Theremin

1 hr BBC Radio drama from 2009 written by Melissa Murray, starring Tom Hollander and Kate Ashfield. It’s an odd drama in that it’s a mix of espionage and character drama, about real-life Russian inventor and musician, Leon Theremin. In 1929 London he’s acting as a spy for the Soviet Union but finding himself increasingly caught in the middle between his Soviet masters and British and American authorities — and of his strained relationship with an English girl and musician who both loves and hates him.

An effective, interesting drama, well acted, with a nice sense of period and its mix of (low-key) suspense and human drama. But I describe it as “odd” simply because I’m not really sure how much (or if at all) this is based on any sort of factual history! And if entirely fictional, seems like an odd premise (Writer: “Hey, let’s do a drama where Leon Theremin is actually a spy!” Programmer: “Um…who?”) Still, as I say: quite effective and compelling in a kind of Graham Greene sort of way.

The Psychedelic Spy

An original-to-BBC Radio spy thriller (told in five 45 minutes episodes) first aired in 1990, this espionage serial by Andrew Rissik seemed as though it was meant to be a deliberate melding of James Bond with the cynical fatalism of John LeCarre…with an even more nihilistic edge. The story has a burned out British spy (James Aubrey), trying to settle down with a nice girl, coerced back for another job — but he’s not just a spy, but an assassin (that is, James Bond may have had a license to kill…but this guy, that’s one of his main job descriptions). It’s the 1960s and he’s sent to investigate goings on at a joint UK-US tropical research base where nothing is quite what it seems.

So, as I say, very James Bond-y (British agent on a tropical island investigating a top secret project — even the score seems to be lifting melodies from frequent Bond composer John Barry, as well as using heavily evocative 1960s psychedelic pop rock) yet married with a bleak, angst-riddled fatalism. Unfortunately…it just struck me as all dressed up with nowhere to go!

It’s a great, moody production, the use of (evocative) music is effective and the ambient sound really does make you feel the beach and other locations (as opposed to seeing the actors in a sound booth), and with good performances (some with spy movie antecedents, like Joanna Lumley of The New Avengers, and Charles Gray, who played Blofeld in a Bond film). But like a few similar espionage stories over the years, they’re intent on the kind of story they are trying to evoke (a bleak, cynical spy story of grey shade morality and murky motives) but unsure how to do it. It’s not so much murky…as muddled and vague, with clues and suppositions we’re just supposed to accept on faith, but where nothing really holds up to much scrutiny, and the amorality is just too over-the-top (the hero is supposed to be disgusted by his job…yet he’s the one who then proposes assassinating an innocent person!) Part of the story involves a disappearance in the Bermuda Triangle…without really creating an eerie, supernatural vibe.

Above all — it’s just too long and thinly plotted. Conversations ramble on, and the characters repeat themselves seeming just to boost the running time (for a radio drama with boundless potential…it can come across as a budget-restricted TV movie). As a tight, 90 min. or 2 hr play it might’ve worked better. Ultimately, I listened to it twice (a few years apart) and found it more aggravating than entertaining both times. A real shame, ‘cause as I say, as a production, in terms of sound design and performances, quite effective.

The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood novel adapted across six half hour episodes by Michael O’Brien in, I think, 2005, for CBC Radio. It falls into pretty familiar/genric “Lit genre” grooves (elderly woman reflects back on her life, the secrets and iniquities that plagued her and her family, her religiously conservative small town childhood, her loveless marriage, and her troubled relationship with her sister who died — possibly by suicide — decades earlier.)

Frankly, it struck me as kind of tedious — sorry, but true.

Whether that’s a problem with the source novel (which I haven’t read) or the adaptation, I don’t know. As I say, it’s pretty familiar stuff for this kind of “Can Lit” exercise, and uses a story-within-a-story-within-a-story format that, personally, I found uninvolving (inbetween dramatizing past events, we keep cutting away to excerpts from a novel written by one of the characters — the eponymous “Blind Assassin” — a novel in which a character is telling another character a fantasy/SF story). It’s all supposed to be symbolic and meaningful, but was just too many layers down for me to care (since the novel/radio drama is itself a fiction — so it’s a fictional story about a fictional story about a fictional story…) Add to that competent but rather drily professional performances (from a decent cast including Patricia Hamilton, Amy Rutherford, Fiona Reid, Robert Bockstael, and Tom McCamus), and it was just hard to care, emotionally. A story about not very interesting people leading dreary, unpleasant lives.

