Spoken Word

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Complete Sherlock Holmes Boxed Set, Full-cast dramatisation (BBC, c.48hrs, £150)

Complete Sherlock Holmes Boxed Set, Full-cast dramatisation (BBC, c.48hrs, £150)

There must be ample material by now for a Media Studies MPhil on the social significance of the changing radio representation of Holmes and Watson since the Conan Doyle stories were first broadcast (on American radio) in 1930. Everyone will have their favourite duo - be it Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, or Carleton Hobbs and Norman Shelley. Bert Coules has spent the last ten years dramatising the tales for Radio 4, using the same "Baker Street Regulars": Clive Merrison as Holmes, Michael Williams as Doctor Watson, Stephen Thorne as Lestrade, Joan Matheson as Mrs Hudson. He had his own very definite ideas as to characterisation, and it is something of a shock to hear Holmes as young, shrill and often downright rude and Watson as a sober sheet-anchor, rather than a buffoon, who frequently has to prevent his brilliant but erratic friend from going off the rails. The more I heard, the more I enjoyed the subtle development of their relationship, and on turning to earlier versions found them uncomfortably theatrical. The 56 stories and four novels have now been re-released as a box of 36 tapes, but if your budget is limited they are also available singly.

Dr Johnson's London. Read by Fiona Shaw (Orion, four tapes, 6hrs 40 mins, £11.99)

The subtitle of Liza Picard's book is "Everyday life in 18th century London" and Dr Johnson's London exemplifies the currently fashionable demotic history. It starts from the bottom with the fate of the foundlings ditched outside Thomas Coram's Bloomsbury hospital, and ends with George III chatting to Dr Johnson. Seven of the eight sides are concerned with London's underpinnings and architecture, its trades and traffic, and the poor and middling sort of men, women and children. Only one has any truck with the rich and famous who have dominated our picture of the past for so long. Instead we hear about vegetable gardens well-composted by London's "night soil", the manufacture of stays from whalebone and leather, the methods of infant pickpockets, the workings of the law, and the efficacy of patent gravedigger-proof coffins (unearthing corpses for sale to medical schools was still a profitable trade). The observations of Dr Johnson and his faithful Boswell provide an excellent human spine to the book, but it's primarily the story of how a city worked, not the biography of a man. Fiona Shaw is a brilliant choice of reader, fascinated by all aspects of 18th-century life.