A new documentary, out today, takes readers behind the scenes of Penguin Audio’s biggest project to date: recording new and unabridged audiobooks of all 41 of Sir Terry Pratchett’s bestselling Discworld books. If you thought bringing the 2000 AD comics to life was a challenge, this has gone seven leagues bigger, as ‘Escape to the Discworld’ clearly shows.
Nestled in a village in Wiltshire, in the heart of rural Southwest England, stands the house where Sir Terry Pratchett and Lyn, his wife and business partner, lived with their daughter, Rhianna. It is the centre of his literary estate, which is still run from his desk in a room filled with Discworld tchotchkes, and a big neon sign with what the family considered to be their magic words, “Mind how you go…”, from the dedication of his final novel, 2015’s The Shepherd’s Crown.
Pratchett died five months before the book was released, after years dealing with Alzheimer’s, or what he referred to as “The Embuggerance”. His readers had the chance to see a replica of his office, the heartland of Discworld, in a 2018 exhibition in Wiltshire’s main town of Salisbury, but ‘Escape to the Discworld’ gives the first look at the office proper, as well as showing how key the Pratchett office has been to this mammoth recording.
Pratchett’s assistant of more than 20 years, Rob Wilkins, now runs the estate with Rhianna, herself an established writer. “There are no more novels. There’s no more Terry. But the adaptations into film, TV and beyond, it all comes down to us,” says Wilkins. “It’s our responsibility to ensure the quality control that Terry would have insisted upon in his lifetime.”
The extraordinary challenge will bring over 420 hours of audio to the listener. ‘Escape to the Discworld’ takes us behind the scenes as director and producer Neil Gardner brings each book to life, taking advantage of developments in sound since the first books were recorded on tape years ago, and bringing in new actors.
The series has two constant presences: the incomparable Bill Nighy, who represents Terry Pratchett as the voice of his author’s footnotes, and Peter Serafinowicz, of Spaced and Star Wars, as the voice of Death. In the first tranche of books to be released, Game of Thrones’ Indira Varma narrates the Witches series; Fleabag’s Sian Clifford narrates the Death series; and Merlin’s Colin Morgan narrates the Wizards series, with Hollywood’s ultimate chameleon, Andy Serkis, narrating the standalone novel Small Gods.
Here's a taste of what we learned from ‘Escape to the Discworld’ – and what the Discworld series will bring over the next years. “It’s not the case that the best is yet to come, but we’re going to match it,” says Rob Wilkins.
See all of the new Discworld audiobooks here.
This was a massively long shoot
It took more than 135 days to record the four million words that make up the 41-strong Discworld series. Some cast members spent a month recording whereas recording one audio book would usually take three to four days’ studio time.
Bill Nighy was the clear choice to voice Pratchett’s footnotes
“The footnotes are important because that’s a private moment between me and the author,” explains Rob Wilkins – Pratchett’s biography, written by Wilkins, was called A Life in Footnotes for that very reason. “You need a voice that takes you away from the main action of the novel, so it has to be unmistakeable. It has to be the best that you can possibly find. It couldn’t be anybody other than Bill Nighy.”
Finding the right voice involves detective work
“Some characters literally announce themselves to you,” says Colin Morgan, who narrates the Wizard series. “Either with just the way they are or oftentimes it can be a certain onomatopoeic way that they’re named.” Morgan looked for “little clues” in Pratchett’s writing indicating how people should talk, or a word that might suggest who and how they were.
Director/producer Neil Gardner is an avid Discworld fan
In 2018, Neil Gardner got the message of his life. “An amazing chap from Penguin Random House basically said, ‘Are you a fan of Terry Pratchett?’ I was like, ‘This is the email I’ve been waiting for.’”
Gardner was initially worried it might be a book here and a book there. “And then it was, ‘Neil, we’re doing the whole series and we want you to partner with us on it.’ It was mind-blowing. And then of course we had to think about how we were going to do it.”
