A Bard day's night

21st February 1997 at 00:00
Is this a dagger which I see before me, The handle toward my hand? That's surely not the Beatles which I hear in the background, Recording Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band?

Alas, poor KTel, this very collectable pairing of Beatles and Bard has been lost. And thereby hangs quite a tale - of a peer of the realm, a musician and an actress.

In the early 1960s the three got together to lay down some Shakespeare for our American cousins. Each play had to fit on an LP so Hamlet, Macbeth et al, each had to be cut to an hour. Lord Aberdare, now a deputy speaker in the House of Lords, bravely wielded the dagger while actress Fiona Bentley and Cyril Ornadel, orchestra leader at the London Palladium, sorted out the directors, who sorted out the actors.

And what actors they were. Ralph Richardson played Iago to John Gielgud's Othello. Peter Finch as Antony fell for Vivien Leigh, a poignant Cleopatra despite sounding more Home Counties than Nile Delta. Maggie Smith piped up as a youthful Viola in Twelfth Night and again as Rosalind in As You Like It. Peter O'Toole, Edith Evans, Vanessa and Michael Redgrave, Stanley Holloway . . . the cast lists read like a roll call of the great and good of British acting.

One American almost made it on to the list. Lord Aberdare, now in his 70s, recalls a pub lunch with Richard Burton to discuss his role as Henry V. A friend of Burton's turned up late and then begged for a part. Embarrassed, the peer said there was only one slot to fill and that character had just one line. The friend accepted, and Aberdare believes to this day, that if it hadn't been for a twisted ankle caused by a slip on the stairs of the Dorchester Hotel, Elizabeth Taylor would have been his Queen of France.

In all, 26 plays were recorded. They sold well in the US, recalls Aberdare, but not more than a few hundred copies over here. Eventually they disappeared, doomed, it seemed, to a dusty end. Their saviour was Alan Jones, director of Chelmsford-based SoundFX, who heard of their existence while visiting Stratford-upon-Avon.

His company re-released 12 of the plays on audio tape late last year and plans to have the remaining 14 out this year. The sound quality is not perfect. Alan Jones says they started to clean up the recordings but were losing too much of the atmosphere and decided to live with the occasional scratch.

All the recordings were made at London's Abbey Road studio. Alan Jones says he was told that while one of the plays was being recorded a certain four-man band was rehearsing in the room next door and that the sound-proofing was a little leaky.

The plays are, of course, drastically abridged and no one, certainly not this reviewer, would ever admit that he or she would rather the shrew was tamed in 50 minutes than two hours 50 minutes. That said, they offer an excellent way into Shakespeare and Lord Aberdare himself used them with his own children. Alan Jones, however, believes that the time has come for this slimmed-down Shakespeare. Teenagers cannot find the time to do their homework let alone listen to three hours of the Bard, he says, adding that the tapes contain all the main speeches - everything that any GCSE student would be questioned on. All that has gone, says Alan Jones, is, "well, I wouldn't call it padding, but you know what I mean". Well, yes, I do.

The 12 plays available from the Living Shakespeare Collection are King Lear, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet, Othello, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, All's Well That Ends Well, Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest.Price, excluding p and p, is Pounds 5.99 each or Pounds 59.99 for the 12. From SoundFX, PO Box 3246, Chelmsford CM2 6QY. Freephone: 0800 435 067.

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