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.

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