February 27, 2012 - Homer’s epic works
The epic poems of Homer, the blind Greek bard who composed them orally nearly three millennia ago, are as fresh, exciting and gripping today as when they were first heard.
The Iliad, a monumental epic over 15,000 lines long, describes an episode in the tenth year of the Trojan War that starts with the wrath of Achilles when dishonoured by Agamemnon and culminates the death and funeral of the Trojan hero Hector (whom all decent English schoolboys prefer to Achilles!). It is a tremendous, action-packed tale of war and honour, setting the claims of personal pride against those of altruism, although its bloodthirsty battle scenes, which leave nothing to the imagination, are generally more admired by the male mentality even in these egalitarian days when the fairer sex fights in our armies – though it is not without its more touching moments like that Hector’s last farewell to Andromache that was read by the Prof at the end of our study of the letter H.
The Odyssey is the Iliad’s sequel, the story of the fraught return of the Greek hero Odysseus, whom the Romans called Ulysses, from the Trojan War to his own island kingdom of Ithaca. It is without question still the greatest adventure story of the western world. We follow Odysseus through his encounters with the Lotus Eaters and the Cyclops, the terrifying Laestrygonians, the witch Circe, the Shades of the Dead, the beautiful but deadly Sirens, the monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, his rescue from utter desolation by the kindly Phaeacians who take him home to Ithaca, where he recovers his kingdom from the arrogant young nobles who have taken over his palace and are forcing his wife to marry one of them. But this pathetic outline does little justice to a story of richness, excitement and characterisation that is unsurpassed in literature (though it was not “literature” at all when it was composed orally in the pre-literate so-called Dark Ages of pre-classical Greece).
Not surprisingly these great works have found innumerable translators, including Walter Leaf, whose version of the touching farewell of Hector and Andromache was read by the Prof at the end of our study of the letter H. Leaf’s translation of the Iliad is excellent and its archaic English is highly effective and appropriate to the archaic Greek of Homer, but happily we have very recently been blessed with a new and brilliant modern translations by Ian Johnston that sent our Prof into ecstasies of delight when he heard them read by Anton Lessor unabridged on audiobooks. It is hard to know whom to praise more – the translator or the reader. They complement each other perfectly to produce a work of art that is absolutely stunning and worthy of Homer’s genius. On a long car journey or during a sleepless night, on the beach or just curled up before a roaring fire on a winter’s night, you will find this productions absorbing, moving and absolutely compelling. And no parent or relative could do better for bright children than give this version of The Odyssey to stimulate their imagination, introduce them to a story that is fundamental to western culture, and hear good English beautifully and dramatically spoken. Our “star” recommendation isThe Odyssey, withThe Iliad held in reserve.
Do buy Ian Johnston’s text to follow while listening to Anton Lesser reading it – neither is cheap to buy, but they are worth every penny, and the text of The Odyssey is also now available for download to a Kindle at a very cheap price (though be sure you choose the unabridged version).
The Odyssey – audiobook, read by Anton Lesser
The Odyssey – paperback, translated by Ian Johnston
The Odyssey – Kindle edition, translated by Ian Johnston
The Illiad – audiobook, read by Anton Lesser
The Illiad – paperback, translated by Ian Johnston
The Illiad – Kindle edition, translated by Ian Johnston
February 1, 2012 - The acerbic yet compassionate Jane Austen
It is one of the Prof’s (few) intellectual failings that he has little time for Jane Austen, whose characters, he says, need a bomb under them (though he accepts that she writes very good English!). As ever, we have to make allowances for the odd aberrations and eccentricities of genius, and the Prof’s view is emphatically not shared by the countless thousands of devotees of her sensitive and deeply intriguing novels and the television adaptations that have had audiences glued to their screens and hungry for the next episode. Winston Churchill had her novel, Pride and Prejudice, read to him while recuperating from his illness in 1943! Happily the whole Jane Austen collection has been put on audiobooks by perfectly chosen readers in both abridged and unabridged versions.
For devotees who cannot bear to miss a single word we recommend the unabridged version called Jane Austen: The Complete Novels, which are read on 69 CDs by Juliet Stephenson, Emilia Fox and Anna Bentinck.
For those who are happy with abridgements (which are well done) we recommend the following.