Air Force One

2013 one hour BBC Radio drama (though with an American cast) written by Christopher Lee (not the veteran actor) and directed by Martin Jarvis (who is the actor) about the immediate hours following the John F. Kennedy assassination, focusing on Vice President Lyndon Johnson (Stacy Keach), Jackie Kennedy (Glenne Headly), Secret Service people, etc. It‘s based, apparently, on public knowledge, unearthed inquiry reports and — of course — the writer’s speculation (allowing for a lot of deliberate ambiguity — so there are hints of some “conspiracy”…without quite pointing fingers).

Well made (with a particularly good turn from Keach) and surprisingly atmospheric and effective, maybe because despite the JFK assassination much recycled in stories, this pulls back the curtain on events not necessarily the focus of other dramatizations (or, at least, referenced but not depicted). More a taught political drama than a thriller (as mentioned, not quite committing itself to any POV, with Johnson seeming both sympathetic and self-serving). A kind of grounds eye view of events, as the characters themselves are only learning about the events as they transpire. And, despite the familiarity of the story, compelling.

Neverwhere

2013 BBC Radio adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s urban fantasy saga, told in 3.5 hrs over six episodes (the first ep. 1 hr long, the rest ½ hr long). I’ve often thought radio dramas are a good place to tell stories that would be hard to film, yet funnily a lot of BBC Radio series and plays often have already been done for TV or as movies (perhaps dating from the days when the BBC would sometimes re-do popular TV shows for radio and LP records at a time when a large portion of the population didn’t have TVs). In the case of Neverwhere it actually began as a TV mini-series in 1996, then became a novel, with an accompanying single voice audio book, a play and a comic book.

Still, with all those versions — this remains an excellent, engaging presentation (and there was some suggestion the TV series, which I haven’t seen, and though well regarded, suffered from the to-be-expected budget problems).

It’s adapted by Dirk Maggs, a radio producer whom I tend to be ambivalent about, as his productions often tend toward camp and pacing that can border on frenetic — but maybe here it was tempered because although he wrote the script and handled the sound design, it was actually directed by its producer, Heather Larmour. And it boasts a great cast, including James MacAvoy, Natalie Dormer, David Harewood, Anthony Head, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sophie Okonedo, Bernard Cribbins, Christopher Lee and others.

Richard (voiced by MacAvoy), a mild mannered Londoner, discovers a mystical world beneath the city streets — part refuge of the homeless, part mystical land of sentient rats, fallen angels, monsters and magic — a world of which no one in “London Above” is aware, and once Richard is drawn into it, he finds he’s literally become invisible to those he used to know. He ends up going on a quest with the Lady Door (Dormer) and various other eccentric characters, to discover why her family was murdered and why the killers are after her — and also in the hopes that Richard can return to his old life above.

It’s a deliberate mix of comedy and whimsy with danger, suspense and horror, and is both wildly imaginative and dreamlike at times — even as, at other times (for such a clearly successful property, given all its different media incarnations) it’s fairly obvious and clichéd in terms of concepts and ideas (from the somewhat contrived “quest” template, to referencing Lost Atlantis, to the comic-creepy villains who use big words and talk in mock formality, addressing each other as “Mister __”). But clichés are clichés because when done well, they work — and they’re done well here. Indeed, one could argue the familiarity of some aspects is part of the appeal.

As well, I suspect a part of the point of the story was to Romanticize London itself, scenes taking place in (or referencing) real London locations (or fantasy versions of them).

Ultimately, engrossing and atmospheric — the sort of story that, given the required sets and effects, and TV version accepted, is well suited to a “movie in your mind” presentation.

The Legend of Robin Hood

90 min. BBC radio drama from 1992 of the Robin Hood story, which may well be one of the few — or only — attempts to feature the character in radio (other than the occasional one off story in an Old Time Radio anthology). It stars John Nettles, Gerry Hinks and Carolyn Backhouse and was scripted by John Fletcher (which, let’s face it, is the bestest name ever for a guy writing a Robin Hood story!)

Unfortunately, it’s disappointing — even annoying, suffering from an acute case of self-importance. Instead of telling a Robin Hood movie in audio (with character development, and a linear plot) it, as the title “legend of…” implies, spans years and is episodic, comprised of little vignettes (no less than two captured-by-the-sheriff-and-rescue sequences within a few minutes of each other) and presumes we already know the story and uses that as a crutch so it doesn’t really develop the characters or relationships.

Then there’s a lengthy mid-story sequence with Robin and Little John off on the Crusades which, though part of some versions of the legend, doesn’t really feel like a “Robin Hood” story (almost as if Fletcher had wanted to write a play about the Crusades but could only interest a producer if he inserted Robin into it)…and still is more just a collection of moments and voice overs as opposed to gelling into a “plot.” Presumably part of the point was to try a certain historical realism, Fletcher having researched the period (and descriptions of the Holy Land), and with a greater emphasis on Robin’s Christianity (not — necessarily — in a proselytizing way, but simply for authenticity), yet also nods to paganism (strangely, I half wondered if Marion was supposed to be a mystical wood nymph or something at first, her initial scenes are so odd) and with evocative period music.

