Tea, toast and techno-terror

Christina Hardyment chooses the best of family listening

Top quality recordings of classic children's books provide wonderfully nostalgic listening for all the family. Pop any of the following into the car cassette on your Christmas travels, and there'll be no fear or road rage or cabin fever. It is also clear that such tapes don't put children off the original books: our local children's bookshop manager tells me that they encourage children to chase up the authors first heard on audio.

At the very heart of the classic children's canon are the legends of King Arthur. There have been few better modern narrators of how knights won their spurs than Roger Lancelyn Green. Chivalric children will thoroughly enjoy Terence Hardiman's manly reading of Green's King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (Penguin, 3 hrs), a stirring rendering of the great legend, ranging from Arthur's birth at Tintagel and the drawing of the sword Excalibur from the stone anvil to the quest for the holy Grail and the Last Battle at Camlann. Once they are hooked, don't be afraid to move them on to TH White's wonderful The Sword in the Stone, or even, if they have an ear for poetry and a taste for high romance, stretch them seriously with Malory's inimitable Morte d'Arthur, now available complete and unabridged for only pounds 2 (Wordsworth).

A new and very well translated version of Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio (CSA, 2hrs 50 mins) is long enough to go well beyond the distorted and oversimplified Disney version of a tale that is to Italy what King Arthur is to England and Heidi to Switzerland: a children's classic with a very special place in the heart of the nation. Martin Jarvis rises with his usual formidable skill to the challenge of conveying its rich and varied cast of fantastical characters.

J Meade Faulkner's ripping yarn Moonfleet (Penguin, 2hrs 30 mins) is a wonderful story of smuggling and skulduggery set in a real place on the Dorset coast - you can spend Christmas at the great house of Moonfleet, now a hotel, visit the church under which the coffins of the infamous Mohune family jostled in the floods, and ramble along the long cruel shingle beach on which ships were lured to their doom. Kevin Whately is a perfect choice as reader of the first person narrative told by the doughty 15- year-old hero John Trenchard.

Edward Leeson's abridgement of Gulliver's Travels (Harper Collins, 3 hrs) makes Jonathan Swift's 1726 satire very accessible to young and old listeners alike. Martin Shaw's substantial, sensible voice is perfect for the robust and resourceful hero Lemuel Gulliver.

When it comes to 20th-century children's classics on audio, Alan Bennett scoops the pool. His Winnie The Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner (BBC, 2hrs 30 mins) is not a new release, but every nursery needs it. Unhurried, affectionate and thoughtful, Bennett gives Milne's lucid phrases the unexaggerated delivery they need, bringing out its humour with a tremor of playful poohfulness. Bennett has also recorded Hugh Loftus's The Story of Dr Dolittle and Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows for the BBC.

Don't be put off buying Babe The Sheep-pig (Cover to Cover, 1hr 50mins) just because you've seen the movie. Stephen Thorne's unabridged reading of Dick King-Smith's well-rounded tale of a dignified and intelligent little piglet who resolves to learn to herd sheep as effectively as his collie fostermother Fly is compulsive listening. It adds attractive further dimensions to the Hoggarts' characters and to Babe, who grows up into a lean, keen Large White pig rather than staying forever winsome.

Martin Jarvis's Just William tapes already have a huge and loyal following. The newest release, Just William at Christmas (CSA, 2hrs 40mins) will not disappoint them. Its six unabridged and seasonal stories feature William as a pantomime bear, and as a very amateur and totally unabashed burglar, and William and the Outlaws as the carol-singers from hell. Richmal Crompton's hero leaves, as usual, a trail of broken and demoralised adults in his wake.

Finally an audiotape which is much much more than a talking book: John Peacock's radio dramatisation of John Masefield's marvellous mystery tale The Box of Delights (BBC, 3hrs). It has been filmed, but is even better heard, as no physical performance could do its magic justice. Little Kay Harker is transported across winter and in and out of history, in defence of the powerful Box of Delights against the evil and avaricious onslaught of the devilish Abner Brown and his pack of wolves, human and animal. The excellent cast includes Donald Sinden, Lionel Jeffries, Spike Milligan, and the specially written music by Neil Brand adds to the breathtaking excitement of the production.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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