With the film Jude already in the cinemas, and the possibility of four more adaptations to come, Thomas Hardy is set to become almost as ubiquitous on our screens as Jane Austen. His novels, however, are world's apart from the jolly romping in stately homes that we regard (unfairly, perhaps) as being a trademark of Austen; his characters are introspective, often gloomy, fate is a force that cannot be thwarted and the landscape looms large, dwarfing the human beings who inhabit the heaths and villages of his beloved Wessex. The talking book format suits his style well, with the long, descriptive passages especially beguiling when read out loud.
Alan Rickman brings a sonorous resonance to The Return of the Native, manfully maintaining interest in the unabridged story, told over 15 hours, of misplaced passion, thwarted hopes and failed marriages. His Wildeve is a suitably sneering villain, Eustacia languid and pathetic in her self-centred way, and the rustic dialogue restrained rather than comedic. A little soporofic at times, but the dramatic climax of the drownings is masterly, and he conveys convincingly the looming presence of Egdon Heath which is the centrepiece of the book.
John Rowe in The Woodlanders is another excellent choice of reader; he puts his fine flexible voice to good use in a tale that has (unusually for Hardy) something of a happy ending. He conjures up well the atmosphere of the self-contained community of Little Hintock, with all the claustrophobia and snobbery that village life has engendered from time immemorial, setting it within the almost mystical rhythms of a rural way of life disappearing even when Hardy was creating it. Rowe breathes life into all the characters and makes a compelling storyteller.
In contrast to the lugubrious Hardy, Evelyn Waugh's Scoop is a fast-moving satire on journalism set in the imaginary country of Ishmaelia. The late Simon Cadell is hugely enjoyable, throwing himself into the role of the hapless William Boot as he is buffeted from one crisis to another, meeting up with ever more bizarre characters (each finely delineated by Cadell) and unlikely situations. Again, this is an unabridged adaptation which captures and enhances the original flavour of Waugh's book, and Cadell's comic touch is just right.
In contrast, Dangerous Liaisons is an abridged version and read by seven different voices, interspersed with intervals of (rather irritating) music. Since the original was written in the form of letters exchanged between the main characters, the use of multiple readers would seem to suit the content admirably.
However, I found it difficult to last the course. This tale of manipulation and cruelty has seen many adaptations since it first appeared in 1782 - who could forget John Malk-ovich's mesmerising screen performance as the cynical Valmont? - but I found my interest was never engaged.
Perhaps the unpleas-antness of the story had something to do with it. There were no truly charismatic performances and the tale seemed to drag on relentlessly. Although I'm not usually in favour of cutting the classics, in this case I'm glad they did.
* Return of the Native, 12 cassettes Pounds 34.99; The Woodlanders, 10 cassettes Pounds 29.99; Scoop, six cassettes Pounds 19.99. All from Cover to Cover, tel: 01672 562255. Dangerous Liaisons, three cassettes Pounds 8. 99 from Naxos, tel: 0181 346 6816.