There is an abridged collection of the novels in two boxed sets. Volume 1, containing Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and The Biography, is read by Juliet Stevenson and Teresa Gallagher, is recorded on ten CDs, and gives over 12 hours of listening. Volume 2, read by Juliet Stevenson, Jenny Agutter, Teresa Gallagher, Kim Hicks and full cast, contains Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Lady Susan on 11 discs with nearly 14 hours of listening.
Jane Austen: The Complete Novels - audiobook, unabridged
Volume 1 - audiobook, abridged versions of: Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and The Biography
Volume 2 - audiobook, abridged versions of Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Lady Susan
January 31, 2012 - George Bernard Shaw
Pygmalion will be a name familiar to you from the Course and the Introductory Pack, in which our own “Prof” parodies Professor Higgins’ outburst when Eliza Doolittle approaches him to give her lessons in good English speech and pronunciation. The name of Shaw’s wonderful and witty play is the name of an ancient Greek king, who was also a famous sculptor and created a female statue so exquisitely beautiful that he fell in love with it, whereupon Aphrodite, the goddess of love, took pity on him and breathed life into it.
There have been and continue to be countless stage, radio and film performances of the play, which is of timeless popularity. Do go to a live performance if you can, as it is a marvellously stage-worthy play, but whether you manage to see it on stage or not, we strongly recommend you to watch the superb black-and-white-film of 1938, featuring Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller and Anthony Asquith – unless you have broken your ribs, in which case your laughter would be much too painful! You will also find that our own Andrew Havill bears an incredible resemblance to Leslie Howard in that film. And do buy the text as well. Both the DVD and the text are inexpensive and remarkably good value for money (and the Penguin Classics paperback text we recommend does not subscribe to Shaw’s eccentric and obsessive refusal to use apostrophes, which is very tiresome even if genius can be forgiven almost everything!).
You may also enjoy the musical My Fair Lady based on the play. The film version we recommend features Rex Harrison as Professor Higgins and Audrey Hepburn as Eliza.
Pygamalion ‒ DVD of superb 1938 film version of the play – very highly recommended!
Pygamalion: A Romance in Five Acts ‒ paperback text (Penguin Classics)
My Fair Lady ‒ DVD of the 1965 stage musical
January 28, 2012 - Potter creates animal magic
The timeless tales of Beatrix Potter, adored by generations of children of all ages (up to 100!), do not condescend to childish language. There can be few greater children’s bedtime pleasures that listening to the unforgettable adventures, trials and tribulations of her host of delightful characters, including Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, The Flopsy Bunnies, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Tom Kitten, Mr Jeremy Fisher and Jemima Puddleduck.
These and all the other wonderful characters are brought to life on a complete and unabridged boxed set of audiobooks by a talented cast of readers, including Patricia Routledge, Timothy West, Michael Hordern, Janet Maw, and Rosemary Leach. It is available at a very reasonable price, as is a beautifully illustrated hardcover edition of the text of all twenty-three original tales. If you would like the stories as they were originally published then get The Complete Collection of Original Tales 1-23, but it is more expensive. Do get the audiobook and the text, whichever version of the latter you chose!
Beatrix Potter The Complete Tales - audiobook, unabridged
Beatrix Potter The Complete Tales: The 23 Original Tales – hardcover book (beautifully illustrated)
The Complete Collection of Original Tales 1-23 - boxed set of hardcover books
January 27, 2012 - Shakespeare, England’s immortal bard
Genius is a much overused word but it truly applies to the Bard of Avon, whose work is as much loved and performed now in the reign of Queen Elizabeth II as it was when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne. In fact, it is now more loved and infinitely more widely performed. There can be few if any languages in the world into which it has not been translated, and Shakespeare’s timeless insight into universal human nature makes it as appealing to an African township as to an audience in the West End of London.
For the strict purpose of following up the English Speech and Pronunciation Course you will of course find dialects in many of the plays, but you will be hearing the standard English pronunciation from English actors playing the majority of the main roles. As to speech rather than pronunciation, the English of the sixteenth century is not the same as that of the twenty-first, but today’s speech is nevertheless as full of phrases and quotations from Shakespeare as it is from the King James Bible (even if those who use them have no idea where they come from and may never have read a word either of Shakespeare or the Bible).
Do go and see a play whenever you are in London or Stratford, and there are many DVD collections of filmed plays or film adaptations coming out all the time. But just to get a flavour of the essence of Shakespeare with good pronunciation we suggest two inexpensive CDs.
