Theatre and Television: The year's best books reviewed

Performing rites
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The Independent Culture

Prohibitive production costs may ensure that Shakespeare is no longer the most performed playwright in the country, but he remains a safe bet at the bookshops. Of the many books on the Bard to have appeared over the past year, three are especially recommended for any theatre-lover's stocking. Michael Wood's In Search of Shakespeare (BBC, £20) joins recent studies by Stanley Wells and Jonathan Bate as an essential introduction to the life and work. Far more than a television tie-in, Wood's book explores every aspect of Shakespeare's career, offers convincing solutions to various conundrums and, above all, highlights the crucial influence of his family's Catholicism on his plays.

Louise McConnell's Exit, Pursued by a Bear (Bloomsbury, £20) is an alphabetical guide to the characters, models and sources of all Shakespeare's plays (including the seemingly now-canonical Edward III).

Concise accounts of subjects from plagues to playhouses, and distinguished interpreters both on stage and in the study, make the book a valuable resource for examinees, while anyone confused by the profusion of Demetriuses (A Midsummer Night's Dream; Titus Andronicus; Antony and Cleopatra) will find its distinctions invaluable.

Peter Hall's Shakespeare's Advice to the Players (Oberon, £19.99) is a fund of advice and a model of clarity. Hall's emphasis on mastering the metre - a feature of all his finest productions - could not be more timely, and his analysis of individual passages will be as fascinating to readers as it is instructive to actors.

By all accounts, Alec Guinness was not a consummate Shakespearean, his Hamlet and Macbeth having been roundly lambasted. He was, however, one of the finest character actors of the last century, with a sexual ambiguity that makes him as attractive to biographers as his performances did to audiences. Piers Paul Read's authorised biography, Alec Guinness (Simon & Schuster, £20), is duly authoritative but makes for a less exciting read than Gary O'Connor's recent portrait.

Read appears as ill at ease with Guinness's sexuality as the actor was himself, resorting to such formulae as "He would also, on occasions, spend the night in Turkish baths which, since they were well known as a place for homosexual encounters, raises the possibility that Alec went there for more than a steam bath and a good night's sleep".

Kenneth Tynan played the Player King in Guinness's 1951 Hamlet and later wrote the first monograph on the actor. Dominc Shellard's biography Kenneth Tynan (Yale University Press, £25) rightly concentrates on the literary achievements of a critic best remembered for swearing on television and a taste for mild flagellation. The copious quotations demonstrate how much his passion and prose style are lacking today.

A quartet of distinguished actors have supplemented their night jobs by writing books on their craft. Three have focussed on particular plays.

Oliver Ford Davies's Playing Lear (Nick Hern Books, £14.99) records his experience of scaling Shakespeare's highest peak and examines his predecessors in the role. Michael Pennington's Are You There, Crocodile (Oberon £19.99) offers an insightful account of preparing a one-man show about Anton Chekhov.

Martin Jarvis's Broadway, Jeeves (Methuen, £16.99) is a wry diary of exporting Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber's very English musical to New York. Finally, Harriet Walter's Other People's Shoes (Nick Hern Books, £8.99) is a practical guide to creating a character. Walter's incisive approach, richly illustrated with examples from her own career, makes this the best acting manual since Simon Callow's.

Lovers of the small screen can choose from a range of books about popular comedians. By far the heaviest - in weight if not in analysis - is The Pythons (Orion, £30), a lavishly illustrated autobiography by the five remaining creators of Monty Python's Flying Circus, with archival interpolations from Graham Chapman. While the personal revelations can seem bland, Terry Gilliam's drawings are as wonderfully wayward as ever.

Comedians of an earlier era are celebrated in Norma Farnes's Spike: an intimate memoir (Fourth Estate, £20) and Stefan Kanfer's Ball of Fire (Faber & Faber, £17.99). Farnes's intimacy with Spike Milligan was strictly professional but, having served as his agent for 35 years, she is well placed to tell the story of his complex relationship with family, friends and, above all, himself.

Stefan Kanfer's portrait of Lucille Ball skilfully shows how a moderately successful film actress became the era's greatest television icon, although his revelations of her unhappy private life are a slightly predictable counterpoint to professional triumphs.

Finally, anyone who feels deprived of the traditional Morecambe and Wise Christmas show can enjoy the next best thing with Gary Morecambe's Eric Morecambe (BBC, £16.99). Morecambe's short study of his father's career and his own childhood reminiscences are underscored by a touching realisation of the price of popular success.