It feels pretentious. Full of voiceovers, poetic monologues, reflections on Christianity, and disjointed incidents, without really gelling into an actual plot about characters we like or care about. I’ll admit, Robin Hood is one of those iconic characters I have a great fondness for…yet rarely have I found a Robin Hood movie/book that really captured what I’m looking for in a telling of the tale. The swashbuckling Adventures of Robin hood (with Errol Flynn) and the bittersweet Robin & Marion (with Sean Connery) being my two favourite Robin Hood movies.

Rendezvous With Rama

2009 two-hour BBC Radio adaptation (aired in two parts) of the classic Arthur C. Clark novel about an expedition sent to investigate a vast, mysterious space craft that has entered the solar system. Decently acted, with a cast that includes Richard Dillane and Archie Panjabi, and when the script sticks to the crew investigating the vessel, it’s moderately effective (even if it requires a lot of dialogue describing the awesome things they see).

But cutaways to the surrounding political/religious stuff just feels drily academic, as does a framing sequence where it’s being told years later by the characters reflecting back on the events for a documentary — which means it can feel like you’re well into it before the story proper even starts! Plus, like a lot of these kind of SF stories, it’s more a procedural than a human drama (the characters are likeable, but not well defined, or given any soap opera-y plot threads) and despite all the build up, with the characters reflecting back on the events, and cryptically suggesting the whole truth has never before been told…it builds to a predictable and rather Shaggy Dog ending.

Some of these may be attributable to the source novel, some to Mike Walker’s adaptation, but the result is mixed…and better in the second half than the first. I haven’t read the source novel (but I did read a bit about it) and certainly some criticisms of the novel seemed to be it was largely a procedural, devoid of much real characterization.

My impression is this adaptation stuck close to the book in some respects but — and somewhat atypical for a radio dramatization — re-imagined the story in other ways, perhaps to make it seem more relevant to the modern world. The emphasis on political in-fighting among the planetary governments (analogous to U.N. squabbles) and heavy emphasis on religious vs. secular debates may’ve been added to the radio story (adapter Mike Walker also wrote the original SF radio drama, Alpha, which likewise put a heavy emphasis on religious/secular debates — I’ll be posting a review of that shortly, or might already have done so depending in when you’re reading this). Obviously, one can sympathize with a scriptwriter, charged with adapting a novel that may have inherent weaknesses. But all the bells and whistles of the radio version (political/religious talk, the documentary framing) seems like it’s just an attempt to distract from an inherently weak narrative — without actually improving it.

Much of the scenes and dialogue (including banter among the crew) is repetitious and just feels like it’s stuck in to pad the running time, or to add to a sense of cinema verité “realism”, rather than because it contributes to the story or emotion. And the philosophical/political talk just feels like a place holder for political/philosophical talk, rather than because it’s truly insightful or provocative or offers anything fresh (First Contact stories are kind of bread and butter in SF). The characters may spout on about religion and politics — but that doesn’t mean the scriptwriter is actually grappling profoundly with these ideas.

Ultimately, without characters (and relationships) to engage us, without a human connection, all you’re left with is a pretty basic story of astronauts finding a derelict vessel, wandering about and ooh-ing and awe-ing at a few mysterious-but-never-explained sights, and then it ends without even a token twist or significant climax.

The Leopard

2008 90 min BBC Radio adaptation by Michael Hastings of the classic novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, basically chronicling the end of the age of the aristocracy by focusing on a wealthy Italian family circa the mid-19th  Century while society changes around them in the midst of on going civil wars and strife, focusing in particular on the proud, imperious patriarch, Don Fabrizio (Stanley Townsend) — the “leopard” of the title — and his favourite nephew, Tancredi (Tom Hiddleston) who enthusiastically fights for various rebels.

It’s one of those productions that isn’t bad…but didn’t quite click for me.

I think it’s partly condensing it into 90 min (even an earlier movie version ran 3 hrs!). Instead of simply getting caught up in the characters and soap opera, you can find that, reduced to its core elements, you aren’t really sure what its point is, and don’t really get involved with the characters. Characters come and go, barely appearing until relevant to a particular scene, and often emotions, motivation, and plot points are bluntly explained in dialogue or laid out in voiceover narrations.

I’ll admit, I partly was keen to listen to it because it featured Hayley Atwell, who (whom?) I’ve liked in various movie and TV roles. But though she’s certainly a significant character (playing Angelica, whom Tancredi marries), given the running time and the size of the cast, it wasn’t that big, or well-defined, a part. She only really is in a few scenes, with a few lines — so, a disappointment if you tuned in for her! Not that that‘s important overall (it‘s not like the production was marketed as “starring” Atwell or anything) but I‘m just putting my biases on the table (looking at some other write ups about this production, a lot of the commentators I’m guessing were female and Tom Hiddleston fans).

