Books: Spoken word

Christmas needs plenty of light relief and opportunities for distraction. PG Wodehouse, one of the most recorded and, happily, least abridged of authors, provides plenty of both. But which recording to choose? At the heart of the matter lies the difficulty of being as good at reading Jeeves as at Wooster. In Thank You, Jeeves (Chivers, 6hrs, pounds 19.99, ABC mail order 0800 136 919), Jonathan Cecil shoots up the scale very effectively as Wooster but is close to parody when he drops down an octave as Jeeves.

Martin Jarvis attacks both parts with gusto in Carry On Jeeves in New York (CSA, c 2.5 hrs, pounds 8.99) but he too lacks the essential gravitas of the manservant. I found the BBC-dramatised version of The Code of The Woosters (BBC, 3hrs, pounds 8.99) too over-excited and stagey, besides its necessary loss of some of the Master's inimitable asides, but Michael Hordern is quite excellent as Jeeves, and the 1920s music helps things to swing along with brio.

I hadn't rushed to read Stephen Fry's autobiography, but when I popped the first of the eight tapes of his unabridged reading of Moab is my Washpot (Random House, 12hrs, pounds 19.99) into my car's cassette-player, I realised that I was soon going to need an excuse for a very long drive. It is one of those rare readings that grabs you as implacably as the ancient mariner and makes you want to hear more and more. Fry is unvarnished, intensely human, honest to the point of strip-tease and so funny about deeply sad things that you don't know whether to laugh or cry. This is also splendid performance art: spoken word is absolutely the right medium for Fry's personal De Profundis.

No loved one's stocking will be complete without a superb Hollywood Playhouse double bill of Casablanca/The Maltese Falcon (Mr Punch, pounds 5.99) starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. These recordings for the wireless were once made by a film's stars as a matter of course, and use the original scripts and music. And yes, Sam does play all of As Time Goes By.

I've mentioned the Beginners' Guide tapes (Icon Audio, 2hrs, pounds 9.99) before: they are light-hearted dramatised rundowns on big ideas presented palatably and wittily. Two excellent new additions to the series are Wittgenstein for Beginners starring Steven Berkoff, and Freud for Beginners, starring Antony Sher and concluding with an assessment by Jonathan Miller.

Another sophisticated and imaginative approach to biography, and a useful corrective to Peter Schaffer's Amadeus myth, is Perry Keenlyside's The Life of Amadeus Mozart (Naxos, 3hrs 40mins, pounds 8.99). Part narrative, part dramatisation, it includes 70 musical extracts; the whole effectively knitted together by producer Nicolas Soames.

Now that the last tiny island of children's radio programming on Sunday evenings is under threat, the kids need something to listen to at bedtime more than ever. A generous granny might be persuaded to give them the magnificent, often spine-chilling, BBC dramatisation of The Chronicles of Narnia (BBC, 12hrs, pounds 49.99). Excellent casting includes Stephen Thorne as a formidable Aslan and Bernard Cribbins as a perfect Puddleglum; Peter Howell's fantastical music provides pace and splendour. Treat smaller children to Sir John Gielgud's inimitable rendering of Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense (Hodder, pounds 5.99).

The audiobook of the year is one you'll want to keep for yourself. The high point of the recent Talkies awards was the presentation of a special award to Sir John Gielgud. His manifold talents are brilliantly celebrated in John Gielgud at the BBC (BBC, 3hrs, pounds 8.99), his own presentation of recordings of his performances, readings and reminiscences. Dominated by Shakespeare, it also has tasters of Wilde, Pinter, Eliot and Bennett as well as hilarious personal memories of British royalty at the theatre and some wise reflections on life and death. Perfect background to packing presents and peeling sprouts, but best heard lying in a candlelit bathtub soused in Badedas.

"A Christmas Collection", Christina Hardyment's celebration of Christmas in prose and poems from Martial to MacNeice, is published by Naxos Audiobooks at pounds 11.99.

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