Gifts from the gods

4th December 1998 at 00:00
DIANA: A Dedication in Seven Ages. Double cassette and CD. Naxos Audiobooks Pounds 8.99, Pounds 10.99.

THE BEST POETRY ALBUM IN THE WORLD I EVER!. Double cassette. ABM Pounds 6.99.

TALES FROM OVID. Double cassette. Faber Penguin Pounds 8.99.

Janette Wolf auditions famous actors tackling classic poems, but finds that there's no one quite like the poet himself

Every year, record companies tie themselves in knots in search of a Christmas No 1, gambling on the premise that by mid-December we will all take leave of our senses and listen seraphically to absolute rubbish. To our great shame they appear to be right, as St Winifred's School Choir and Mr Blobby have proved.

So what is the alternative? You would be well advised to prepare for one, as a successor to "There's No One Quite Like Grandma" is doubtless waiting in the wings. In the Eighties, Band Aid provided us with a refreshing change from the aural nightmare before Christmas when its earnest collection of altruistic pop celebs singing their socks off for charity started a trend. Stars of stage and screen have now followed suit with Diana: A Dedication in Seven Ages, an anthology of poetry in aid of the obligatory good cause (Princess of Wales's Memorial Fund). It is read by everybody who is anybody in the acting fraternity - Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench among them - and recently won a Talkies award.

The seven ages correspond to those described by Shakespeare in As You Like It - infant, school, lover, soldier, wisdom, sixth age and last scene - and cover a broad spectrum of verse, from well known to esoteric. Star turns include John Cleese, who spits out "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat" with the same tired animosity that he used on Sybil in Fawlty Towers. And Connie Booth has the sort of voice that impels you to curl up in a chair and listen, in this case to "The Quangle Wangle's Hat".

Best of all, though, is Michael Caine, who has just the right amount of benevolent menace for Rudyard Kipling's "Smuggler's Song". And with "If" - a risky choice because it often sounds so cliched - he brings a lump to the throat.

The most compelling readers turn out to be those with regional accents, or something more mysterious - like Art Malik, whose voice has an indefinable something that has you reaching for the rewind button.

The Best Poetry Album in the World I Ever! also offers famous actors, famous poems and proceeds to charity, and there are several duplications, including "If" and "Dulce et Decorum Est". Its big guns include Imelda Staunton, Brian Blessed and Jeremy Irons, who is more than a little wasted on Wordsworth's "Daffodils".

The problem is that many of the thesps sound in a hurry to get back to their dressing rooms. In Dale Winton's "Kubla Khan", for instance, Alph the sacred river doesn't so much run as hurl itself towards the sunless sea. Hugh Grant has a respectable crack at "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?", and Greg Wise raises the temperature with a breathy "She Walks in Beauty", but otherwise the best poetry in the world claim seems misplaced.

A genuine contender for that title - and a far better Christmas No 1 than the one we will undoubtedly get - is the enchanting Tales from Ovid by the late Ted Hughes.

These magical episodes, drawn from Ovid's Metamorphoses, are read by Hughes himself. Classical tales of lust, vengeance and duplicity, in which heroes are hard to come by and gods are generally to be avoided at all costs, they will banish Christmas ennui.

Hughes's voice is slow and measured, deep and sensual - perfect for all those furtive grapplings in the olive groves. Unlike the previous two recordings, the sound quality and acoustics are perfect, every syllable and inflection as clear as a bell. Hughes had such a profound appreciation for his craft that the luvvies seem, well, rather am-dram by comparison.

Knock back an ambrosial egg-nog and be transported beyond the reach of RADA and St Wini-fred's, to Olympus and beyond.

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