Tones of endearment

23rd December 1994 at 00:00
One of the secrets of talking books is to pick the right story teller. Betty Tadman curls up with theatrical knights, explorers and film stars. We all love being told stories, and there's no better stocking-filler than a talking book. This year's delights for the very young are headed by two tales by Mick Inkpen, who both writes and illustrates. In delectable packages from Hodder you get a picture book with big fold-out pages, plus a tape with sound effects and music.

Griff Rhys-Jones reads Penguin Small, in which a little lost penguin is helped by a snowman. In Threadbear, Father Christmas cures the small brown hero's silent squeaker. Mawkish? Not at all. Joss Ackland reads Threadbear with a fatherly voice, clear yet comfortably cosy.

Random House Tellastory's format for Little Bear Lost is similar, though the fiction is less imaginative. The book is nicely illustrated, but only gives one story while the tape gives four.

Never mind: in Raymond Briggs's The Man, read with relish by Michael Palin, Tellastory presents a real winner. This tale is an imaginative tour de force which is both funny and (almost) believable. The accompanying 30-page book is packed with text and pictures, so well conceived that it will entrance adults too. For older children, Hodder offers those timeless classics The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables, both full-cast dramatisations, beautifully realised.

From Penguin comes a series of Beatrix Potter stories for very young children, The Adventures of Tom Kitten, read by Michael Hordern, Patricia Routledge and Timothy West. The old-world, nursery charm of the tales is well served by these actors. Penguin also publishes Jonathan Hyde's magnificent version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This reader, who possesses one of the most eloquent voices in British theatre, is perfect in timing and diction, changing to growling ferocity as the potion begins to work.

Also from Penguin comes DH Lawrence's autobiographical novel Sons and Lovers. Paul Copley brings out the tensions between refined mother and brutalised miner-husband with full conviction. The same publisher surprises with Barry Humphries's autobiographical More Please, in which this scholarly man charts his own progress from adored child of rich parents to Dame Edna, megastar. Young Barry's every whim was catered for: he demanded and got a tree-house with telephone, so that maids could bring him delicacies from the dining room. Gradually he became aware of the wider world, and was inspired to create his fictional gallery. He reads with an engagingly clear voice, with just the slightest trace of an Aussie accent.

Meanwhile, in Murderers and Other Friends (also Penguin), the wise and witty John Mortimer reveals how his experience as a lawyer enabled him to create Rumpole, and how his work in the theatre and film provided grist for his novels and plays.

Still in the land of autobiography, HarperCollins offers Winston Churchill's My Early Life. Torn from a loving home and thrust into a harsh prep school, he languished at the bottom of his form, finding the badly-taught Latin and Greek incomprehensible. His gift for language was ignored, yet it was this that enabled him to write with such beguiling humour of his progress from Harrow to Sandhurst. Robert Hardy's reading is vivid and forceful.

Hodder recently stumbled on a gold-mine many hours of British radio drama sold to the US in the Fifties. They are now able to bring out our three illustrious knights of the theatre, Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson, in The Best of Sherlock Holmes and Theatre Royal Performances of Dickens, Stevenson and Others, boxed sets of historic performances.

HRF Keating's The Murder of the Maharajah is among eight tales by this incomparable master published by Isis. If you fancy visiting India and living in a palace, Keating will take you there. Sheer delight, full of fascinating detail and complicated mystery: a magic carpet seems to transport one to this land of shimmering heat, preposterous wealth, and appalling squalor. Garard Green peoples it with a multitude of voices, from Maharajah to dhobi wallah, bringing the whole place to life.

A convincingly-evoked romantic murder mystery set in the Twenties, Take No Farewell by Robert Goddard, comes from HarperCollins. Superbly read by Tim Piggot-Smith, it becomes an absorbing drama.

The BBC Radio Collection offers William Hurt reading Paul Theroux's The Great Railway Bazaar. This marvellously-observant author here exercises his fascination with trains by taking too many, from London to Tokyo and back. Hurt's leisurely narrative style suits the book's variegated cast to perfection. The BBC has also quickly brought out Alan Bennett's reading of his 1980-1990 Diaries, in which he muses affectionately on social encounters, and on visits to his senile mother, whose pronouncements are at once hilarious and pathetic.

With talking books, the choice of reader is crucial, and it's cheering to see how wisely publishers mostly exercise this. For Barbara Vine's (aka Ruth Rendell's) No Night is Too Long, Penguin chose Alan Cumming, who employs an eloquently tremulous tone to fine effect in this thriller's exploration of bi-sexuality.

From Reed comes Ranulph Fiennes's Mind over Matter. Lounge in comfort by a cosy fire, gorged on turkey and Christmas pudding, while, in severe and manly tones, the explorer narrates the hair-raising account of his own perilous journey across Antarctica. For Chivers, Andrew Sachs gives a skilled rendering of A Handful of Dust, Waugh's tragic satire on upper-class shenanigans, while James Saxon exudes comic relish in his reading of Nigel Williams's hilarious The Wimbledon Poisoner.

Two other classic novels come from Cover to Cover. John Rowe gives a fine reading of Hardy's The Woodlanders, where, in a beautiful, vanished world, men struggle to survive in the face of hardship and misfortune. But I would rather find Trollope's Barchester Towers in my Christmas stocking. Here, Timothy West enjoys himself hugely, as he portrays the jockeyings for power and status among the clergy and their wives.

Last but by no means least, we now have (from Hodder) John Gielgud's inimitable reading of A Chrismas Carol. "God bless us, one and all," pipes Tiny Tim.

Hodder The Best of Sherlock Holmes; Theatre Royal Performances of Dickens, Stevenson and Others, Pounds 19.19 each (boxed sets). A Christmas Carol; Threadbear; The Secret Garden; Anne of Green Gables, Pounds 7.99 each; Penguin Small, Pounds 9.99

Random HouseTellastory The Man Pounds 7.99; Little Bear Lost, Pounds 5.99 Penguin More Please; The Adventures of Tom Kitten; Murderers and Other Friends; No Night is Too Long; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Pounds 7.99 each. Sons and Lovers, Pounds 9.99

HarperCollins Take No Farewell; My Early Life, Pounds 7.99 each Isis The Murder of the Maharajah, Pounds 35.50

BBC Radio Collection The Great Railway Bazaar; The Alan Bennet 1980-1990 Diaries, Pounds 7.99 each

Reed Mind over Matter, Pounds 7.99

Chivers The Wimbledon Poisoner; A Handful of Dust, Pounds 31.95 each

Cover to Cover (0264 731227; mail order from Freepost, Marlborough, Wilts) Barchester Towers, Pounds 39.99; The Woodlanders Pounds 29.99

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