Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett (audio drama)

So, one of the many reasons I haven’t been reading much lately is a bizarre obsession with the ongoing 2018 World Cup. Clearly realising this is a sickness afflicting many of us, Audible hatched a plan to lure us back into reading with a fantastic new audio drama about football*. Unseen Academicals is a fully-voiced, music and sound effects-laden extravaganza telling the story of how football came to Discworld. And it absolutely hits it out of the park.

In this audio drama, the wizards of Unseen University are forced to play a game of football (“Gown” vs “Town”), in an obscure tradition that must be kept up to ensure continued funding from a wealthy family. However, the current version of the game is close to what we know as “mob football”, that is, extremely violent, anything goes, just get the ball to the other side of town. Broken limbs and shops are the best bit. Both the wizards and the city’s ruler/tyrant, Lord Vetinari, are understandably keen to tame the whole thing** and thus something closer to our version of the Beautiful Game is born.

Helping the wizards are our heroes, four young people who work as uni staff. Trev (candle dribbler) is the son of the most famous footballer in the city, but vowed to his dying mother never to play. Mr Nutt (apprentice candle dribbler) is very polite, well-educated, extremely strong, and… not fully sure what species he is. Glenda (head cook) is the cunning and crafty baker of the best pies on the Disc. Juliet (kitchen maid) is a bit dim but sweet-natured, and beautiful enough to make goddesses weep with envy. The four of them work together to save their workplace, while also following their own personal dreams. As this is a Terry Pratchett book, they’re all ridiculous, lovable, and, no matter how weird they get, painfully realistic.

The best thing about the audio drama is… that it’s an audio drama. The sound effects and music give the whole thing a slightly surreal and cheesy vibe that just strengthens the hilarious ridiculousness of the plot. I was laughing out loud within the first few minutes, when the background noise set to the description of football was a full-on battlefield. Like, with people screaming and swords/daggers clanging against each other. The actors are also fantastic and I adored every single performance. I think my favourite was maybe Trev, who nailed the “I didn’t do nothing!!” demeanor and cracked me up every single time. (Special shout-out also goes to minor character Pepe, the fashion designer of dwarven micro-mail.) Honestly, a good bit of creativity went into the making of Unseen Academicals. For one, I’m now craving a full 90-minute recording of some Discworld-style football commentary.

But that brings us to the worst thing about the audio drama — it’s a short audio drama. The audiobook is over 12 hours, the radio drama is four and a half. This naturally requires cutting out not only the majority of Pratchett’s wonderful prose, but also simplifying most of the storylines and characters. Mostly, this was done pretty smoothly and the result remains entertaining and engaging. But a few jokes and character development moments did land a tad awkwardly because the set-up time was just not long enough. Audible is also selling it at the price of a normal audiobook, and while it was absolutely worth it for me, I can see that putting people off. I will say that I listen to most audiobooks at minimum 1.5x speed, but this one sounded best at around regular speed, so it’s a bit more content than you might think.

Finally, I think it’s important to answer what level of fan you have to be to enjoy the audio drama***. If this is your first encounter with Discworld, I don’t think it’ll be the best introduction. There’s a good deal of characters and names to keep track of, and introductions to minor characters and the world itself are quick. If you’ve read several Discworld books before, but not this one, it should be fine. Bonus if you’ve read some books set in Ankh-Morpork; Vimes in particular gets a small but juicy role. And if you, like me, are a die-hard Discworld fan, unless you get very frustrated with any changes to the original, I think you’ll definitely get a kick out of Unseen Academicals. At the very least, it’s certainly a good way to tide you over ’till Quarter Finals this Friday.

* The soccer kind, for all uncertain Americans.
** A bit, it’s still football!
*** Level of Discworld fan, that is. In terms of football knowledge, the minimum should be that it’s played with feet. The clue is in the name.

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