Can’t bear to read Spare? Then listen to Prince Harry’s 15-hour audiobook instead
The opening of the audiobook of Prince Harry’s Spare strikes a self-effacing note. “Penguin Random House Audio presents Spare, by Prince Harry, read by me, the author.” There’s just the slightest pause and then a raised intonation before Harry says “me”, as if he’s almost surprised that the task of narrating his own life story has fallen to him, and hasn’t been taken on by some A-list actor – such as his friend George Clooney, perhaps.
Yet it would be unthinkable that a book as deeply personal, and keenly anticipated, as Spare would not be read by Prince Harry, even his authorial claims are faintly dubious: his ghostwriter is the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer JR Moehringer, whose own memoir, The Tender Bar, was filmed by Clooney, and starred Ben Affleck. If there’s one thing we know about the Duke of Sussex, it’s that he keeps starry company.
The tone that he adopts in his narration, from the outset, can be described as a kind of wistful regret, as if he was musing on what might have been if he had not estranged himself – or, as he would say, been forcibly estranged – from the Royal Family. Given that a great deal of Spare strikes an almost elegiac tone, especially when he is discussing his mother, this is well judged and shows Harry’s skill at modulating his expressive voice to create an emotional effect.
Some readers who may not have expected to be moved will find themselves blinking back tears, not only at his heartrending description of finding out about his mother’s death and the aftermath, but also at the deliberately understated fashion in which her son narrates the events. It’s a fine example of how less can be more.
At other times, however, the restraint that he demonstrates seems almost too much. In the already notorious detail in the 33rd chapter – there are a vast number of bite-sized chapters, well over two hundred in total, making this perfect for dipping into – about his losing his virginity to an older woman in a field behind a pub, he adopts the same vocal expression, expressing gentle remorse at the absurdity of his actions as a younger man.
Which would be fine, were the text not the near-farcical “She liked horses, quite a lot, and treated me not unlike a young stallion. Quick ride, after which she’d smacked my rump and sent me off to graze.” At moments like this, one wishes that Harry’s vocal coach had taken him aside, and quietly said “Your highness, this is supposed to be lightly amusing, yet you’re making it sound like it’s some under-explored childhood trauma.” Then again, of course, maybe it is.
It helps that Harry has extensive previous experience of narration, having lent his voice from anything to a 2021 World Aids Day short film to an Earth Day video about protected national parks in Africa. And, appropriately enough, his descriptions of his time in Africa are some of the most vivid and lively in the recording, whether he’s following in his mother’s footstep by visiting Angola – the place that he calls “Mummy’s most passionate cause at the end” – or when he’s on safari in the early days of his relationship with Meghan Markle (who is referred to here as “Meg”, and spoken about with a tenderness that does him credit for his uxoriousness, whatever you might think of her).
He shows a welcome affinity for accents and imitations (his Prince Philip is fun) and pronounces often obscure place names with the calm assurance of a long-standing professional. Should he wish to take up a career in narrating wildlife documentaries, this is a peerless show reel for such an opportunity.
The times that he sounds most passionate and angry refer less to his much-documented difficulties with his family, and more when he is talking about his increasingly bloody battles with the media. An especially memorable moment comes early on when he denigrates Rebekah Brooks, who was said to be looking for dirt on him as a teenager when she edited The News of the World, as a “loathsome toad” and “an infected pustule on the arse of humanity”; try as he might, he cannot keep the contempt and ferocity out of his voice.
The third section of the audiobook, Captain of my Soul, is both the most sentimental, in its focus on his relationship with Meghan, but also the most gripping, as he shifts from the sighing wistfulness of earlier to a new, more urgent tone, as if he is narrating a cross between an exposé of deceitful media practices and a page-turning spy thriller.
Lines such as “they shot us close to the theatre, from a moving vehicle, through a bus stop” bristle with rage, especially as he describes two particularly opportunistic paparazzi as “Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dumber”. He may be unable to keep the passion from his voice, but it’s a welcome shift in tone, making the more gushing excesses of his descriptions of his courtship far more palatable.
The overall impression that one has when finishing the Duke’s narration of Spare – all 15-odd hours of it – is that he seems a more likeable and accessible figure, like the irreverent Prince Harry of old, than he has presented himself in Netflix documentaries and high-profile televised interviews. While it might seem an easier task to read out a book that you have written (or, at least, had written for you) than to respond to an interviewer’s questions, this is anything but the case if it’s done well. Lines that seem stark on the page are given warmth and humanity; he can pat himself on the back with satisfaction at a difficult job done extremely well, whatever listeners make of the content of the book itself.
Helen Lloyd, who specialises in coaching audiobook narrators, suggests that the advice that she would have given Harry is simple. “Don’t perform it – don’t over egg it, and don’t over dramatise it. Just tell the story, in your voice, to a person, not as if you’re addressing a crowd doing an after-dinner speech.”
He certainly seems to have absorbed this, but, as Lloyd says, he is fortunate in that he has a natural aptitude for this kind of narration. “Prince Harry has a great voice – a really attractive, not too posh, relatable, slightly husky tone. And he gives speeches all over the world, and so is aware of his own voice, in a way that many writers are not, necessarily, even if they’re writing autobiographies.”
Although we speak before Lloyd has had a chance to listen to Harry’s narration of Spare, she is an informed guide to the challenges he would have faced. “The major issue is consistency. The average book is around 10 hours, and a totally fluent reader, who can read without hesitation, will need at least two hours for every finished hour, so that’s a huge commitment for time, energy and concentration. It’ll be recorded over three days, at least, and it needs to sound identical day, after day, hour, after hour, and that is really difficult to achieve. Harry, I imagine, had oodles of support and time, and he may well have taken considerably longer.”
She’s correct. The book’s credits list no fewer than 13 people who have worked on this recording, making it clear that this is a serious, high-profile and big-budget endeavour, as well, as – potentially – an audition piece for Harry’s next career as a voiceover artist. The results speak for themselves, even if Lloyd notes that he would have faced another challenge: “Hydration! You have to drink gallons of water while recording a book.”
It’s an amusing image; Harry, working himself up into an emotional crescendo as he describes some wrong being done to him and his family, and having to break off as some assistant brings him a bottle of mineral water. But it humanises him, as does his capable, assured reading of the audiobook.