Christmas books: Showbiz - Fat Clarrie and the Dog Woman really do exist

David Phelan samples offerings for toughies and wannabes

It's been a good year for theatre and entertainment books. Few have been so splendid as David Mamet's True or False (Faber pounds 9.99), a controversial and exciting handbook for actors which is worth putting on Christmas lists for everyone from Ian McKellen to Mrs Worthington. Within the first few pages, Mamet turns on Stanislavsky, the Method, and the schools which teach it. In his direct, sharply precise style, he mercilessly deconstructs the kinds of acting - and teaching - he deplores, and formulates a compelling alternative which embraces simplicity and honesty. He is deliberately contentious: "If you learn the words by rote, as if they were a phone book, and let them come out of your mouth without your interpretation, the audience will be well served." Mamet is a purist and a toughie, having little time for actors who "have something to fall back on" (such as writing book reviews, perhaps) because they will inevitably fall back on it. But chapters such as the one on auditions make uplifting reading. David Mamet's handbook is a revelation. One of America's greatest writer/directors proves he knows his stuff.

Mamet's book tops my list as best of the year's books, but now, just in time for Christmas, there's a wide choice of volumes to entertain a star-struck aunt and divert a bored nephew. Roy Hudd's Cavalcade of Variety Acts (Robson Books pounds 10.99) will be a boon to anyone who wants to know what happened to female impersonator Mrs Shufflewick, or whether Channing Pollack deserved his soubriquet of "The Most Beautiful Man in the World" (I'd have thought not, actually). But it all goes to prove that times change - the numerous pictures in the book may have been stylish at the time, but now look hopelessly twee.

More nostalgia, but of a legitimate nature, can be found in Kate Dunn's excellent Exit Through The Fireplace (John Murray pounds 18.99). Weaving a series of theatrical anecdotes into a coherent narrative is no easy task, but Dunn has managed to arrange stories from thesps as various as Peggy Mount and Tim Pigott-Smith, Timothy West and Daniel Massey, into an order that takes the reader through a sensible and highly enjoyable account of British repertory theatre, from an actor getting his first job to the death of rep. Along the way there are chapters on first nights, drying and the dangers of props. Experienced actors and theatrical ingenues will find this book equally delightful.

Radio 4 listeners may not have been rushing in their droves to enjoy James Boyle's scheduling changes to the station, but traditionalists can find comfort and familiarity in a handful of radio-related books. The new paperback version of All Our Todays (Arrow pounds 7.99) by Paul Donovan contains a thorough and sharp analysis of Britain's best morning programme. This ranges from the memo from Robin Day which may have inspired it, through to an assessment of how the tone has changed from one light enough to include a man playing "Rule Britannia" by bludgeoning his own head with a nine-inch spanner (where are those BBC audio tapes when you need them?) to one which focuses on the country's politics. All the personalities are there, from Jack de Manio to Anna Ford. And, of course, Brian Redhead, whose quip "The weather - bright in the north and dull in the south. Bit like the people, really," somehow overlooked in the first edition, is included here. That other Radio 4 institution, The Archers, has two books for fans. There's The Archers 1951-1967: Family Ties (BBC pounds 14.99) which retells the story of the series in novel form, and which does so compellingly. The author, Joanna Toye, has been a producer on the series, so the book reflects the style as well as the content of the series. This book is also available as an audio cassette. Then there's The Archers Anarchists A-Z by Ian Sanderson (Boxtree pounds 6.99) which provides an alternative guide to Ambridge, written by the founder of the group which claims that both the village and the people are real. With its rebellious tone and cheeky appellations for favourite characters (Marjorie Antrobus is The Dog Woman, Clarrie Grundy is referred to as Fat Clarrie and so on), it's never short on opinionated commentary.

Alan Bennett's Talking Heads monologues have been hits on radio, television and audio tape, so it's only right that they should appear in book form: in paperback, Talking Heads 2 (BBC pounds 7.99) and hardback, The Complete Talking Heads (BBC pounds 12.99). Bennett's introductions are invaluable, quoting from his other work and explaining inspirations. Reading the scripts confirms how powerful the raw words are, and how many extra layers of skin the virtuosity of the actors added to the bones. And in the complete edition, which also includes the original piece performed by Patricia Routledge, "A Woman of No Importance", there's a reminder that the plays began and ended (with Thora Hird in "Waiting for the Telegram") with hospital and approaching death.

Arts-related books sometimes risk being categorised as being of minority interest only, and a year in the life of a Royal Ballet dancer may seem especially elitist. But when the dancer is Deborah Bull, whose interests have led to her own nutrition book and a place on the Arts Council, and the year relates as much to the crisis at the Royal Opera House as to ballet performances, the book - Dancing Away (Methuen pounds 15.99) - rightly attracts a wider readership. It's written in diary form, which always makes for compulsive reading, and opens with a riveting description of the complex mix of concentration, excitement and terror which characterise any live performance. It's written in an assured, down-to-earth style which makes the detail of ballet rehearsal and performance as accessible as her account of the political manoeuvrings which concerned the Opera House over the year.

Spread over 50 years, Harold Pinter's Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-1998 (Faber pounds 16.99) offers a new insight into the work of one of our greatest playwrights. There's a letter to the director Peter Wood, before rehearsals of The Birthday Party began in 1958, and the author's selection of his own poetry and prose. Plus a selection of letters to newspaper editors relating to political problems, and one to Tony Blair which concludes: "We were all chuffed to our bollocks when Labour won the election." In his comments on his own plays, Pinter insists that "The play is itself. It is no other." His tone is detailed, precise and uncompromising. Rather like David Mamet, which is where we came in.

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