It was the middle of the day, in one of those Mayfair night- clubs more generally frequented by elderly roues and girls on the make. 'Never judge a book by its cover,' Mike Leander said. He was telling anyone passing that what we saw before us was the finest line-up of British erotic talent available. Which seemed a little unlikely as he was surrounded by a chorus line of swelling waistlines, advancing foreheads, bottle-assisted hair and trowel-applied foundation.

'Just wait,' he said to those who seemed doubtful, 'until they open their mouths.'

Leander, the man who invented Gary Glitter and spent most of the Seventies with songs he had written perched in the upper reaches of the Top 10, has, 20 years later, come up with a different tune: cassette tapes of classic novels read out loud by well-known actors.

'Audio tapes are a big slice of the market in cassette sales and I'm a big consumer of them,' he said. 'But even I soon discovered there was a limit to the amount of Dickens and Trollope you can take.'

So he turned his attention to the classics of erotic fiction, immersing himself, as it were, in the trollops and dick-ins of literature instead. This week he launches a series of tapes called Prelude Audio Books, which includes Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs, the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana and John Cleland's Fanny Hill. And to help him in his pursuit of the ultimate in aural sex, Leander has engaged the services of actors such as Steven Berkoff, Gabrielle Drake and Georgina Hale. Not perhaps a group in the first flush of youthful appeal, but, as Leander was quick to point out, in the world of erotic reading it is not looks that count. And surrounding him in the Mayfair night-club to help launch the tapes was as splendid a collection of murmurs, purrs and whisky-and-tobacco-ripened husks as you could imagine: a convocation of 0898 voices.

Frances Tomelty, for example. It may not be her leggily draped over the seductive dust-cover of Leander's edition of The Perfumed Garden of Shaykh Nefzawi, but it is her voice on the tape, investing even lines like 'convenient, measured way' with a breath-quickening charge.

'I rang Frances to sound her out, to see if she'd be interested in the project,' Leander said. 'We spoke for about 10 minutes and then she said, 'Would you like me to audition?' I said 'Frances, you don't understand - this phone conversation was the audition. And you've passed.' '

Indeed, he seemed to have a little difficulty breathing straight at the memory of his conversation. Odd what a voice can do.

'No, not at all. The voice is a vital sexual organ,' explained the poet Fiona Pitt-Kethley, who acted as a consultant on the series and turned up at the launch in an outfit apparently unencumbered by undergarments. 'I'm still searching for the correct word to describe someone like me who enjoys listening to sex. At first I thought it should be an auditeur, you know, as in a voyeur. But that sounds too much like an accountant.'

Mike Leander cheerfully confesses to being a student of the spoken suggestion. 'People asked me whether it had been hard work organising all this in so short a space of time,' he said, lighting up a Silk Cut - perhaps to slow the pulse rate. 'Come on, sitting in a studio listening to Sylvia Kristel reading out Emmanuelle - I don't call that work.'

The idea for rude classics came to Leander last autumn while he was recovering in Spain after the failure of his West End musical, Matador, which collapsed in the summer of 1991.

'I was all burnt out with music,' he recalled. 'So I turned back to literature, which has always been my first love, and put my mind to discovering an angle I could exploit.'

He set about gaining relevant permission from publishers - though most of his titles, by long- dead authors, are out of copyright and in the public domain - and running up his phone bill auditioning actors to read them. He also arranged for the books to be abridged: the most a tape can take is four hours of reading, giving just about enough time to reach chapter two of the standard Henry Miller. Importantly for his market, though, abridging did not mean censoring: it was not the rude bits that were taken out.

'When you go to boarding school,' Leander explained, 'you learn early on which are the important pages in a book. I was the school librarian. It was an early exercise for my entrepreneurial skills, selling the boys the information about which pages were worth reading. We've kept the best bits.'

Once a book was stripped down to its essentials, Leander went into a 24-track studio with the reader. There he fiddled with the knobs and dials himself.

'It is a production, not just a question of handing over a Walkman and saying 'read away'. We are trying to create the definitive readings here and I was bringing a lifetime of studio skill to bear. But, frankly, most of these people were so bloody good I could just sit back and enjoy it.'

But how did his readers feel, sitting there talking dirty for hour after hour into a recording studio microphone?

'I must confess I was rather shocked when I first sat down and looked at the script,' said Gabrielle Drake, who reads the Kama Sutra in the series. 'I'd never actually read it before. I had no idea it was so, well, explicit.'

Not only robust and straight- forward, but also a book light on storyline and character development: not much for an actor to sink his or her teeth into, you might have thought.

'It isn't full of twists and turns, that's true. Well, not of plot anyway,' Ms Drake said. 'I took the attitude that it was an instruction manual and read it as such. I read it a bit like a nun might, actually.'

An approach which did not dis- please her producer.

'There is a rather precise English-rose matter-of-factness in the way Gabrielle reads lines like 'it is called the congress of a herd of cows' which is entirely suitable and is in itself rather appealing,' Leander said. 'Some of the books need to be read quickly, as Ian McShane did with Tropic of Capricorn. Others need a more languorous approach, like the way Sylvia Kristel reads Emmanuelle. Very luxurious, that one.'

With 10 tapes released this week and another 15 titles due out before Christmas (including Georgina Hale reading Julie Burchill's Ambition and Steven Berkoff with more Henry Miller), Leander expects most of his sales will be to those who listen in the car.

'It's a three-hour run from here to Birmingham,' he said. 'Which would you rather listen to? Some country and western, or Cherie Lunghi reading an erotic classic? Exactly.'

(Photographs omitted)