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The Scrivener: Breaking New Ground

…For the readings on audiocassette, I commissioned Patricia Kennedy, doyen of Australian actresses. Our first Australian audiobooks were published in 1979. They sold so well that we did a reprint. That was significant, as the printings were far larger than was normal for children's books at the time…

Brian Barratt recalls the exciting days when he introduced audiobooks to Australia, writing a vital chapter in the country’s publishing history.

To read more of Brian’s inimitable columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

And do visit his mind-stretching Web site www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

In the 1970s, the Melbourne publishing company for which I worked imported audiobooks from overseas. These were small illustrated story books accompanied by a reading of the story on audiocassette. They were used in schools for what was in those days called remedial reading. It seemed to me that we could improve on the imported product.

Apart from the fact that the company needed to improve its financial position and start making a profit — which is why I had been appointed as publisher and manager — there was another major consideration. The stories were all read on tape by people with American accents. It seemed to me that Australian accents would be more appropriate for Australian school students. Not 'Ocker' or 'Strine' but clear, well enunciated standard Australian speech.

The first series was very much an experiment. If it were to fail, my job would be in jeopardy. At the time 'Blue Fin', a novel by Colin Thiele, was very popular. I visited several schools where I was well known to principals, librarians and teachers. They arranged for me to ask groups of children who had read the book to tell me which sequences they thought were the most interesting or exciting.

I chose the three most popular of those sequences and adapted them into separate self-contained short stories in easy but not condescending English. These were sent to Colin Thiele for approval. He gladly gave permission for the project to go ahead. The novel had already been made into an excellent film by the South Australian Film Corporation. They generously sent me a large assortment of stills from the film, from which to choose illustrations. I commissioned a young artist to produce additional illustrations for variety.

The books were produced by a small local printing house. The results were by no means ideal but they sufficed for this first venture. For the readings on audiocassette, I commissioned Patricia Kennedy, doyen of Australian actresses. Our first Australian audiobooks were published in 1979. They sold so well that we did a reprint. That was significant, as the printings were far larger than was normal for children's books at the time.

The next step was to produce some original stories. I had already been discussing manuscripts and ideas with a senior teacher of English and Media Studies. He agreed to be involved. An era of close co-operation with Richard McRoberts commenced. Indeed, what followed would not have been possible without his creative writing and his skill in preparing shooting scripts (story boards) for photographic sessions.
His first set of stories was 'Tales from the Diggings', set in the days of the Victorian Gold Rush. We needed an appropriate setting for the mid-1850s, so I hired the finest historical 'theme park' of its kind, Sovereign Hill Goldmining Township in Ballarat. We needed photogenic kids to play the roles of the characters, so with Richard I auditioned students at a local high school. Appropriate period costumes were hired from Sovereign Hill.

Working to the shooting script which Richard organised, and under my watchful editorial eye, Harris House of Photography, Ballarat, took the action photos we needed. The three books of 'Tales from the Diggings' were published in 1980. The Australian reader for the audiocassettes was Bruce Mansfield, a well known TV personality with a rich bass voice. The printing was done in Hong Kong, not simply because it was cheaper but also because proofing and other facilities were superior to those of local printers.

When the first copies of the books arrived, we welcomed them joyfully. I did not, however, tell anyone about the 'bloopers' I saw as soon as I checked the photos. There were only a couple, one of which showed motor-car tyre tracks running along a dirt road in 1853.

Sales told their own story. These first efforts, with unusually large print runs for full-colour books at that time, were lapped up by schools. We continued with more.

For 'Riverboat Yarns' in 1982, I hired Swan Hill Pioneer Settlement, another open air historical museum, and a real paddle steamer at the old river port of Echuca. This was again done in close co-operation with Richard McRoberts, who wrote three stories based on these venues in past times. The reader for the series was a young actor, Ric Harley. By now, I was getting accustomed to the process of hiring large venues and auditioning professional readers, who were paid at Equity rates.
And did we make any goofs in the photography? I hesitate to admit it — yes, we did. At one point we were so preoccupied getting children to pose and walk along a riverbank that we completely missed something that was floating in the water. It's there in the photo — part of an old fridge or stove. I'm still embarrassed that I missed these things when I was checking proofs.

Ric Harley also read the 'Mates and Heroes' series, set in the era of the First World War. Our main venue for photography was Coal Creek Historical Village, Korrumburra. I also hired the renowned Puffing Billy steam train, at Belgrave, for half a day. That was real fun! The only mishap was when, among the damp mountain undergrowth, a leech attached itself to a girl's eye and Richard quickly took her to a local doctor, where it fell off without causing any damage. Undeterred, she bravely came back to continue in the photographic session.

We were breaking new ground in the 1980s, with impressive sales, but a new challenge arose. It seemed to me that we should have our audiocassette versions read not by adults but by children. I went through the agency's list, looking for child actors.

I auditioned a boy whose voice and acting ability were already well known through TV advertisements. Alas, he was unable to read the manuscript in a well enunciated dramatic style. He had been influenced by the sort of diction used in advertising on commercial television. His mother asked if I would coach him but that was outside my wishes and ability.

A head of department at a school where I had done editorial work in classrooms let me audition several children. One boy read beautifully in a perfect British English accent (he was Chinese). Australian English was the goal, and I found the right boy and employed him after appropriate consultation with his parents.

Through the 1980s, I published many audiobook series by well known Australian authors including Hazel Edwards, Edel Wignell, Robin Klein and Errol Broome. Many of these tales were read for the audiotapes by the sons and daughters of teachers I knew. All these kids were, of course, paid at Equity rates. Esta de Fossard, a teacher and writer with a great deal of professional broadcasting experience, recorded her own stories beautifully.

Let us not forget that each published book also involves the work of a book designer. For many of the audiobooks, I employed Lynn Twelftree, whose skill, sensitivity, and ability to put up with my whims, were very much appreciated.

The most memorable recording session was with the world famous Aboriginal film star, actor and dancer, David Gulpilil. He read 'The Birirrk: Our Ancestors of the Dreaming' and then spoke freely about his life. It was a wonderful experience, just listening to him.

All this happened long ago. Forgive me if I appear to be blowing my tiny trumpet. I just hope that this pioneering but probably forgotten work was a worthwhile chapter in the story of Australian publishing, in the lives of everyone who was involved, and in the education of the children who eventually used the books and tapes.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2007, 2009

Footnote: Rewritten versions of Richard's stories are available by subscription on http://www.ziptales.com/

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