Before Christmas I took advantage of a promotional deal to score a couple of free audiobooks, seeing as I’d done okay with an abridged audiobook of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo a couple of years ago. (The Martin Wenner reading. From one discussion I’ve read about Stieg Larsson’s authorial digressions, it sounds as if the abridged version was the right way to have gone. It also sounds as if the excellent trailer of the David Fincher film version is enough to watch in that case, too.) Audiobooks have the key advantage of fitting into gaps in the day when you’re commuting or working in the kitchen or whatever, and avoid that slightly oppressive sense of having to sit down and devote quality time to them, which books too often have for me these days. I used to do most of my reading for pleasure before going to sleep, but that window has shrunk to about five minutes a day, and not many books can stand up to being read in five-minute instalments.

So, as they were free, I ended up choosing two audiobooks that I’d already bought in hardback over the past couple of years, but wasn’t likely to read any time soon.

I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan

The first was the autobiography of Britain’s favourite fictional TV and radio presenter. The hardback itself is, as a physical object, a great satire of ghastly celebrity autobiographies, from its gold-embossed signature to its photo of Alan with mismatching tans on his hands and face. But the audiobook is even better for Partridge fans, because it’s read by Steve Coogan in character. It’s like getting a whole new radio series.

Every painful mishap of Alan’s long and inglorious career is here, woven into a coherent narrative of his life: from the school rivals he hasn’t forgotten, to his inadvertent shooting of a guest on air, to his divorce and career decline, right through to his difficulties with Sidekick Simon on Mid-Morning Matters. It’s beautifully observed, highlights being his ex-wife’s supposed acceptance of blame for their divorce, Alan’s tortuous justifications for shooting a Knowing Me, Knowing You guest, and best of all his failure to call his assistant Lynn by name anywhere throughout.

Coogan’s reading is everything you would hope, his delivery adding significantly to the words themselves. If it weren’t for the fact that one chapter (24, “Other, Better TV Work”) is omitted from the audiobook, this would be the definitive version. Admittedly, that chapter isn’t essential to the narrative, but still.

The Fry Chronicles

The second audiobook was the (continuing) autobiography of Britain’s actual favourite TV presenter, or favourite if the widespread adoration of QI is anything to go on. (I enjoy QI now, but it’s taken me a while to warm to it. The opening credits and theme music put me off at first.)

Fry’s first autobiography, Moab is My Washpot, was impressive for its revelations of a chequered childhood, given how beloved the adult Fry has been. I’m not sure this one will make the same mark, even though it deals with the man we’ve come to know (or think we know).

An early obstacle was that, having just finished the Partridge audiobook, it was hard to approach Fry’s self-reading in the right frame of mind; a problem made worse by one of Partridge’s later chapters being about his Toblerone addiction, and one of Fry’s early chapters being about his childhood addiction to sweets. But after a while those unhelpful echoes settled down, and I could enjoy Fry’s reading for what it was: an apologetic but amusing account of privilege, success, riches and fame. This book spans his years from Cambridge through to his thirtieth birthday, taking in Blackadder, Me and My Girl and Saturday Live, with A Bit of Fry and Laurie waiting in the wings. Fry protesteth a bit too much for all those successes—surely every reader (or listener) goes into this knowing that he went to Cambridge and was in some of the best TV comedy of the 1980s, and would presume that a fair bit of wealth followed that success—and his apologies sometimes distract from the interesting details of what it was actually like to be doing those things at that time. Those details won’t be interesting to everyone, but won’t those people be reading some other book?

As it was, I found the details about bluffing the Cambridge Tripos, performing with Footlights at the Fringe, his famous friends before (and after) they were all famous, working for television, and dealing with West End and Broadway producers, all plenty interesting. Even hearing about the early Macintoshes and peripherals he was buying when they cost an arm and a leg was worthwhile, especially given that his (mutual) support helpline was Douglas Adams.

If anything, I finished this wanting more detail about his successes, more of the minutiae of working on Blackadder and so on—he tended to reserve his longer explanations for his lesser-known activities. But most of all, I finished it frustrated at where it finished. Just as Moab ended with Fry just about to go to Cambridge and become the performer we know, this volume ends just before he becomes a coke addict and goes off the rails. Presumably there will be a volume three, covering the 1990s and 2000s. Or maybe we’re in for Volume 1: Fall, Volume 2: Rise, Volume 3: Fall, and Volume 4: Rise. I’m not sure how many lives warrant more than two volumes of autobiography—but I’ve stuck with Clive James through five, so what the hell, I’m in.

13 January 2012 · Books