Britain’s First Talking Book: An Update

What’s the first talking book in Britain? The plot thickens.

As a previous post explains, I’ve never been able to confirm with 100% certainty whether Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon was the first book recorded in Britain. Here’s what we do know: these were the first two titles recorded by the Talking Book Library founded by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and Blind Veterans UK. We also know (thanks to Ian Fraser) that a man named Anthony McDonald recorded the first talking book; and also that McDonald is the narrator of the Conrad disc. This led me to believe that the UK’s first talking book might be Conrad since there was no record of who narrated Christie’s novel. A few early recordings of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd do exist, but they were made after 1935 and not read by anyone associated with the original talking book studio.

But we now know who narrated Christie’s novel too. Her book is read by no other than – drum roll, please – Anthony McDonald. Yep, the same narrator who did the Conrad album. This is confirmed by an old US talking book catalog that I happened to be leafing through yesterday afternoon.

Catalog 1

What’s a British disc doing in a US catalog? Well, in the early days, America and Britain shared recordings in order to keep down costs (recorded books were expensive as heck to make) and to build up their inventories as rapidly as possible. Hence, the US catalog lists the 1935 British recording of Christie’s novel in its catalog, which describes the narrative as an “orthodox detective story, murder, inquest, and suspicion falling on every one in turn.”

Murder of Roger Ackroyd entry

It’s a relief to know with certainty who narrated the Christie album. Unfortunately, that still means either Christie or Conrad could be the UK’s first talking book. Although I’ve leaned toward Conrad since discovering McDonald to be its narrator, I’m now leaning back toward Christie since he did that one too. Most of the circumstantial evidence points that way. So there you have it: Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is (probably!) the UK’s first talking book. Maybe one day we’ll get to hear what those records sound like.

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