Last year, Penguin Audio launched its biggest project to date: recording new and unabridged audiobooks of all 40 titles in Sir Terry Pratchett's bestselling Discworld novels. With a stellar cast of readers, the Witches, Wizards, and Death series were brought to life, and now it's the turn of Ankh-Morpork's finest police force – the City Watch – a series that follows their adventures (and misadventures) as they fight for survival in the hours of darkness.
Narrating all eight of the new volumes is actor, comedian and impressionist Jon Culshaw, alongisde Bill Nighy who returns to read Pratchett's famous footnotes and Peter Serafinowicz, who voices Death.
To celebrate the launch of the series we spoke to Culshaw about his experience recording the books, the novel he recommends you read first, and the night he watched the lunar eclipse with the author himself.
Do you remember your first introduction to Terry Pratchett's novels?
My first intro to Terry was when I worked on a Discworld cartoon series circa 1993. It was one of my first jobs and I was in my early 20s at the time, playing a multitude of characters.
And then coming to read the books it was as though I was walking through a highly ornate tabernacle door that opens up with a very fulsome, resonant creek – then you step through to be greeted by an entire other universe, which you feel drawn to run into at full pelt.
How did it feel to revisit Discworld while narrating the City Watch audiobooks?
It has been really enriching. And I feel very, very lucky, indeed. I remember when the call came through from my agent, he said, "I’ve got an inquiry from Penguin about narrating the Terry Pratchett City Watch series." "Yes, yes!" I snapped before he had even finished the sentence. When you’re recording, you can’t help but fully immerse yourself in the whole experience: every word, every line, every sentence, every chapter. It's a wonderful way to experience Terry's imagination.
Who is your favourite character to narrate and how did you bring them to life in the audiobooks?
Gosh, a favourite? Well, I've got to go for Sam Vimes. Sam takes you through the books, he's the anchor, the Guvnor, and I can just summon a feeling of what it would be like to meet Sam for the first time. I think he manages to be utterly formidable and strong like a chunk of granite – but at the same time, totally unassuming, very personable, very humble. And for me, he was a gritty and wise blend somewhere between Sean Bean, and Philip Glenister. Full of gumption to give him that northern word.
Which is your favourite Discworld novel?
I mean, having recorded all eight volumes of City Watch, by the time we got to Jingo, I knew all the characters really well and I was walking through Terry’s world. I really loved that book; by then I was strolling apace along those pavement slabs, and as I was reading I could visualise exactly which part of the city I was in. I was taking a vacation in a mystical city, looking around and absorbing it all in. In a way, it’s important to let go and let the characters guide you through.
What is it about Pratchett’s writing that you love most?
The joy of his writing is that he’s so funny and the rhythm of the dialogue that he keeps throughout is an absolute delight. It’s the literary equivalent of a great musician, playing a beautiful saxophone solo or a wonderful drum solo; just when you think it’s done, there’s a little reprise. So witty and sparky, with a delicious sense of satire woven through it.
I love that fabulous description Neil Gaiman once gave of Terry’s artistry. I think he'd written a page outline, a synopsis, for Good Omens. Terry had happened to see it so he said, "Neil. This Good Omens that you've written here. Would you perhaps consider selling that to me or… perhaps we could write it together?" Neil Gaiman said it was rather like "Michelangelo had called up and said, ‘Do you fancy doing a ceiling?’" And of course, the brilliant Good Omens followed.
Which book would you recommend someone new to the Discworld series to read first?
I think I'd go for Guards! Guards! It's the perfect intro in terms of getting to know this wealth of characters. Each character is introduced to you beautifully clearly, and in such a way that you'll instantly latch on to them and care about them very quickly. It also paints a picture of the universe you have found yourself in, the Discworld, its uniqueness. It makes you stay with it.
Did you ever get the chance to meet Terry Pratchett?
Oh yes – two or three times, around about 2007 when I used to work on The Sky at Night, when Patrick Moore was presenting it. And I remember one particular recording of the episode where we were watching a lunar eclipse in Patrick Moore’s garden in Selsey. As the eclipse progressed and as the Moon was slowly turning a deeper rust red, I spotted in the far part of the garden this unmistakable silhouette. The hat, the beard, the long flowing coat.
And there was Terry, head facing skywards, observing the Moon bathed in the shadow of the Earth, alongside Dr Brian May and Sir Patrick Moore. It was a scene that Terry could have written himself. To see Terry there in the midst of it all was a mystical thing. You could only marvel at the thought of what this may have been inspiring him to write at some future point.
I tried to summon that feeling whilst narrating the audiobooks – just to have the tantalising sense of Terry’s inventive imagination. Letting that guide and inspire me through every page, section and volume of the series.