Written by Paul Donovan, Radio Correspondent of the Sunday Times.
I have a confession. I never thought Guide Cats for the Blind would be a great success. A mixed bag of radio folk reading strange poems by a relatively unknown Mancunian called Les Barker?
Happily I was quite wrong. The combination of his extraordinarily clever wordplay, his stature on the folk circuit – even if the London-dominated literary and media worlds have yet to discover him – and the presence of names like Terry Wogan and Charlotte Green, was such to ensure healthy sales.
That double CD has now raised over £21,000 for the British Computer Association of the Blind, a charity that helps people across a whole range of visual impairments to get the most out of their computers. In my experience this community, if it can be called that, contains the most erudite and enthusiastic radio listeners anywhere.
That was two years ago. The Missing Persians File is the sequel, again created by Clive Lever. It follows the same successful format: surreal and funny verse from the prolific Les Barker read (or sung) by stars of music and broadcasting. I'm not a member of the BCAB, just a maverick critic, and my personal view is that it's rather better than Volume 1 – the imagery sharper, the music more tuneful, the puns more inventive.
JOHN HUMPHRYS begins it, just as he so often begins the day for Radio 4 listeners. His reading of The Stealth Comma reflects both his own keen interest in punctuation and Barker's hostility to “smart” bombs. Today's senior presenter might also approve of the second poem, If, read by JOSS ACKLAND, which is as savage about lying politicians as it is faithful to Kipling's great work on which it is based.
HARVEY ANDREWS and JOHN SHEPHERD come next, using vocals, jazz piano and whistling to render the title track, and they're followed by the first of two appearances from PRUNELLA SCALES, adopting her best Morningside accent to engage in A Crufts Conversation about dogs. LES BARKER himself follows, regaling for an appreciative live audience the saga of Cosmo, The Fairly Accurate Knife-Thrower in the style of Marriott Edgar's lugubrious classic Albert And The Lion.
EMMA CHAMBERS, best known as the dim blonde verger from The Vicar of Dibley, continues in comic vein with I Don't Like My Boomerang, before American folk legend TOM PAXTON sings – in his beautiful mellow voice and with marvellous string accompaniment – Will The Turtle Be Unbroken.
PRUNELLA SCALES now returns to partner her husband TIMOTHY WEST, she as a French waitress and he as a remarkably patient man who spends his entire life in a restaurant because, as he says, My Snails Have Not Yet Arrived.
JEREMY VINE reveals in Napoleon's Circular Retreat From Reading that it was in fact the county town of Berkshire rather than the capital of Russia that engaged Bonaparte's attentions in 1812 – when its hellish one-way system prevented him from getting out of it.
NONNY JAMES, presenter of the blues and folk show, Fretwork, on BBC Radio Shropshire and BBC Hereford and Worcester, paints a sensual portrait of Lorna The Library Book Burglar, a well-read kleptomaniac "who hides James Joyce in the place of his choice", and then her BBC Radio Shropshire colleague GENEVIEVE TUDOR recalls a wandering Travel Iron – again in front of a live audience in Birmingham.
In Spot Was Not Like the Rest, ED STEWART chronicles the travails of an unusual zebra called Spot a full-stop among barcodes. Folk guitarist STEVE TILSTON nods affectionately towards those who love messing about with rusty old motors in Dipsticks and Seals, FRANK HENNESSY spoofs one of Wordsworth's most celebrated ballads in Death By Daffodils, and RYAN KELLY, the blind actor who plays sighted Jazzer in The Archers, ponders Self-Knowledge.
ROGER LLOYD PACK who, like Emma, is best known for The Vicar of Dibley, has a pair of Non Sequiturs, which he uses for not pruning the roses, RODNEY BEWES lives in a once pleasant road that is now, sadly, a One Way Cul-de-sac and SIC TRANSIT, the Kent folk duo consisting of Clive Lever and Don Thompson, sing, unaccompanied, the saga of The King Of Rome, who is not a potentate but a pigeon. The avian theme is maintained by DESMOND CARRINGTON in The Undead Parrot, though this particular bird is one to be avoided, since it comes from Transylvania and eats sparrows by the score.
The partially-sighted actor GERARD McDERMOTT, in the last of the recordings in front of an audience in Birmingham, offers the fascinating but little-known fact that King Harold Was A Ventriloquist and met not only the Normans at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 but also Cosmo the dodgy knife-thrower. That's one in the eye for you, Harold!
TREVOR PEACOCK, the third member of the Vicar of Dibley cast to appear, recalls a clifftop picnic interrupted by a man who falls over the edge – in a very English way, of course. The final track is Les' own MRS ACKROYD BAND singing The Lemmings' Reunion, a somewhat sparsely attended event. It's a poignant, harmonious and in its own way rather lovely end to a delightful album.