Written by Paul Donovan, Radio Correspondent of the Sunday Times.
Four years ago Clive Lever had a eureka moment. He suddenly conceived of a CD on which stars would recite verse by one particular poet, for one particular charity. He had no idea whether it would work. After all, as a blind diversity officer for Kent County Council, living and working in Maidstone, whom did he know in the world of showbiz? And how many people had ever heard of the poet, the Mancunian wordsmith who defected to Wales, Les Barker, let alone the British Computer Association of the Blind?
Yet Clive’s extraordinary persistence, courtesy and vision won over Sir Terry Wogan, Sir Jimmy Young, Charlotte Green and many more. Their collective efforts in 2003, have raised £29,000 for BCAB on the initial album Guide Cats for the Blind, which is still adding to the funds. That paved the way for the likes of John Humphrys, Emma Chambers and Tom Paxton to read, or sing, more of Barker’s remarkable comic verse on the sequel album, The Missing Persians File, in 2005.
To date that has made a further £7,000 for BCAB, which turns e-mails into speech and does so much else to change people’s lives. Tracks from both albums have been played regularly on Radio 2, BBC local radio and the digital station Oneword, giving these gems of performance and verbal dexterity a very much wider audience.
Another two years have elapsed and here is the third in the series. Although the title Top Cat, White Tie and Tails clearly nods in the direction of musicals, this is in fact an all-spoken album, apart from some soft musical background sound effects.
DAVE CASH’s opener, The Franco-Prussian War Of The Spanish Succession, is a loving pastiche of Wink Martindale’s pious 1950s hit Deck of Cards that replaces the soldier boy’s simple Christianity with amiable surreal nonsense. Then comes NONNY JAMES with the title track and at her most seductive, ROGER LLOYD PACK’s observations of wading birds in Knot ("Is that a knot? No, it’s not") and JOSS ACKLAND’s jaundiced view of the National Lottery in An Admission.
All four of those artists have already appeared on Guide Cats albums, but the fifth is making his debut. ROBERT LINDSAY, in The Mask of Mono, reinvents the gallant hero Zorro for a different age and a single loudspeaker, and he’s followed by Barker himself with a wry comment on Anglican agnostics in The Church Of The Wholly Undecided.
JENNY AGUTTER then makes her Guide Cats debut with Bungee Jumping For Lemmings, as does TIM BROOKE-TAYLOR in Mute Swan and EDWARD DE SOUZA in Disaster At Sea. This latter pair are two of the four miniatures on this CD - tiny little poems but still effective.
PRUNELLA SCALES, who appeared on Missing Persians, returns in No May; TREVOR PEACOCK, who appeared on both previous albums, returns with Inconsonants, a rumbling rumination on vowel movements; and then TONY HAWKS makes his debut with I Used To Be A Singer In A Rock Band, recalling a colourful nomadic life in which "M62" rhymes with "chemical loo". He’s followed by TESSA PEAKE-JONES (debut) and a strange addiction to needles in Acupuncture.
We are just about halfway, and there is still much fun to come. TIM BROOKE-TAYLOR returns in The Author’s Story, a rich feast of literary puns ("I’d like a plate o’ chips, with bacon, lamb and lots of browning"), ANDREW SACHS (debut) delivers the third miniature, On Performing Poetry ("It’s nice/When poems are concise"), and JENNY AGUTTER returns to gather her Garden Waste.
After that MICHAEL COCHRANE, who plays Tory farmer and huntsman Oliver Sterling in The Archers, makes his debut with sentiments which are either the same or the exact opposite. In Home Improvement he wishes to "have a conservative face down among the nettles and up against the wall". Make of that what you will.
PETER DONALDSON makes his debut with My Phone’s Out Of Order, a laconic account of the frustrations of dealing with BT; JUDI SPIERS makes hers with three dogs confusingly called Go, Stay And Fetch; and ANDREW SACHS is back to tell us of the world’s most incompetent inventor in Leonardo Da Thingy.
KEN BRUCE, who was on the first Guide Cats album, adopts a richer Scots accent than his normal Radio 2 one for MacPherson’s Lament; and NORMA DIXIT (debut) recites Reg Was A Lonely Glow Worm, a poignant ballad about a beetle who falls in love with a cigarette end.
GERARD McDERMOTT, who was on both earlier albums, returns to lampoon the paranoia of The X-Files in The Y Files; JOSS ACKLAND is back to anticipate his demise in Oh Lord When I Die; CHRISTOPHEr CAZENOVE (debut) urges us not to be slaves to the clock in Chronology; CLARE BALDING and JIMMY McGRATH go to Epsom for their debuts in The Charge Of The Light Brigade (Barker’s version, definitely not Tennyson’s), and Top Cat ends with the fourth and last miniature, The Secret, again from EDWARD DE SOUZA.
A word must also go to BCAB member Peter Bosher for making the album sound so good. On the last album, he was a sound-recordist. This time, he has been elevated to producer, responsible for both Agutter tracks, the spoof horseracing and quite a bit more. He is just one of a number of remarkably talented individuals who have made this album the joy that it is; and if you like this, you'll certainly like Guide Cats for the Blind (Osmo CD020/021) featuring The Shipping Forecast by Brian Perkins and The Missing Persians File (Osmo CD032) featuring Non Sequiturs by Roger Lloyd Pack. Both are available from all good record stores and online music shops and from www.bcab.org.ukk