northam’s two new James Bond audiobooks (by John Gardner) as much as I am! The first to be released (though actually the second in Gardner’s series of Bond novels), For Special Services, is published by Orion this Thursday (23 June), and the second (actually the first of Gardner’s Bond stories … confused???) is Licence Renewed, and it’s due on 7 July. I’ve already written a little about them both here and here and will be posting reviews very soon.

In the meantime,  I thought you might like a little taster of what we have in store …

In this second instalment of John Gardner’s Bond series, Bond teams up with CIA agent Cedar Leiter, daughter of his old friend Felix Leiter, to investigate Markus Bismaquer, who is suspected of reviving the notorious criminal organisation SPECTRE

Official, original James Bond from a writer described by Len Deighton as a ‘master storyteller’. Unabridged edition.

The first of John Gardner’s novels featuring Ian Fleming’s secret agent.
Bond has been assigned to investigate one Dr. Anton Murik, a brilliant nuclear physicist who is thought to have been meeting with a terrorist known as Franco. Together, they plan to hijack six nuclear power plants around the world and start a global meltdown, unless Bond can stop them…

Official, original James Bond from a writer described by Len Deighton as a ‘master storyteller’. Unabridged edition.

They are published by Orion and will be available both as CDs and downloads from Amazon (where you may pre-order ahead of publication) and other outlets.

These first two audiobooks may be followed by more, as Orion are re-releasing more of  the Bond novels by Gardner in print. I’ll remind you of what Orion’s Audio Editor Pandora White told me when I asked if Jeremy might read more for them:

He did such a good job with the Faulks book and he’s a fantastic reader and the right age and tone of voice.  If these work then yes, we will do more and with Jeremy.

So, if you wonder where I am over the next few weeks, I’ll be wherever James Bond wishes to take me!

 

UPDATE

For Special Services is now available from Amazon UK and from Audible.

 

by Gill

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