Anyone who saw the film of Babe (aka, The Sheep-Pig by Dick King-Smith) will cherish its essential good nature and whimsical fun in the story of a pig who learns to herd sheep.
Cover-to-Cover has relaunched its smashing version, read by Stephen Thorne (110 minutes Pounds 7.99). Like all Cover to Cover's audiotapes, this one is the whole text and nothing but the text, slightly to the dismay of some young listeners who might want to track down such filmic heroes as Monty the Brooklyn duck or Rex the ageing and irritable collie-dog dad.
For adult hearers, the memory of the film is a useful reminder of how heavily Dick King-Smith's anthropomorphism is based in animal reality compared to the Hollywood slapstick which enlivened the film of Babe. Stephen Thorne's voices are nicely judged to give a good range of character, from the not-so-stupid sheep to the very stupid farmer's wife or from the laconic farmer to the brisk mother collie Fly, while still staying well within the parameters of the cosy. Enjoyed by all ages from six to 16.
Far from cosy are two horror tapes aimed at the 11 to 14 age group. Trick or Treat is from the Point Horror stable (two hours, Scholastic Pounds 6.99) and has the usual Point Horror combo of inane social detail and creaking Gothic special effects. Thus our heroine meets the dishy local boy in the hardware store and chats him up over a pot of paint. Strangely enough, it is his cousin who reveals that the house Martha and her stepfamily have moved into is (Oh! No!) the house where Something Dreadful has happened. When Martha finds out that the creative writing teacher is the dishy boy's cousin, The Plot Thickens - or curdles, perhaps, so predictable is this kind of clockwork horror.
Nevertheless, sub-teenies seem to love such cut-out characters suffering such improbable disasters: perhaps it jibes with their developing sense of a world filled with random catastrophe and heavy with the atmosphere of sex (there are lots of meaningful interchanges between members of the opposite gender).
A slightly classier horror tape comes from Collins. The Woven Path by Robin Jarvis is the first in the Wyrd Museum trilogy. The Wyrd Museum is one of those simple ideas which can be indefinitely exploited. Enter it (at your peril, naturally) and you can be dragged back in time (or forwards for that matter) to confront an evil force and rescue a doomed victim from a deserted bomb site. With prose like this: "With a clap of thunder the flaming coils gaped wide and Neil was shooting into absolute blackness", who needs any other plot device?
For wallowing in emotion and relishing words, you can't beat poetry, when all is said and done. A delightful compilation from Naxos Books, The Pied Piper of Hamelin and Other Poems (118 minutes, Pounds 7.99) is aimed at a similar age-group to the horror tapes (8 to 13) but is far more varied and enjoyable. Read by Anton Lesser, Anne Harvey and Katinka Wolf, the poems range from ballads and ballad-imitations such as "The Pied Piper" and "Sir Patrick Spens" to nonsense poems like "The Jumblies", classics like Masefield's "Cargoes" and Shakespeare's "When Icicles Hang by the Wall" and lyrics like Monro's "Overheard on a Saltmarsh" and Clare's "Little Trotty Wagtail". The selection, by Jan Fielden and John Mole, is fine; the reading accomplished. Only one caveat: accents should only be assumed if perfected. The American on "Big Rock Candy Mountain" and the Scottish on "Sir Patrick Spens" make a botch of both sense and rhyme and would be better abandoned. On the whole, though, a spine-tingling feast of words which knocks cardboard horror into a witches' hat.