Although I could fault creative choices in this adaptation, I’m inclined to say the main problem was simply that it was just inadvisable to try and squeeze the story into 90 minutes, and it might have been better to do a longer, serialized adaptation (mind you, I haven’t read the novel, so maybe I’d have the same issues with the source). Ultimately it’s a production that might appeal to fans of the novel, simply as a way of evoking the book, and it’s not badly made — enough so that it doesn’t discourage you from seeking out the book — without being that compelling on its own.

Chocky

There have been a few BBC Radio versions of John Wyndham’s novel about a 12 year old boy, Michael, whose parents begin to wonder if his precociously curious imaginary playmate…might not be imaginary after all. The presence in his head seeming to understand concepts far beyond the grasp of a 12 year old! Even with the internet, it’s hard to track down the right info (at least, casually — like I’m doing). I’m not sure of the plot’s genesis as the novel was apparently published in 1968, but according to some references the first radio version was 1967 — maybe Wyndham first published it as a short story, or pitched it as a radio play before turning it into a novel. And I’m not entirely sure of the number of adaptations, or when they came out (or whether some might have used the same script, but with different actors).

Of the two I’ve actually heard, one was I think the original, hour long one done in 1967 (scripted by John Tydeman, starring Eric Thompson, Sheila Grant, J. Bennett), and another was a later 90 minute version (scripted by John Constable and starring Owen Teale, Cathy Tyson, Sacha Dhawan, and a young Holly Grainger as Michael‘s sister, Polly) — but there may have been others (the 90 minute one I heard was, I think, done in 1998).

Anyway, the two I’ve heard are well done, partly as a reflection of the productions themselves, partly as a reflection of just the inherent effectiveness of the material itself — which is almost more a sci-fi drama with aspects of suspense than a conventional suspense story (it can feel a bit anti-climactic by the end), but moody and compelling nonetheless. They both follow the material fairly faithfully, though with some cosmetic differences (in the 1967 play Michael creates some weird paintings, in the later one — perhaps more tailored to the audio format — it’s weird music he composes; and Polly is referenced but not portrayed in the shorter play) and maybe not-so cosmetic (in the 1967 version, Chocky is not really heard, but she/he is a voiced character in the later version).

Another change maybe reflects changing attitudes toward what’s “appropriate” — in the later version, there’s a pivotal scene where young Michael tries to cross a frozen lake, leading to a mishap…but in the 1967 version, Michael ends up in the water by accident…and (depending on which version was in the novel) one could well imagine radio producers initially being uncomfortable with a scene that might be seen as encouraging young people to do something as reckless as to try to cross a frozen lake!

Both versions are well acted. Though about a kid, it’s not actually a children’s program (the main character is as much, if not more, the father than young Michael)…though it’s certainly family friendly. Ultimately the later Teale/Dhawan version is the better version — less as a knock against the 1967 version which, as I say, is quite good, but simply by virtue of being longer, the story can develop a bit better, with the 1967 occasionally feeling rushed or abrupt.

Indeed, the 90 minute play is among my favourite radio plays — it’s atmospheric, and intriguing, and dramatic — and I’ve listened to it a few times over the last few years.

The Devil’s Music

BBC Radio drama from 2008, written by Alan Plater in three 45 minute episodes. The description can be a bit misleading, being about a modern day Welsh jazz musician who is told a tune she believes she is improvising actually dates back generations — a hook suggesting (at least to me!) maybe some sort of supernatural mystery (particularly with that title!) But it’s actually a sometimes light-hearted generational drama, the tune simply turning out to have been passed down through the family (so she realizes she must’ve just heard it as a child). And so she ends up learning about her unconventional family line (each woman in the family named Meghan — she’s Meghan V), and their association with music.

It’s basically a way of touching on 19th/20th Century history (post-slavery, suffragettes, unionism) and the roots of jazz as it relates to these women (the credits even acknowledge the script is based on historical research!) even getting into discussions of modern race relations. Funnily, Rakie Ayola — who appealingly voices Meghan V — is black but I was beginning to assume she was supposed to be playing a white character (being radio) since there was no mention of colour — until the final act when it is mentioned she’s black.

Despite some obvious, self-conscious earnestness, and quasi-educational aspects — it actually works as a kind of charming, low-key, quirkily light-hearted multi-generational drama, with a denouement that effectively brings things full circle. It actually held my attention better than some more obviously “dramatic” stories — perhaps helped by a good tempo and pacing and, as I say, a good-hearted charm. The likeable cast also includes Margaret John, Don Warrington, and others.