80 years of Talking Books

It’s been 80 years since the first Talking Books and machines were sent out to our first members across the country.

Since then, thousands of blind and partially sighted people have discovered the joys of audiobooks, and have been able to take advantage of developing technologies and a growing collection of books to make their reading and listening experience even better.

We’ve gathered together some fun facts and figures for you below to mark eight decades of one of our most popular services. Let us know your favourite books and authors, or your own memories of the service over the years, by emailing us at readon@rnib.org.uk.

Eight fun facts

  1. The longest book in our collection is an edition of the Bible. “The holy Bible: containing the Old and New Testaments with the Apocryphal / Deuterocanonical books” (TB403700) is on four discs with a playing time of 123 hours and 21 minutes. It was read by one of our volunteers, who hopefully had lots of snacks to keep him going!
  2. It takes around two to three months for a straightforward Talking Book to be recorded and produced – something more complicated, lengthy or which needs more than one narrator could take six to nine months.
  3. In 2004 a very young Benedict Cumberbatch recorded the part of Ferdinand in “The Tempest” at the Talking Book studios. We like to think we made him in to the star he is today!
  4. The studios are directly opposite the former home of the Jim Henson Creature Shop and Kermit was regularly spotted at a third floor window.
  5. The mysterious and infamous street artist, Banksy, once painted a wall of the Talking Books studio building in Camden.
  6. A little-known fact for the Star Wars fans out there: our panel of approximately 350 professional narrators includes one X-Wing pilot, one Star destroyer commander and an Ewok.
  7. During celebrations of past anniversaries, Princess Margaret visited the studios in Great Portland Street, as did Lord Mountbatten. Margaret Thatcher and the Duke Of Westminster visited the library in Wembley.
  8. Some of the celebrities who’ve read for us include Richard Baker, Michael Aspel, Dirk Bogard, David Attenborough, Joanna Lumley, John Gielgud, Peter Cushing, Roald Dahl, Cherie Blair, Michael Palin, Stephen Fry, Alan Titchmarsh, Ernie Wise and Trevor McDonald. J.K. Rowling read a special introduction to the first Harry Potter book.

Eight popular authors

1. Agatha Christie

The queen of crime herself! It’s fitting that Agatha Christie remains one of our most popular authors, since “The murder of Roger Ackroyd” was one of the first books selected for the start of the Talking Books collection back in 1935.

2. Alexander McCall Smith

Author of the No1. Ladies Detective Agency series, the Scotland Street novels and much more, Alexander McCall Smith has been close to our readers’ hearts for many years. Listen to a recent Insight Radio interview with the author.

3. Lynda La Plante

You may be familiar with Lynda La Plante through her television work, as she wrote the popular Prime Suspect crime series. Her books are just as popular with our readers, with “Prime Suspect” itself becoming one of our most downloaded titles when we launched RNIB Overdrive [hyperlink not included as will link to new page], our digital download service for Talking Books, in 2014.

4. John Grisham

Grisham’s legal thrillers are enduring favourites among our Talking Book users, including “The Firm”, which was also made into a popular film starring Tom Cruise.

5. Josephine Cox

We were thrilled to be able to bring out Josephine Cox’s latest book, “The lonely girl”, at the same time as the standard print edition, so our readers and listeners could enjoy it at the same time as everyone else.

6. Stephen King

One of the more prolific authors writing today, and one of the most popular, Stephen King is also a hit among Talking Book members.

7. Martina Cole

More crime with Martina Cole, whose gritty British thrillers often feature female protagonists, and have been adapted for stage and screen.

8. Peter Robinson

Author of the Inspector Banks series, this prize winning author is one of our most requested.

Eight popular books

  1. The day of the storm by Rosamunde Pilcher (TB20569, narrated by Emma Powell)
  2. Best kept secret by Jeffrey Archer (TB20504, narrated by Alex Jennings)
  3. Miss you forever by Josephine Cox (TB20899, narrated by Maggie Ollerenshaw)
  4. Persuader by Lee Child (TB20356, narrated by Dick Hill)
  5. A week in winter by Maeve Binchy (TB20079, narrated by Caroline Lennon)
  6. The racketeer by John Grisham (TB20224, narrated by Tommie Earl Jenkins)
  7. Candles in the storm by Rita Bradshaw (TB20620, narrated by Karen Cass)
  8. The little village school by Gervase Phinn (TB20674, narrated by the author)

Some final thoughts from our readers

“Reading takes you into a world of imagination... You can get lost reading a book really! If it’s a really good book and a really good reader, it means so much to you – it gives you hours and hours of entertainment.”

Heather Owens, Northern Ireland

“Talking Books is an absolute lifeline, absolutely brilliant.” 

Sean Stanley, Surrey

"I'm really enjoying using RNIB Overdrive [the digital download service for Talking Books] and being able to listen to my books day or night. I can just put in my headphones and get engrossed in the latest novel. I've always been a keen reader and services like this mean that even though my eyesight has deteriorated, I can still read as much as I like.”

Kevin Beesting, Leeds

Find out more

Download our anniversary brochure:

To borrow any of the authors or books above, or to browse our range of more than 23,000 Talking Books, visit our library catalogue online.

If you’re not already a member, you can find out more, sign up or get a free trial or sample – just visit our Talking Books pages online, call our Helpline on 0303 123 9999 or email helpline@rnib.org.uk.