A year ago, upon finishing a listen to the authorized Winnie-the-Pooh sequel, Return to the Hundred-Acre Wood, I mused about listening to the original books at some later date. Alas, when I sought these out in our catalog a few weeks ago, I selected the wrong one. (I blame Stephen Fry ... and poor cataloguing, or -- now that I examine the cover more carefully, publisher information designed perhaps to mislead.) Because this 1997 recording of The Collected Stories of Winnie-the-Pooh is only unabridged in the sense that the adaptation by none other than the author of the aforementioned Pooh sequel, David Benedictus, is -- in fact -- not abridged. It is, however, not a full-cast reading of the books by A.A. Milne. It is [shudder] a dramatization.
It is not a bad dramatization of the charming children's stories about Christopher Robin and his loyal animal friends, whose characters remain so memorable more than 80 years later. I have forgotten much of the Pooh stories, but those I remember are still vivid in my mind, so revisiting them was a treat. Still, my adult audiobook listening mind is convinced that I missed something in listening to this. (At the same time, I wasn't willing to listen to this dramatization while holding the book in my hand to make myself feel better.) Since unabridged full-cast audiobooks are not unusual, one wonders why these stories were adapted in this way. In 1997, though, maybe dramatization was the way to go. (This version that I listened to was reissued last year, by a different publisher.)
The cast of readers is mostly wonderful. I'll list them here:
Winnie-the-Pooh: Stephen Fry
Piglet: Jane Horrocks
Eeyore: Geoffrey Palmer
Kanga: Judi Dench (who also narrates)
Owl: Michael Williams [the late Mr. Dench] (who also narrates)
Rabbit: Robert Daws
Tigger: Sandi Toksvig
Roo: Finty Williams [offspring of Dench and Williams, and the only one of this cast that I've actually heard read a book]
Christopher Robin: Steven Webb
[A short pause for a TMZ moment: Stephen Fry and Steven Webb are now an item.]
While Dench and Williams lend the right tone of nurturing, calm narration that's also reflected in their character voices, the standout for me in this cast is Jane Horrocks. Wikipedia tells me she was born in Lancashire in England, so I'm going to assume that her distinctive pronunciation (which I lack language to describe for you, so I'm directing you to "North-West" here) is due to this regional accent. On top of these refreshing sounds, she adds a husky squeakiness that brings Piglet endearingly to life. When Piglet is hanging on for dear life in Owl's upside-down house and then bravely overcomes his fear to climb up that string, well I felt as proud and triumphant as Piglet does.
I also enjoyed Geoffrey Palmer (while I had the picture of Geoffrey Rush in my head the whole time) who captures both Eeyore's depression and his sense of superiority. Robert Daws as Rabbit is appropriately bossy and stressed by all his Friends and Relations. I also like Steven Webb's youthful line readings and confident air as the friend of that silly old bear.
However, this dramatization falls apart in the hands of Stephen Fry, whose bored and supercilious Jeeves-like speech just does not fit with the shy, relatively clueless Winnie-the-Pooh. I like Stephen Fry, he's immensely funny and full of sly wit, but I'm not entirely convinced there's a heart in his chest. Whereas poor Pooh is all heart. On top of this, Fry reads Pooh's many hums/poems (channeling Rex Harrison?) with a slight bit of rhythm that matches the sprightly music that accompanies each one. He doesn't attempt to sing them at all, a real disappointment. A natural question: Why was this man hired if he cannot sing?
Each story begins with a cheerful musical introduction, music that is occasionally reprised in Pooh's hums. The music is original and composed by John Gould. It seems that David Benedictus has a history with Pooh, one that began before last year's unfortunate sequel, so I guess I can cut him a little more slack.
The Collected Stories of Winnie-the-Pooh (Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner) by A.A. Milne, adapted by David Benedictus
Narrated by a full cast
Hodder Children's Audio, 1997 (reissued by Listening Library, 2009). 4:28 (dramatization)