Chris Walker-Thomson is an actor, voice artist and impressionist based in the UK. More popularly known as the “Troughton guy” for his portrayal of Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor for fan audio dramas – his last being The Enemy Of The Universe, which has been highly acclaimed. His credits are on his website, but he has recently finished an audiobook for Adam Exitus by Nicholas Abdilla, is finishing The Rite Of Wands, and starting a new audiobook of Up A Tree: A Jobs & Plunkitt Galactic Adventure by Michael Schulkins next month.
How did you get started doing audiobook narration?
Well professionally, I suppose it’s been only the past 2 years, but I’ve always enjoyed telling stories. Growing up, I’d read stories aloud and do the various different voices for the characters. So I think the roots were always there. But my first opportunity was for a book called
What were your earliest days doing your first book like?
It was an incredible learning curve. Turns out, despite reading books comfortably at ease for years, once you hit record you begin to struggle. It was a confidence thing that I did overcome, but I did take a lot longer to record as I was thinking, “No wait, maybe it’s read like this?” And I was left second-guessing myself, and getting frustrated, as I can read, but it doesn’t sound right when I say it aloud. In a studio, you’re at ease because you have a producer who will say whether we need that retaken or not and keep you calm, but left on your own to produce, you can get trapped in a cycle as your own worst critic. But it was a great experience, and taught me a lot more which I’ve taken aboard with the next books.
You were no stranger to performing long before you started making audiobooks. How did you find recording audiobooks to compare to other types of performance?
It’s a lot longer. Essentially you are sitting in a studio, or studio set up, just reading aloud to the microphone for hours until the book is complete. It’s incredibly isolating, unless you have a producer behind you. But if you’ve got good material to go from, it’s a joy. I enjoy playing characters anyway, but funnily enough, the one voice I took a bit of time to master with the first book was my own reading voice. When you’re playing a character, you embody him or her and the words fit perfectly. As yourself, it’s like I said earlier, you are more self-critical. And the more self-critical you get, the less it sounds like a natural read. It’s a confidence thing, but the first book helped me overcome that.
You are a gifted mimic. How did you learn to imitate other voices?
Oh thank you. I’m not entirely sure when or how. I always find that I’d do an impression of someone randomly in a conversation, and then my friend would go “that’s pretty good!”, completely surprising me as I didn’t know I could do it. My friend said I’m like a “vocal sponge.” I have always been able to recognise characteristics or traits in people, not necessarily their voice, but things they may say and do. Little actions like a sigh, an eyeball, or key phrases they constantly say. My inspiration for impressions came from watching TV impressionist Jon Culshaw when I was around 13 or 14 years old. He’s a great friend now, which is still bizarre to me. We spoke at great lengths about the craft, and we have similar approaches. He described it as looking for a “hook,” something that immediately identified as the person you want to imitate, and then you would build the voice around that. Some are very easy, some are hard and require more practice, but that’s the fun of it. It’s like developing a character.
What are some of your favorite voices to do?
Well, there’s a few key ones. I love doing Steve Coogan’s character Alan Partridge. It’s always an easy one to slip into and fits, as he would comment on literally anything he came across. Otherwise, there’s an ensemble of obvious ones such as Michael Caine, Kermit the Frog, Donald Trump and so on. I love to dip into Doctor Who ones, and niche voices you’d recognise from a video game, film or TV show. Sometimes there are voices that just come up without really thinking on it. I accidentally did Sylvester from Looney Toons the other week to my brother as we walked in town. There are so many voices, I might need help.
You play The Second Doctor in Doctor Who, a show that is very popular with our readers. What is it like to play on such an iconic show?
