A trip down memory lane when films were condensed into twenty-minute audio plays for kids!
Before I realised I was a film nerd, when I was around eight or nine, there was only a limited number of ways I could discover about new films.
I very rarely went to the cinema at that point and as a family, we never used to rent videos either. My main source of information came from comics and books.
One particular type of book was the read-a-long format. This is when a book came with a form of media that reads the book out loud. Originally this was in the form of vinyl records but as time went by, this changed to the compact cassette.
As the cassette was so cheap to manufacture, it meant that costs were low and could be mass produced in their thousands.
I remember owning several of these types of books and you’ve guessed it, they were all based on my favourite films or at least ones I desperately wanted to see at the time.
Back in those days, it was usually a long wait until the film finally received its terrestrial transmission on UK television. Usually, this would happen around Christmas time.
Every year I would eagerly await the double issue of both the Radio Times and TV Times, television listings magazines, and scan through them to discover which big films were being shown on Christmas Day.
Sorry, I’ve strayed off track.
This was my first personal stereo that I used to listen to these stories. A Saisho PS11S
Read-a-long books were something I could afford with my weekly pocket money at that age, or at least it was something my parents would happily purchase for me. Every week we would go shopping for groceries and they would let me wander the aisles of toys whilst they started to pick what they needed.
Once we came home from shopping, I would stick the cassette into my Saisho Walkman and place the orange foam covered earphones over my ears with a small steel band keeping it in place.
Pressing play on the tape would transport me to the world of the film I longed to see.
These weren’t just normal book readings per se but also contained music, sound effects and acting. They also came in two flavours, fully licensed and partly licensed varieties.
I can’t vouch for the many Disney cartoon titles that exist, but from my research for this article, the titles from Lucasfilm all contained original music and sound effects to enhance the listening experience.
The read-a-long version of The Goonies, for example, is narrated by Chunk himself, actor Jeff Cohen. The Star Wars books contain an introduction by Anthony Daniels who plays C3-PO.
I never owned any Lucasfilm titles, maybe because I hadn’t seen the films they were based on when they were released. By the time I saw Star Wars via its rental VHS release, read-a-long books were gone from the shops I used to frequent.
So what were these Lucasfilm titles, obviously the original Star Wars trilogy was released as well as some extra stories based on the tales of C3-P0 and RD-D2 and the Ewoks as well. The Indiana Jones trilogy was also available in this format.
A book and tape story in its original packaging. Note the price, just £2.49!
In my personal collection, I think I ended up with around six books in total. My two favourites were Ghostbusters and Back to the Future. I also owned Airwolf: Dual Over the Pacific (an original tale based on the super helicopter television series), Top Gun, The Living Daylights and Rambo: First Blood Part 2.
Reflecting back on it now, those last two titles seem an odd choice for a children’s book. Both Rambo and James Bond are two franchises which contain violence and bloodshed. The original films have an age rating way above the children these read-a-long books were marketed at. I think the Rambo sequel was rated an 18 in the UK!
The books themselves were very thin with each one only containing twenty-four pages. In a way, you were almost listening to a narrated version of an extended synopsis.
Obviously being a children’s book they also contained pictures from the film which were usually the most common publicity stills that you would find everywhere in the media at that time.
Top Gun also contained a surprising extra. At the beginning of both sides of the tape, there were several minutes of audio from the film.
Each segment was a dogfight, all you could hear was Maverick and Goose talking to each other and the sound of the fighter jets as they screamed across your headphones.
In hindsight, I think this was used to explain as to why one of the characters decides to quit his position as a fighter pilot. Using the film’s audio was obviously quicker and more effective than the read-a-long studio trying to produce it themselves. The clip on side two of the cassette was used to again to explain another dogfight scene.
The inside of my favourite book, Back to the Future.
But this use of actual film audio looks like a rare occurrence for these range of books. Apart from the Lucasfilm and other fully licensed titles, all other books used non-copyright infringing music and sound effects to enhance the story.
I was surprised to realise that in listening to The Living Daylights again, it was British actor Martin Jarvis OBE who is reading for the part of James Bond!
The only other voice I recognised was from Back to the Future which I am sure is narrated by Brooklyn born actor Lou Hirsch who often appears on British television when an American is required. His most famous role was in the BBC comedy about a superhero called My Hero, which ran for six series.
These stories only run for a scant twenty minutes and I found it fun reliving these memories when I listened to them again for this article. I love how they pick out the films main plot points and reduce the story to such a short time.
In fact, it was my wife who sparked off this nerdy memory and we started to search YouTube to see if any of the recordings still existed. She wanted to listen to the only title she owned which was Gremlins.
There are lots of these books all over YouTube but I’ve picked out a few select ones which I owned as a child. If you don’t listen to the whole story, just revel in the opening music which always makes me smile. As previously mentioned they’re trying to capture the mood of the film without breaking any copyright infringements.
So watch these videos and listen to some sound-alike versions of Ghostbusters by Ray Parker Jnr, the infamous James Bond theme, and The Power of Love by Huey Lewis & The News from Back to the Future.
It never occurred to me that this format of storytelling still continues today except for the audio now comes on a compact disc.
Here’s is a very recent example, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.