The Man in the Wooden Hat

75min long BBC Radio adaptation of the novel by Jane Gardam (also presented in 5 x 15 min instalments) written by Pete Atkin and directed by Martin Jarvis. It’s a decades spanning tale beginning post WW II involving a woman (Olivia Williams) and her somewhat polite marriage to a staid English lawyer, affectionately nicknamed “Filth” (ie: Failed In London, Try Hong Kong), played by veteran actor Michael York. Their lives together taking them back and fourth between England and colonial Hong Kong (where they are both from, though they are ethnically British).

It has a good cast, including Williams and York, and with Jarvis providing the narration. But at a bit over an hour, it frankly comes across as a synopsis of a story that might have been interesting in its entirety. But here it just leaves you feeling you‘ve missed out on whatever it‘s selling. Important, motive-defining relationships are presented in just a few episodic scenes, some set years apart, and with the story relying heavily on the narration to basically just tell the story (and explain motivation) rather than because it’s conveyed in the scenes. I mean, maybe I’m just dense, or wasn’t paying attention, but the title of the story seems to refer to a supporting character who is introduced at the beginning, referenced only in passing later, and then hinted at toward the end — but for the life of me I can’t figure out why he was seen as so significant to the title!

Maybe the flaw is Gardam’s source novel (though I believe it was well regarded). For that matter, this is one of two or three interconnected novels (the previous one called Filth — the name of York’s character) which might further explain problems as perhaps you’re supposed to bring some extra understanding to it (but I’m not sure the previous novel has been dramatized). But ultimately I’m putting this mainly down to the difficulty of trying to squeeze a novel into 75 minutes. Maybe because it covers such a long period, and is deliberately episodic, it was hard for the adapters to simply pare it to the bone and figure out what to focus on. The result is the good performances and nice sense of period & place aside, it feels like it’s missing a lot of scenes that would make the existing scenes make more sense.

Dalek Empire (series I – IV)

Big Finish has been having great success producing popular (and critically acclaimed) Doctor Who full cast audio dramas, but is always on the look out to expand its line beyond simply Doctor Who. And part of that has been to try spin-offs from Doctor Who that could benefit from the association, while nonetheless allowing them to create a new property — ranging from Jago & Litefoot, to Graceless, to Vienna.

With Dalek Empire — mostly written and directed by Nicholas Briggs — they took  the recurring alien villains from Doctor Who and feature them in sagas in which the Doctor doesn’t appear — allowing them to create new heroes and, arguably, a darker, grittier air (since there’s no Time Lord in a magic box to sweep in and save the day). Think of it in the way there have been whole franchises created around the creatures from Alien, or The Predator movies — same villains, different heroes. (Funnily, I think there was talk of a Dalek-focused TV series in the 1960s!) And you don’t really need to be familiar with Doctor Who to listen to these (since the Daleks could be any alien invaders). There are occasional cryptic references but not important to understanding the plot here (though Big Finish preceded this series with a few official Doctor Who plays under the umbrella title Dalek Empire).

The potential downside for someone like me is that, for all the Daleks are Doctor Who’s most identifiable villains — they are really, really annoying. I mean, they are one-dimensional and their shrill voices are grating and the prospect of a whole (audio) series featuring them just seemed uninspiring. So I gave this a pass for a long time. But it turns out that at times it’s shockingly good!

Series I and Series II (2001-2003)

The first two series (four episodes per series and ranging from about 55 to 70 min each episode) form one eight episode arc, albeit with a shift in focus. The first series, instead of being simply plucky heroes getting into big fights with Daleks — which could be bland and just noisy in audio — actually goes for a more intriguing theme, about living under the occupation of the fascist Daleks. Two of the main heroes being Susan “Suz” Mendes (Sarah Mowat) and Kalendorf (Gareth Thomas) who manage to convince the Daleks they will get better use out of their captured populations by treating them humanely, rather than exclaiming “exterminate” at the drop of a hat. So Suz is working to save human lives, dubbed the “Angel of Mercy” in the occupied human colonies — but is equally viewed as a human traitor, the public face advocating collaboration with the Daleks. A moral quandary that eats away at her and Kalendorf both — even though they are secretly working with the resistance in a long term plan to overthrow the Daleks. As I say, it’s a smarter, more political/character based story than you might expect (and putting me in mind of the early 1980s U.S. TV mini-series, “V”, also about covert resistance under an occupation rather than simply shoot outs). Additional characters include a government agent, Alby (Mark McDonnell), more actively fighting Daleks on the outside of the occupied planets — but in love with Suz and trying to reunite with her. Although building to a climax after four episodes — it ends on a cliff hanger taking us into series two.

