The winners of the Spoken Word Awards for audiobooks - formerly known as the Talkies - will be announced at the Dorchester Hotel in London on September 6. The new title befits the awards' position as the audiobook world's Booker and Whitbread, and this year there is the extra encouragement of silver and bronze awards alongside the gold.
The days when audiobooks were regarded as a consolation for blind book-lovers are long gone (though they still perform that vital function); their value is recognised as far beyond helping listeners through housework, long-haul journeys or insomnia. It is not regarded as shocking for adults to admit that they prefer to have their favourite texts read to them, especially when the reader is of the calibre of Timothy West or Michael Maloney. Story-telling is returning to its oral roots.
A glance over past years' awards reveals some remarkable continuities, as well as consistently high standards. In 1997, for example, Sir John Gielgud won a special award for outstanding achievement, while Miriam Margolyes and Eddie Izzard carried off the performing awards, and that brand-new classic, Spoonface Steinberg by Lee Hall, was voted Talkie of the Year.
The children's awards that year included readings by Griff Rhys Jones and Martin Jarvis (for his timeless reading of Just William), while recordings of Mick Inkpen's picture book texts won prizes in the children's categories in both the following years, in the second of which he was joined by J K Rowling.
This year, there are two children's categories: Seven and Under and Over Seven. Inkpen reappears on the shortlist for the younger age group with his delightful Kipper's A to Z read by the ever-amusing Dawn French. The other contenders are Eric Hill's Spot's Bedtime Book, read by Christopher Timothy, and Richard Adams's Winter on Watership Down which, with Richard Briers at the wheel, makes irresistible listening.
The shortlist for Over Seven features J K Rowling's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, read by Stephen Fry; Jacqueline Wilson's The Illustrated Mum, read by Piera Johnson; and Kevin Crossley-Holland's The Seeing Stone, read by Samuel West.
The shortlist for Unabridged Classic Fiction includes some first-rate stuff: Aldous Huxley's Chrome Yellow superbly read by Michael Maloney; Jim Norton's beautiful reading of Joyce's Dubliners; David Troughton's equally fine reading of Turgenev's First Love; and Peter Joyce's reading of Grant Allen's The Woman Who Did. All are deserving winners.
Gold, silver and bronze awards will be made in: Abridgement; Production; Unabridged Classic Fiction; Abridged Classic Fiction; TV and Film Adaptation; Children: Over Seven, and Seven and Under; Poetry; Non-Fiction; Biography; Drama; Comedy; Unabridged Modern Fiction; Abridged Modern Fiction; Female Performer; Male Performer; Spoken Word Publisher of the Year; Spoken Word Audio of the Year. The awards are for titles published between September 1999 and March 2001.