The Elite Anthology Interview: Penelope McDonald
By Rose Thurlbeck
To co-incide with Fantasticon, we thought it would be a good idea to meet the actors you'll be hearing read the stories.
Rose Thurlbeck - Could you tell us something about yourself? We know you are an actress with many years experience, mostly in the theatre, but who is the woman we will be hearing read the stories?
Penelope McDonald - Well the fact that I am an actress says a whole lot about me in that, to stay in this business for nearly forty years without falling apart (you may love it but it often doesn’t love you back!) speaks for either a tenacious nature and a bloody-mindedness or a cock-eyed idealism and overwhelming optimism! Maybe all of those! So I am someone who believes wholeheartedly in following one’s dreams, in saying ‘yes’ to opportunities which always carry gifts of one sort or another in them, of being grateful for all the good things life brings and in not being afraid to try new and testing opportunities. I value freedom and independence, but also believe in guarding those we love, and I think life is for having fun and learning. I firmly believe there is much more than what we see day to day on our planet.
RT - Are you at home in the worlds of science fiction, or is this all new to you? Had you heard of Elite before this job came up with Fantastic Books Audio?
PM - I hadn’t heard of Elite (although I used to play Space Invaders like a good ‘un!) but I have long loved Science Fiction. I grew up in a house full of books which included those by Isaac Asimov, H G Wells, etc, and we all watched ‘Dr Who’ with our tea on a Saturday. I was an avid fan of ‘Star Trek’ (the original series) and when ‘Star Wars’ came out my middle brother and I queued all round the cinema several times as we went again and again to see it. I also loved ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ which appeared around the same time. The new ‘Dr Who’ won my heart instantly too.
RT - I won't ask you what your favourite story was, that would be unfair, but were there any moments that stood out for you - a scene perhaps, a character or piece of dialogue - that you really enjoyed reading? Have any stayed with you since?
PM - I enjoyed reading all of them – and I’m not just being tactful. I was so impressed with the ideas behind the stories, many of which turned out to be rather sad. I have retained a mixed impression of pilots dying in their craft, of zoos of strange creatures being transported through space, of elixirs of youth, of feuds to the death, of obscure planets and desperate ambitions. I particularly liked the girl who was hiding her cerebral palsy – that was very interesting. I think all the authors are extraordinary.
RT - How much preparation goes into reading a story? Do you get much time to get to know the characters, and is there much of an opportunity to add something in your performance?
PM - I didn’t have any preparation! I hadn’t actually seen any of them beforehand so it was a case of sight-reading. But Chris gave me the low-down on the characters and we talked voices/accents and he gave me an outline of the stories so I knew where they were going. You automatically enhance the performance as you go along and, with good writing, all the ‘clues’ you need are there.
RT - I know from my own experience reading Harry Potter books to my daughters that long sentences can be difficult to read aloud. Is there any advice you would give to authors whose works are likely to be acted? Are there obvious mistakes to avoid?
PM - Gosh, I don’t know. In an ideal world there is time to read them beforehand and so avoid any pitfalls. When there hasn’t been that time and there isn’t a handy Chris around there’s nothing worse than recording pages and pages of a character with one accent – say Geordie - then coming across a sentence such as ‘she said, in her soft Irish burr’. Nightmare!!! But that is not down to the authors of course. I would just say make sure your work is properly proofed before sending it for recording because mistakes really glare out when you are reading for recording and it is not in our province to correct them. This has happened to me a few times and I hate leaving them in but I can’t do anything about it.
RT - And how did Anthology author Christopher Jarvis perform as director? Was he very strict? He has that reputation...
PM - Ha ha! He’s a pussy cat. But a very astute and professional pussy cat. We had a great time working together and were able to solve any dilemmas between us in a sensible and enjoyable way which, we hope, was for the best.
RT - Did you enjoy the experience? All that tea and biscuits, the Grubbs and Milly, the new studio?
PM - The new studio is very impressive! A bit cold then (I’m nesh), but impressive! Milly is gorgeous, the Grubb – only Daniel thus far – more than affable and helpful and I eschewed the tea and biscuits because, as a vegan (not Vulcan), I took my own fruity tea bags and don’t like to nibble when recording as it makes the voice ‘claggy’!
RT - Penny McDonald, thank you very much.
You can now hear an extract from Penelope McDonald's reading of An Ode To Betty Cole, by Nicholas Hansen and Darren Grey.