Here it’s more what I first expected — a lot of interstellar fighting with Daleks, except with an added twist that the humans have found an unlikely — and uncertain — ally. It’s certainly grandiose and “big-budget” — but it’s also quite compelling, with a heavy helping of secret agendas, double crosses, and moral quandaries, with maybe more focus on Kalendorf. That is season one could be seen as about Suz and Kalendorf (as well as Alby and others) while series two is more about Kalendorf and Suz (and Alby and others). There are some initially confusing, but ultimately effective, narrative tricks in the second series as each episode begins further in the story than you left it, as if you missed something — only to then have flashbacks fill in the gaps, And with the whole thing being framed by people millennia in the future reflecting back on the events. Although it ends setting things up for the third series set in this distant future, nonetheless the first two series form a complete and quite gripping epic. And one helped by good performances and interesting characters (and a nice, nonchalant use of U.K. dialects, with various characters English, Scottish, Welsh).

And with a special mention of Gareth Thomas, and a clever bit of typecasting — as Thomas is known to SF fans as the rebel hero Blake in TV’s Blake 7 (which Big Finish later added to its audio-only catalogue). So there is an added resonance to him playing another erudite sci-fi rebel — as if it’s Blake battling Daleks! He’s also just very good (based on this and other things I‘ve heard, Thomas seems fully comfortable with audio acting) — as is the cast in general.

For someone sceptical about the project, I must say the Series I/Series II arc is quite an impressive, intelligent, exciting and memorable sci-fi epic — all the moreso as it’s completely original to audio, as opposed to being adapted from some novel or something. To be honest, if it had been higher profile, written as a novel, or filmed as a movie or TV mini-series — I suspect it might be considered an SF classic!

Series III (2004)

Series II was framed by characters in a distant future learning about those long past events. Series III begins in that future — a future so far removed from the Dalek wars that the Daleks don’t even exist as a rumour! So when there are vague and unconfirmed reports about a possible incursion by mysterious “Daleks” it is treated more as a curiosity than a galactic threat.

In a way, Series III is more like what I might have expected from the series — at least, it seems like a more traditional Dr. Who type take on a Dalek story only, y’know, without Dr. Who. Yet it too emerges as a surprisingly exceptional effort — here spread over 6 episodes (although some of the episodes begin with a deliberately choppy mash-up of overlapping scenes that might put off a listener — but they settle down quickly into more conventional tellings). In this case the Dalek’s are just an added factor in an emerging galactic schism as some outer colony worlds start to secede from a interplanetary alliance, the regional schism partly fuelled by the colonies being struck by a plague and quarantined by the central worlds. A plague the Daleks claim they can cure, so form an alliance with the rebel worlds. So there are themes of prejudice, regional bigotry, fascism and “following orders.”

The strength here is the unusually big cast of characters. So we get a rather broad canvassed view of the building conflict, essentially three or four different storylines that slowly tie together, the various characters becoming drawn into each other’s story — ranging from planetary park wardens on a world who are the first to discover the Dalek’s sinister side, to Galactic intelligence agents trying to figure out what’s going on, and more. It’s also got a uniformly fine cast, including David Tennant, Ishia Bennison, William Gaunt, Steve Elder, Laura Rees and others all bringing the roles to life, giving us people that involve us (and, as mentioned, it’s an unusually large cast for a BF audio drama — indeed, the overall production seems like BF spared few expenses).

A special mention must go to David Tennant, whose character doesn’t even come into play until an episode or two, but quickly emerges as one of the central heroes. Tennant had already worked with BF on a few projects, and would shortly be cast as Dr. Who on TV. But despite Tennant facing off against Dalek’s — you don’t find yourself thinking of his Dr. Who too much, his character here sufficiently different. And Tennant always seems comfortable with audio and radio plays — and is an effective and vocally charismatic performer.

As I say, it might seem less “atypical” compared to Series I/II, but it’s equally ambitious in its own way and quite a gripping, top drawer effort, keeping you guessing where and how it’ll all tie together, and with interesting characters to keep you emotionally involved. You don’t generally need familiarity with Series I/II (given it’s set thousands of years later) but it does tie into it and make references to it occasionally. Strangely, although it does build to a climax, it still feels as though it was meant to continue into the next series since the climax is more about the heroes finally exposing the Dalek threat rather than actually stopping it. But maybe since Dalek battle stories are a dime a dozen in Dr. Who, they figured this was the more interesting story to tell.

Because by the time series IV came along (many months later) it had no relation to Series III and, indeed, was throwback to the era of Series I…

Series IV (released 2007)

As mentioned, series IV is a throwback to the era of series I — an untold story from another part of the war. It took a long time to get made, and one might wonder if that was partly because creator Nicholas Briggs himself was running out of ideas. Because it’s probably the weakest of the three arcs and it’s certainly the most traditional, or at least most like what I expected the series to be from the beginning. A big, brash, testosterone-driven, grunts in space adventure. In this case the focus is on a Salus Kade, a single-minded, takes no guff space soldier, as well as General Landen, the superior officer who first recruited him.

There’s plenty of action and shooting and daring space missions (the plot two or three stories that segue into each other). But even here there’s a certain ambition in terms of the characterization. At first Kade seems a bit one-note, just the driven, single-focus, soldier’s-soldier, but eventually you realize the characterization is kind of at the heart of it, and particularly the uneasy relationship between Kade and Landen. The casting is definitely aimed at Whovians, with Kade played by Noel Clarke (Mickey from the modern Dr. Who TV series) and Maureen O’Brien as Landen (who played young Vicky years ago during the Hartnell years). Both are good — especially O’Brien (ironic given she admits in interviews she doesn’t like sci-fi) — and nothing like their more familiar Who roles. Indeed, there was some suggestion that Kade was specifically written for Clarke as a counterpoint to his comical Mickey persona — and that the serious, macho Kade is closer to his real personality!