I don’t play him officially, alas. Would love to though. To work with Frazer Hines, Wendy Padbury and Anneke Wills – the original companions from that era of the show – would be a dream come true. It’s not a decision I can make, but those who could make that call do know I’d love to. So who knows? Maybe one day. But mostly I’ve gained a bit of a following for playing the Second Doctor in fan-made audios, which have been very well-received. It was the role that put me in the eyes of other producers, so I owe a lot to my efforts in playing Patrick Troughton’s iconic character. I’ve always wanted to challenge myself with a voice, and Patrick Troughton’s is such a unique voice that I haven’t heard anyone do successfully. So I spent some time researching, practicing and such. It wasn’t until I recorded something for a bit of fun that people said “You’ve got something there!” It’s still a work in progress, I still notice targets I haven’t met hit yet, and it’s been five years in the making. It has opened a lot of doors. It’s been wonderful. I did release my last fan-audio this year though, which acts as a send off. I’m happy to return to the role, but producing an audio on your own is quite a challenge.
How do you prepare in advance to perform an audiobook?
There are some voice artists who can just read it for the first time and sound like they’ve known it for years. I envy them! But I always think it’s best to get familiar with the material. I try to get a physical copy if I can and then read it leisurely, before bed, in the afternoon and so on. I’ve been fortunate to have such great material to read, so I get very invested and excited to begin. Then as I read I start to piece together some of the voices in my head, and go over it a second time making a note of words I’m unsure of how to pronounce, which I send to the author to confirm. Usually they give me somewhat of a list of what they’d like, so I incorporate that into my reading. Then I drink a lot of water, sit down comfortably and read.
How do you decide what voices you use for the characters in your books? Do you model them after people you know or have met?
In some instances, the author or rights holder tells me how they want me to play the characters. Otherwise I am left to my own decision that the author may wish me to change later – and they do tend to come from people I’ve met or seen in some way. I suppose you could say they’re impressions, but I’d say they’re more adaptations of impressions. Like saying “What if Michael Fassbender played the Joker?” – which would be really cool.
I’ve just finished a book called Adam Exitus by Nicholas Abdilla, which should be out soon, and that featured the whole book told from the point of view of Adam. The only instruction I had when I auditioned was “British male,” which is a lot broader than other nations may think! So I gave the audition text a read and immediately this voice just stuck. It’s not too dissimilar from myself, but a more sarcastic and bloke-y voice. Then later along I had to play a robotic woman, which I played like an Amazon Alexa, and some aliens, and again the voices stuck. I work in a call centre part-time, so I get an ensemble of voices call in that I think “I may use that some day!” They’re all from a memory I can’t place or a mixture of them.
The real trick is leaving those characters for a few chapters, then having to reprise them and think “how did I do that again?” And also to not make a voice similar. So I might add an accent or raise/lower the pitch of my voice vocally. It’s immensely fun. And more often than not, the author may have imagined a different voice, but is sold on what you’ve brought to the table, as he or she didn’t consider it that way. Or the author will say, “No, do it like this,” and you put that voice somewhere else for another day.
I’d be curious to know if narrators care that people listen on fast forward instead of in real time.
Well I can’t speak for people’s preference, but if they did sit down to a 13 hour audiobook, I can’t blame them for wanting to speed it up a tad. I think it would depend entirely on the delivery of the narrator. If the narrator is monotonic, it’s quite dull and you probably would just fast forward. But if you can get invested in it, you wouldn’t need to speed it up, because the narrator would do that anyway when the drama really gets tense, and likewise go slow when something sad occurs. It’s a journey, and sure you can get there in half the time if you run, but you may not appreciate it just as much as if you strolled.
Tell me about your experience working with Big Finish.
That was a dream come true! I’ve always wanted to work for them. They’ve produced official Doctor Who audio dramas that I think are superior to those you get on the TV. I’ve had my friends work for them, one by one, but thought it wouldn’t come – until one afternoon I get an email from the lovely Executive Producer Nicholas Briggs and the next thing I know, I’ve got a script in my inbox! I’m very grateful for the opportunity. I’m afraid I’m still sworn to secrecy as to what it was until they announce it. But I was surprised by my part in it, especially as I thought I’d only be doing a few lines as a supporting artist, but they’ve given me a decent first chance. I hope I’ve done well. It was great fun to do, and pains me that I can’t say who it was with or what it was. But I’ll bellow it from the hilltops when I can! It’s a fun one. I think people will really enjoy it.
Check out Chris’s website at http://www.chriswalkerthomson.com/.