Pratchett didn’t care for early Discworld recordings
Through the 1990s and 2000s, Pratchett’s books were read by by excellent actors and brought to life using the best technology available. Unfortunately, this wasn’t very good. “Not only were [the books] recorded in mono, they were recorded on tape,” says Rob Wilkins. “What did Terry think? It was a distraction. Would he have loved it now? Hell yes.”
Forget the screen: audio acting is intense
“It’s weirdly tough sitting behind a microphone and saying stuff,” says Bill Nighy. “It’s like reading any books. When you first do it you think, ‘What can go wrong? I read out loud to my daughter!’ But in fact it’s a whole other thing, and you have to have really done your homework.”
“You do reach a point in the day where you think I’ve got nothing left in the tank,” says Andy Serkis. “I’ve got absolutely nothing left in the tank, but there are still hours left in the day, and I’ve got a big journey to go on. I find it very, very psychologically demanding.”
Andy Serkis used his legendary physicality for audio
To keep an ‘orchestra’ of character voices in focus while recording Small Gods, Serkis used acting techniques that went beyond the voice. “The relationship to the mic is crucial for me. To remember where characters are, I often find physical positions for each character to go back to so that your muscle memory clicks you back in. It's a really tricky process when you’re narrating and then you go into passages of back and forth between lots of different characters, and then obviously in between you have the ‘…and he said…’”
There is now a Discworld encyclopaedia of pronunciation
“There are a lot of complicated words in Discworld, many of which Terry made up,” says Rob Wilkins. Pratchett was an avid reader of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which he read from A to Z. “He said he was well into his twenties before he realised an ogre was not an ogg-ree. I loved that, and I think that says a lot about the pronunciation within Discworld.”
Neil Gardner knew many pronunciations from previous books and Discworld media, but sent Wilkins a list of words for checking. Together, they established a master document. “Had it not been for Neil I might have been in trouble, because there were some things I couldn’t work out properly,” says Bill Nighy. “But he is obviously a worldwide expert.”
The actors cross-referenced each voice
To maintain accuracy through this vast process, Neil Gardner created an audio archive of character voices. “Colin was the first to do the wizards, so he has defined the characters. But Sian had to have them in one of her later books, so she has used his voices – but she’s not doing an imitation, she’s just within the same tonal range. It’s right for each narrator to give a character their interpretation as long as they’re not wildly different. You don’t want them to be Scottish on one day and Northern Irish the next.”
Speaking of which, Granny Weatherwax could have sounded like Professor McGonagall
Indira Varma, who narrates the Witches books, found herself coming up with a voice for one of her main characters on the hop. “On the first reading of Equal Rites, I felt Granny Weatherwax should be a Miss Jean Brodie: slightly strict, pinched, Edinburgh sound. I got in there and Neil was like, ‘Er, no. No. She’s not like that at all.’ I was like, ‘Oh right, ok.’ ‘Because that Scottish thing comes out in another book.’ ‘Oh s—t, I’ve got to find something right now!’”
James Hannigan’s theme music is inspired by Pratchett’s favourite video game
“The theme music is so important to us, and you do have an idea in your mind of what it’s going to be,” says Rob Wilkins. James Hannigan, composer for the recent audio production of Sandman, and for Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings video games before that, was inspired by the music for the game The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, a 2006 open-world RPG set in a vast world reminiscent of Discworld, and which Pratchett adored.
“He played it on repeat, and I can still hear the theme tune rattling around these walls,” says Wilkins. “That was one of our touchstones, where we felt the theme of Discworld should be, but there was only one composer on our list, and that was James Hannigan. He gave us perfection straight out of the box. Everything he does enriches Terry’s words, and I am eternally grateful to him for that.”
Watch ‘Escape to the Discworld’ below, and on YouTube here.
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Image at top: A still from 'Escape to Discworld', of actor Bill Nighy.