As a young child, Karl Wells was fascinated with the human voice. He remembers sitting next to his family’s old-fashioned hi-fi, placing his ear against the speaker while the radio was on, and listening to “Art Baker’s Notebook.”
Though at age four, Wells didn’t know what Baker was talking about, he’d sit and listen to his voice.
“There were a few other broadcasters that had that effect on me. Don Jamieson was another one,” Wells recalls, smiling. “It’s kind of funny because when I was doing the weather, years later, a lot of parents would come up to me and say, ‘I don’t know what it is about the sound of your voice, but whenever my kid hears it, they have to go to the TV.’”
When he was a teenager, Wells started working at VOWR, not only as an announcer but recording his own shows. Each year he’d do a special for Christmas, and the year he was 18, he chose Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” acting out all the voices.
“I still have the recording, though I’d never let anyone listen to it,” Wells says, laughing.
At university, Wells became interested in stage actors and eventually applied to the CBC, on the encouragement of a friend, as a voice actor for radio plays.
He was hired, acting in dozens of plays, and went on to develop his own radio characters.
There was Pottle of the Constabulary, a police officer, with a dog named T. Alex (called after then-justice minister T. Alex Hickman); The Honourable Member, an MHA from around the bay who wrote home to his mother every week with the goings-on in the House of Assembly; and St. John’s Mayor John Murphy — so convincing, the CBC had to later add in a mention that the character was being played by Wells and wasn’t the real mayor.
When CBC started doing yearly readings of “A Christmas Carol” at Gower Street Church with Cantus Vocum Chamber Choir as a fundraiser for the Community Food Sharing Association, Wells was one of the five network personalities who took part. He always read the same scene, near the end, when Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future and sees life after his death.
“You see his recollection and you get the happy ending,” Wells explains. “It’s also the part that has some of the best lines and best material for the actor. There’s one scene, for example, where you’ve got all these people talking together. His chambermaid has brought in his jewelry and I get to do all the different voices. People really liked it.”
Once Wells retired from the CBC in 2007 and Cantus Vocum was replaced in the readings with a different choir, they continued their yearly “A Christmas Carol” events at Wesley United Church, raising funds for the local Salvation Army.
Every year, audience members have told Wells he should release a CD of his readings. Though he took it as a compliment, he never gave it much thought until Cantus Vocum director Chad Stride brought sound engineer Ted Marshall down from Toronto to work on a project.
“Chad said to me, ‘We’re not going to be using him in the morning, so if you want that time to do the recording, just a master copy so you’ll have it, that time is yours,” Wells says.
Wells got serious about the idea of putting out a CD, and spent six weeks rehearsing the 70-minute reading, narrating and acting more than a dozen different voice roles, including Scrooge, Marley, Tiny Tim, even women’s lines.
The last scenes are still his favourite, and he reads them passionately, in a range of different British accents, tones, even lisps. He whispers, sputters, coughs, laughs — even uses hand gestures, radio or not — in character.
Once the recording was done, Wells sent it to his friend, British actor David Neilson, who plays Roy Cropper on “Coronation Street,” for critique, asking him not to hold back or spare his feelings.
Neilson loved the reading, but felt it needed breaking up a bit, perhaps with sound effects, which Wells added, with Marshall’s help.
When it came to the CD artwork, Wells had an idea of the qualities he wanted it to have, but didn’t know how to go about achieving it.
After taking some test photos of himself as Scrooge and turning them down, he came across the portfolio of Alberta illustrator Darcy Muenchrath and felt right away he was the artist he wanted.
“This guy has done illustrations for Harper’s magazine and the Wall Street Journal,” Wells says. “I thought he was going to say yes right away, but he said, ‘I want to hear it first.’ You know what? I knew then he definitely was the guy, because he doesn’t want to have his work associated with a product he can’t recommend. I sent him a recording and he got back to me after a while and said, ‘I want to do it because I think this is going to be a good marriage of two art forms.’”
The result is a pen and ink and digital piece of Wells as Scrooge — not an exact depiction of Wells, but enough for people to take a second look, wondering.
Wells is hoping his CD will appeal to a wide range of people, from children to adults, and — like himself — lovers of Christmas, ghosts, literature and the Dickensian era.
“That era has always fascinated me, and I’ve also always had a love of ghost stories,” he explains. “It’s also the story: the fact that (Scrooge) was so mean and awful and miserly and just refused to thaw, and to see the development of the story, where you find out what he was like as a child and how he loved and how he was treated by his own father. He falls in love and despite that, he can’t embrace the kind of life that she wants and is still married to business. Then, of course, he changes, and that’s what makes the story so great. He begins to soften and sees things differently.”
The majority of the profits from Wells’ CD, which also includes Cantus Vocum performing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” will go to the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The CD is available at various locations around
St. John’s, including Fred’s Record, O’Brien’s Music Store, Coffee Matters, Living Rooms, The Rooms, Downhome and Pipers.
Karl Wells as Charles Dickens. — Photo by Tara Bradbury/The Telegram