Sound designer Matt Thompson explains how he overcame some beastly problems in adapting The Jungle Book for radio
Celia Imrie leans into the microphone, her voice soft and maternal as she offers consoling words to the lost child Mowgli. “Is that a man cub?” she says. “How bold! Lie still, lie still little furless one.”
I knew, as I listened to Imrie perform, that we’d found the right person to play Mother Wolf. Imrie was just one of a star-studded cast who had assembled for a new adaptation of The Jungle Book, made by the Wireless Theatre Company for Audible, the audiobook arm of Amazon.
Finding famous actors who loved Rudyard Kipling’s book turned out to be the least of our worries. Alongside Imrie were Bill Bailey as Baloo and Martin Shaw as Shere Khan.
The narrator, Kipling, was played by Tim McInnerny. Bernard Cribbins was the White Cobra and Richard E Grant hissed his way through Kaa. “I grew up in Swaziland and my parents read The Jungle Book to me when I was very small and then when I was 10 I saw the Disney film,” says Grant.
“And now I have read it to my daughter and she watched the film with me as well, so I feel it’s gone throughout my whole life.”
My job, as the project’s sound designer, was to take these actors’ raw studio recordings and create a complete jungle with all its darkness, dread and mystery. I would be grappling with the constant tension between realism and dramatic art, between the literal and the imaginative. Bailey, reflecting on his role as Baloo the bear, put it in practical terms: “There was some roaring. As a bear, that was quite a challenge after a cup of tea.”
The Jungle Book seems to have been with us forever, and it’s hard to think of it now without humming The Bare Necessities or Trust in Me, both from the Disney film. There was a radio version two decades ago and now there is this brand new adaptation for Audible.
The Audible Originals team produces full-blown audio dramas, unabridged readings and comedy. They also own the means of distribution through their subscription service. The Netflix model, it seems, is coming to radio.
“I got into audio because I love stories,” says Colin Salmon, the Bond star who plays Bagheera, the panther. “When I first started out, I used to do stories at Glastonbury and storytelling with the kids. The beauty of audio is it’s about the words.”
The script by Bev Doyle and Richard Kurti was fantastic although daunting, particularly when it came to the wolves. It’s one thing to see a cartoon wolf look “dissenting”, but how do you convey such a direction in sound? What I needed was the great animal impersonator Percy Edwards.
He once played a dog called Psyche alongside George Cole in the radio comedy A Life of Bliss. The barks were actually written in the script as “a bark of gentle acquiescence”. Edwards suffused them with human emotion, but sadly Percy left this world in 1996.
So Cherry Cookson, our distinguished director, assembled our cast of actors in an “omni”, in other words all standing around the microphone and “channelling” wolves dissenting, which by itself was not entirely convincing. I duly scoured various sound effect libraries and found real wolves whimpering and growling, and in all sorts of moods. I morphed the two together and it worked.
The microphone is the voice’s harshest critic and revels in exaggerating every imperfection. Sound designers use software to fix it, but we also love subverting those tools (the autotune mangling on Cher’s I Believe, for example). A common problem is sibilance, which is removed with the “de-esser”. Grant brilliantly played Kaa and even threw in plenty of extra esses. I then used the de-esser but set the dial in the opposite direction to make him even more snakelike.
Cribbins’s approach to the White Cobra was positively Dickensian. Whether playing Androcles (Edwards was the lion) or voicing all the characters in The Wombles, Cribbins’s starting point is invariably human, not animal. “These parts are always written with an actor in mind,” he says.
“Of course, snakes don’t talk, but my cobra was very old, somewhat evil, the Machiavellian approach. When I recorded him I hunched, like Uriah Heap. He’s a shifty old bugger. You don’t have to animal them up.”
Tigers proved another problem. I once made a BBC World Service programme in India with Mark Tully about the ugly business of tiger poaching. We drove into a jungle and hunkered down near a watering hole to wait for one to emerge. I expected to hear fierce growls or breaking twigs. But of course the only sound of their approach was the distinctive alarm cries of the chital deer and the langur monkeys. As for the tiger itself… nothing.
Considerable dramatic licence was required. Unless you have lived among tigers in the jungle, the absence of rustles and roars sounds distinctly unthreatening. I always record the noise of movements myself, so I set about creating my own sounds of a tiger and other animals on the move. I spent a day in Perthshire traipsing around a forest (tiger), through ferns (panther) and jumping up and down on a fallen branch breaking twigs (elephant).
At the time I felt a little foolish. Surely an Ecco shoe meeting a twig can’t really sound like an elephant running amok? But the human imagination has a way of filling in the details. I used some literal sounds, too, such as an elephant trumpeting in the distance, to prime the listener’s ear. It was all about suggestion.
Alongside the cast, the other real character was the jungle herself. For this I needed something special, so I licensed some recordings from a nature sound archive in Australia called “Listening Earth”. These were of forests and marshes, recorded at dawn and at night, with all manner of birds singing with joy or the plaintive blues.
I immersed myself in those sounds, imagined myself into those spaces, and created another dialogue between the real and Kipling’s characters, so all became one. By the end I began to forget the actors were human for they had become the animals I had been entranced by as a child: Bagheera, Baloo, Shere Khan, Kaa and the others.
In association with the Zoological Society of London, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book – The Mowgli Stories is out on now and available for free at audible.co.uk/jungle. 25p from every download goes to help ZSL build a future for wildlife.