The first, From Shakespeare With Love, features Shakespeare’s love poetry, the exquisitely beautiful sonnets being beautifully read by David Tennant, Juliet Stevenson, Anton Lesser and Alex Jennings.
The second is The Essential Shakespeare Live: The Royal Shakespeare Company in Performance, which is a collection of twenty famous extracts from the plays as recorded on the British Library’s Sound Archives. The actors speaking the chosen pieces include many of the greatest names from four decades of The Royal Shakespeare Company productions – from Laurence Olivier as Coriolanus (1951) to Judy Dench in All’s Well That Ends Well (2002).
Or if you wish to see the plays on a screen – and plays were written to be seen as well as heard, as indeed our English Speech and Pronunciation Course was ‒ we recommend you to consider the following two boxed sets.
The BBC Shakespeare Collection, which is a lavish boxed set of 37 DVDs containing the BBC’s adaptations of 34 Shakespeare plays. With occasional lapses the general standard is excellent, and they feature some of the finest acting talent of the age. At first glance it seems expensive, but actually it is astonishing good value for 34 full length plays, and we strongly recommend it.
The Laurence Olivier Shakespeare Collection is a boxed set of seven DVDs giving seven plays starring that incomparable Shakespearian actor, Sir Laurence Olivier. The plays are Henry V, Hamlet, King Lear, Merchant of Venice, Richard III and As You Like It. This really is marvellous, and would still be good value (as would our course) at ten times the price!
From Shakespeare With Love - CD of Shakespeare’s poems
The Essential Shakespeare Live: The Royal Shakespeare Company in Performance - CD featuring twenty famous extracts from Shakespeare’s plays (perfect while travelling!)
The BBC Shakespeare Collection - DVD collection of Shakespeare’s plays
The Laurence Olivier Shakespeare Collection - DVD collection of 7 plays
January 2, 2012 - Further delights from Dickens…
We promised you further recommendations for Dickens. Here are a few more of his works to encourage you to celebrate his anniversary year!
A Tale of Two Cities was Margaret Thatcher’s favourite book, and whether or not you approve of her Prime Ministership, you cannot fault her literary judgement in her enthusiasm for this wonderful story.
The two cities are London and Paris, and the time is that of the French Revolution. Dickens brings history to vibrant life as the backcloth to his intricately interwoven and colourful story, which carries the reader or listener along at a terrific pace while revealing unobtrusively the real moral battleground between man’s humanity and inhumanity. We think the opening and closing words (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” and “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”) are among the most memorable in all literature. It has been filmed many times, and there is a good version in the BBC Collection which we mentioned last time, but we think the best and most faithful dramatisation is still the 1958 black-and-white film with its superb cast led by Dirk Bogarde and Dorothy Tutin.
A Tale of Two Cities – audiobook, abridged, read by Anton Lesser
A Tale of Two Cities – audiobook, unabridged, read by Anton Lesser
A Tale of Two Cities – paperback (Wordsworth Classics)
A Tale of Two Cities - DVD, 1935 (Bogarde and Tutin), remastered 2007 – brilliant!
Little Dorrit, brilliantly dramatised and produced episodically by the BBC and now available on DVD, had the population of England glued to its television sets. When each episode ended, there was a sudden electricity crisis as everyone switched on kettles to make tea! It is not only a gripping and moving story but a withering exposé of the cant, humbug and seamier side of all levels of society in an age of tremendous change and development. Many things that have happened will happen again. We were horrified by how closely both Dickens’ description of the bureaucratic strangulation of enterprise and business parodied in the Circumlocution Office parallels the absurd world of the European Commission, while Merdle’s Bank is the original Ponzi scheme worthy of Madoff.
Little Dorrit - audiobook, abridged, read by Anton Lesser
Little Dorrit – audiobook, unabridged, read by Anton Lesser
Little Dorrit – paperback (Wordsworth Classics)
Little Dorrit – DVD (BBC 2008 production)
Little Dorrit – Blu-ray (BBC 2008 production)
Nicholas Nickleby was Dickens’ third novel, and we think one of his best. The story is utterly gripping and with its rich and varied cast of characters it exposes the good, bad and seamy side of all classes of society. Nicholas Nickleby and his befriending of the poor simple Smike is one of the most touching relationships in all literature.
