Children's audiobooks: Magic in the air with dogs and dancers

Christina Hardyment
Friday 28 November 2003 01:00

The audio event of the season is, of course, the release of Stephen Fry's marathon reading of JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (BBC, c29 hrs, tapes £65, CDs £75). The good news is that Fry takes the extra length - eight hours more than Goblet of Fire, almost 21hours more than Philosopher's Stone - in his stride. He relishes every detail of the story, switches character smoothly, and remains impressively unhurried, only adding pace and urgency at the climaxes.

Hagrid is his finest part, but newcomers Loony Luna, Tonks and Voldemort himself run him close. Producer Helen Nicoll, whose brainchild it was to get Fry to read the Potter books unabridged on audio, gives him his head, adding a few subtle echo effects, but otherwise letting the words of the story work their own magic.

Running Phoenix close as a listening experience is Martin Jarvis's new unabridged reading of Dodie Smith's DogLit masterpiece 101 Dalmatians (CSA Word, 4hrs 30 mins, £12.99). Fun as the film was, it did not do justice to the cascade of wit and jokes that flows from Dodie Smith's pen in the novel. Nor could CSA Word's earlier abridged version, which was also read by Martin Jarvis. Now we can enjoy every last thing - from the devilish Cruella de Vil's schoolgirl hair-do, one white plait and one black, to Pongo's casually quoting the old Arabic proverb, "the dogs bark and the caravan moves on", after the perilous encounter of the puppies and the gypies. Like Peter Pan, this is a book that will be as much enjoyed by parents as children.

Mark Haddon's original and unconventional novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Random House c6 hrs, CD £16.99 and on tape after April, £12.99), now shortlisted for the Whitbread novel award, also proved to be a runaway bestseller among both older children and adults. It is told in the form of a story, or rather report, written by a 15-year-old who suffers from Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism. He uses diagrams and formulae to explain what he means, because numbers mean everything to him, and faces nothing.

Making an audio version without these illustrations must have seemed an almost impossible challenge. Producer Mark Carrington Ward met it by by using a cast of cleverly chosen voices to accompany the main narrator, Ben Tibber.

Tibber is only 12, and his immature tones initially seemed inappropriate, but he turned out to be an inspired choice, entering into the part with such total commitment that the listener is held absolutely spellbound. The audio won a gold award for production at this years Spoken Word Awards, and was voted Audiobook of the Year.

Naxos's Junior Classics have an odd knicker-pink and turquoise blue livery which makes them look distinctly old-fashioned. Coming across one with a naff illustration of posturing ballerinas, it was easy to toss it aside. But you can't tell an audiobook by looking at its cover. When I did get round to listening to Ballet Stories (Naxos, 1 hr 48 mins, £9.99), I found them both exciting and entrancing. David Angus's spirited tellings of the stories of five great ballets (Coppelia, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Giselle) are read with husky excitement by Jenny Agutter, and interlaced with the heady, passionate melodies of the composers, Tchaikovsky, Adam and Delibes.The production is a clever and original idea, excellent both for preparation before going to a ballet, and later nostalgic revisiting.

Christina Hardyment's biography of Sir Thomas Malory appears next year

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