Got the case taped up

29th December 2000 at 00:00
Harry Potter's taken care of Boxing Day, but what are you going to delve into for the rest of the holidays? Betty Tadman and Victoria Neumark press Play.

Forget the Three Tenors: consider the Three Actors, reflected at their brilliant peak in a humble audiobook entitled The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. John Gielgud as Holmes, Ralph Richardson as Dr Watson, and Orson Welles as Professor Moriarty: teams don't come dreamier than this, but the occasion was a radio programme in the Fifties, when such titans were still routinely on call.

The story itself ends with Doyle's notorious killing-off of his creation - later to be resuscitated in response to public demand - and in this dramatisation one can sense the reason for the author's irrational jealousy. Supported by Richardson's admiration, and opposed by Welles's sinister velvet tones, Gielgud conveys a Holmes of Olympian intelligence and authority.

This audiobook comes as part of a double package called The Gielgud Collection (Hodder pound;8.99), in which the balancing cassette celebrates the magnificent span of Gielgud's work over 70 years. Here he is, mellifluously declaiming "This Sceptr'd Isle" and reciting Longfellow's "Hiawatha" - and in the process making an important literary point. Longfellow may now be regarded as hopelessly mannered, but Gielgud beautifully brings out the passionate metrical virtuosity which earned "Hiawatha" its original acclaim.

We are also reminded of Gielgud's delightful comic gifts in Edward Lear's nonsense verses, as well as the absurdist fantasy which often underlay them. And in Dickens's Christmas Carol he relishes the sepulchral words of the ghosts, as they issue dire warnings as to what will befall Scrooge unless he makes amends. When these are finally made, Gielgud's tone takes on a wonderfully convivial warmth: enjoy his "there never was such a goose" when the feathered phenomenon is brought to the table.

Derek Jacobi is our narrator in David Timson's The History of Theatre (Naxos pound;11.99), and this latter-day theatrical light acquits himself well with the aid of nine other actors. The method is impressionistic, starting with brief snatches of famous speeches and then settling into a steady trot through two and a half millennia. Things start with the origin of theatre in Athens where tragic legends were conscripted for festivals which were then spiced with performers' competitions, judged by the audience. The flavour of such events is well conveyed: no scenery; no female actors; all the main parts taken by three men wearing masks (no wonder Aristophanes' sex comedies went down so well).

Enter next the Romans, who preferred combat to literary creation and consequently threw up few playwrights. Then came the even more barbarous Dark Ages, where Mystery Plays were the theatrical peak. Afterthis, light flooded back with Italian commedia dell'arte, with its improvisatory style and women actors - cue Moli re and Goldoni.

Under James I, plots in Britain became bloodier, and the first indoor theatre with seating was built, to fall victim to Cromwell's closures in the Commonwealth. Cue, then, the return of Charles II, a fanatical playgoer who reopened the theatres, encouraged raunchiness and put women at last upon stage.

On then to the 19th century, with real horses and real trains on stage, sometimes colliding melodramatically. Then into tortured territory with Ibsen and Chekhov, then out into the sun again with Wilde and Shaw, before diving into the undergrowth with Beckett, and out yet again with Orton. It makes a great story, through which Jacobi steers us with genial aplomb.

Naxos draws again on its talented team of actors for The Decameron (four cassettes pound;13.99). Terror gripped the city of Florence in 1348 when 100,000 people perished of the plague: Boccaccio starts his work with the escape to the country of 10 privileged young Florentines. This audiobook offers 16 of the bawdy, socially pertinent tales they told to pass the time.

Hercule Poirot's Christmas (BBC Radio Collection pound;9.99) is one of Radio 4's full-cast dramatisations, and at the same time a brain-teaser which could become a New Year's Eve party game. We know Poirot will solve the mystery, but can we?

Tyrannical millionaire Simeon Lee calls his family together for Christmas Eve. As they sit wondering what his intentions are they hear crashing sounds. They rush to investigate, but as the door is locked they have to break in. To their horror they find the patriarch lying in a pool of blood, his throat cut. But with the only door locked and the window screwed tight, how did the murderer come and go? And who is he or she? There are many suspects, so Superintendent Sugden calls in Poirot. Stop the tape before the conclusion: pit your grey cells against those of the master-sleuth.

If a three-pipe problem is more in your line, Sherlock Holmes fans are in for a bonanza this Christmas, with three new boxed sets competing under the title The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, besides Gielgud's.

Penguin's triple (pound;8.99) is read by the incomparable Douglas Wilmer, who once memorably played the proto-sleuth in a television film. Meanwhile CSA Telltapes' reader (two cassettes pound;8.99) is Edward Hardwycke, who played Dr Watson opposite Jeremy Brett's Holmes in the classic Granada series. Naxos (pound;9.99 three cassettes) uses the versatile David Timson in the central role. All first-rate, and whichever you choose, perfect material to combat the winter winds, with Dr Watson recounting his hero's exploits before the same cosy Baker Street fire visited by Gielgud and Richardson. Enjoy.

Betty Tadman


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