Nicholas Nickleby – audiobook, abridged, read by Anton Lesser
Nicholas Nickleby – audiobook, unabridged, read by Anton Lesser
Nicholas Nickleby – paperback text (Wordsworth Classics)
The Pickwick Papers introduces us to the portly, wealthy, affable, kindly and unworldly Mr Pickwick, who is ably and wittily defended from disaster by his devoted servant Sam Weller. They are two of the most delightful and lovable characters in the whole of Dickens. Reading about the hilarious adventures of Pickwick and his Club, behind which there is the usual witty but highly perceptive observation of the humbug and folly of the age.
The Pickwick Papers – audiobook, abridged, read by Anton Lesser
The Pickwick Papers – audiobook, unabridged, read by David Timson
The Pickwick Papers – paperback text (Wordsworth Classics)
January 1, 2012 - Celebrate Charles Dickens’ 200th anniversary!
2012 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of England’s greatest novelist, and one of the greatest story-tellers in English the world has ever known. We hope you will celebrate the genius of “the master of smiles and tears” with us.
Those who have studied our English Speech and Pronunciation Course will not be surprised at a strong recommendation to soak yourself in Charles Dickens, who ranks among English novelists as highly as Shakespeare does among dramatists. His fertile imagination, his powers of observation and characterisation, his mastery of emotions, his command of language – all combine to make him the incomparable genius among English story-tellers. Dickens’ stories are designed to be read aloud as well as silently. The author himself packed countless halls for readings that he gave himself, and the eagerly awaited episodes of the many stories that came out first in monthly magazines were often read to the whole family by a father or mother.
There are excellent audiobook readings and filmed dramatisations of almost all the stories, and for those seeking complete immersion in this anniversary year we recommend the following, one set of audiobooks and one set of DVDs:
The audiobook collection of Dickens’ favourite novels, The Dickens Collection, read by Martin Jarvis, is excellent. It contains five abridged novels ‒ David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities and Nicholas Nickleby ‒ together with his most famous short story, A Christmas Carol. We think it is very good value!
The Dickens Collection – audiobook, abridged, read Martin Jarvis
Equally excellent among the collections of filmed dramatisations is The Charles Dickens BBC Collection containing The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, Martin Chuzzlewit, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend. These beautifully filmed and acted productions, dated from 1977 to 1999, give you over 30 hours of compulsive viewing, and this collection is also very good value for money.
The Charles Dickens BBC Collection - 12 DVDs containing eight superb BBC productions
For those wishing to put a toe in the water before plunging in to a whole collection of Dickens there are very many audio-books and dramatisations (both radio and filmed) of the individual stories, but for anyone wanting simply to hear them beautifully read as books we strongly recommend Anton Lesser’s audio-book readings.
The whole of Dickens is downloadable virtually free of charge on Kindle, and there are nice, inexpensive paperbacks in the Wordsworth Classics series. But best of all is to find a lovely old hardback edition in a second-hand bookshop!
We shall have many more blogs about Charles Dickens, and if you are coming to him for the first time, we suggest that you start with David Copperfield and then follow our recommendations in the order we present them.
For the development of your English speech and pronunciation (as distinct from the enjoyment of hearing these wonderful stories beautifully read) we recommend that you follow the method of the Course and have a text to follow as you listen, though do be aware that many audiobooks are abridged and this can cause confusion. The text is best followed when you are listening to unabridged readings.
Our first recommendation…
David Copperfield, bursting with the most amazing characters, has a great deal of autobiography in it. It is no accident that the initials of the name of its hero, DC, are those of Charles Dickens in reverse. You could read or hear it a dozen times and never get bored by it.
David Copperfield - paperback text (Wordsworth Classics)
David Copperfield – audiobook (abridged) read by Anton Lesser
An unabridged version read by Nicholas Boulton is in preparation and we shall review it and give you details on our blog when it becomes available.
We recommend the stunning 1999 BBC television adaptation of David Copperfield, superbly filmed and brilliantly acted by a cast that includes Maggie Smith as Betsy Trotwood, Bob Hoskins as Mr Micawber, and the now internationally famous Daniel Radcliffe as the young David. It was in this film that Daniel Radcliffe made his acting debut at the age of ten before going on to gain great fame, wealth and acclaim as Harry Potter. This DVD is in the BBC Dickens Collection already mentioned, which is well worth having, but it is also available separately.
David Copperfield – DVD (superb BBC 1999 adaptation)