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To read, or not to read

From 'Hard Times' to 'Hamlet', a growing range of literary texts is being recorded by distinguished actors on to audio cassette. Betty Tadman reports. When Ingrid Dover takes an English class using just books at Parliament Hill School, north London, the cry goes up: "Aren't we going to listen to a cassette?". Reading classic novels and plays to the accompaniment of the BBC's dramatised versions is a pleasure they have become used to, and is in Ms Dover's view a considerable help for GCSE.

Pupils at Thomas Scrumpeter School in Scunthorpe are loaned cassettes so that their parents can help with their literary analyses. Students at Colchester Sixth Form College have just finished studying Emma with the aid of Prunella Scales's reading. Jo Cadman, their tutor, says they didn't all agree with Scales's interpretation, but the tapes did allow them to clarify their thoughts about how the characters should sound.

Diana Young, of Bradford on Avon, who is doing an Open University arts foundation course and for whom time is at a premium, takes taped set books on every car journey she makes.

Chris Bodycombe, inspector for special needs in Islington, finds cassettes invaluable. His staff use them for pupils whose sight is impaired and for those with dyslexia, or for whom English is a second language. "Many of these students can speak the language before they can read it, so tapes are the only way they have access to literature. Many of them are thrilled by the experience."

There is an increasingly happy congruence between the texts set by the examination boards, and the audio-books now being published. The 1995 syllabuses are dominated by Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights, David Copperfield, Hard Times, Jane Eyre and Far From the Madding Crowd. Close runners-up are Pride and Prejudice and Emma. All these books have now been brought to life on tape.

Cover to Cover is the quality leader in unabridged classics. It offers a superlative reading of Oliver Twist by Miriam Margolyes, and has a splendid Great Expectations in which the incomparable Martin Jarvis brings all his skills to bear. This publisher's Wuthering Heights has a convincing reader in Patricia Routledge, whose northern voice is excellent, and whose acting talent ranges with ease over the huge spread of characters. Steven Thorne, meanwhile, reads Far From the Madding Crowd and Hard Times to perfection.

Cover to Cover cassettes are expensive, but the cost should be set against their listening time, which can be up to 38 hours. It also offers Jane Eyre, in a sensitive reading by the versatile actress Maureen O'Brien, as well as all six Jane Austen novels.

Sometimes an abridgement of a classic can be a good introduction to the full text. Penguin offers excellent filleted readings of both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, both done by Juliet Stevenson, who can sound convincingly manly and feminine by turns. Penguin also offers Michael Pennington's expert rendition of Hard Times (two cassettes Pounds 7.99), and John Wells's amusing Martin Chuzzlewit (four cassettes, Pounds 9.99). Hodder, meanwhile, offers Martin Chuzzlewit by Martin Jarvis (Pounds 7.99).

Penguin, whose cassettes are ideal for GCSE, have had the good sense to issue a booklet designed to help teachers explore the potential of this medium. A really skilled actor can sometimes bring out elements which the casual (silent) reader might otherwise miss. And the ability to re-run the tape after discussion can be a powerful tool in the hands of a good teacher.

The most ubiquitous Shakespeare plays on next year's syllabuses are Macbeth, Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet.

Random House offers Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Company in splendid form, doing Hamlet, Lear and Romeo and Juliet (at Pounds 16.99 each). HarperCollins now publishes tapes of 20 Shakespeare plays, all with distinguished casts (Pounds 8.99 for two tapes, Pounds 15.99 for four), as well as several Bront dramatisations. These latter are good value, despite their inevitable limitations.

Cover to Cover Cassettes, tel: 0264 731227. Catalogue available from Freepost, Marlborough, Wilts. Some of their audiobooks are stocked by WH Smith and Dillons. Most local libraries stock a selection of literary tapes, and the Talking Book Club (071-731 6262) is an excellent way of keeping up to date with what is coming out

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