It isn’t that series IV is bad just, as I say, more what you would expect from the Dalek concept — and part of the reason I was hesitant to try the series to begin with. Though the third episode tries an interesting trick of telling the scenes in reverse order (unless there was something wrong with my copy!) which created an interesting suspense, as we’re waiting to see, not what will happen, but what led up to what’s happening. But the characters aren’t as complex (and being mainly soldiers, of limited personality types) and with its smaller core cast, the plotting isn’t as twisty.

So as I say: Series IV is certainly okay, and might better appeal to those who like their military SF ala Starship Troopers. But the early arcs are the more intriguing, with bigger core casts, and more Byzantine plotting — from the compelling political/moral dilemmas of Series I/II to the twisty, multi-character espionage-like plot of Series III.

All in all, for someone like me who was dubious about the Dalek-focus nature of the series, I’ve got to admit they delivered some surprisingly rich and ambitious — and entertaining — epics.

SILK: The Clerk’s Room

Silk was a BBC TV series about lawyers (“silk”, I believe, referring to the higher status lawyers aspire to — Q.C.). Anyway, BBC Radio then did a spin-off of 45 min. dramas after the TV series was over (3 episodes in 2014 though whether more might be a possibility, I dunno) — possibly just called The Clerk‘s Room (as opposed to Silk: The Clerk‘s Room).

I’ve never seen the TV version, but I’m assuming it was a fairly typical legal series, so my impression is the radio version drew upon some of the same characters and actors (including Theo Barklem-Biggs, Amy Wren, John Macmillan, Neil Stuke, Jessica Henwick and others)  but inverted the formula. That is, the TV series was mainly about the lawyers, with their clerks as supporting players — while in the radio version, the focus is on the clerks, with the lawyers more the supporting players. In England (moreso than in Canada or the U.S.) the clerks can kind of be the power-behind-the-throne in chambers (ie: law offices) as they organize schedules and dole out briefs according to what lawyer is available — so can have a big influence on how the office is run and even a lawyer’s career.

Each of the three episodes focused on a different junior clerk who narrated (the episodes titled “Jake”, “Bethany” and “John”) so taking on aspects of anthology, and with some time perhaps between episodes. Jake is featured in “Jake”, is a significant supporting player in “Bethany”…yet is supposed to have quit the chambers by “John.”

And the result is quite strong. Tightly-paced and the different perspective on a legal drama providing a novel grist for stories — though it might be significant that arguably the strongest was “Bethany” which, in a way, hews the closest to being a more typical court room drama, as Bethany takes pity on a lawyer going through a slump (and whom the head clerk is deliberately trying to freeze out) and more actively helps him with his trial. But all three episodes are well acted and interesting dramas and, as I say, benefiting from utilizing the familiar legal milieu in an unfamiliar way.

And, as noted, I haven’t seen the TV series so although I’m sure familiarity with it would be a plus, in order to appreciate some of the background to the relationships, it’s certainly not essential since I still found the stories quite compelling.

Inspector MORSE

Colin Dexter’s cantankerous, hard drinking police inspector whose beat is the halls of academia in Oxford, England has enjoyed success in print and on TV (played by John Thaw, and even leading to the successful spin-off, The Inspector Lewis Mysteries, wherein his sidekick is promoted and takes centre stage while utilizing the same milieu).

And on BBC Radio  some of the novels have been adapted into at least three feature length plays (some serialized in half-hour or 45 minute instalments). John Shrapnel is superb as the caustic, impatient anti-hero — obviously he’s working with an established, popular personality, but his delivery nicely captures the sense of a hard-to-like character who you do, nonetheless, like. And Robert Glenister is understatedly effective as his long-suffering sergeant, Lewis. And the performances in general are top notch, as is the sense of environment.

Of the three 90 minute productions, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1996) is perhaps the most conventional detective-mystery, investigating an initial murder (of a deaf teacher/professor) and drawing upon the world of academia that’s at the heart of the series. While Last Seen Wearing (1994) has a more atypical hook, involving Morse and Lewis taking on, not a murder, but a missing person cold case that had been a private obsession of a recently deceased detective. Murder does eventually result, but it allows the story to unfold in a slightly different way. Both productions are enjoyable and compelling, with twists and turns, mixing mystery, drama, and wry humour, but I’d argue Last Seen Wearing stands slightly ahead.

The Wench is Dead (1992) is a deliberately atypical tale (funny, given it was the first they adapted). In it Morse is laid up in hospital and, simply for a hobby, begins re-examining a controversial murder case from over a century before. I think the novel itself was the most critically acclaimed of the Morse books, and was, one suspects, meant as an homage to Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, which was also about a hospitalized detective playing arm chair detective with a historical mystery — though in that case, using real history (there‘s an effective reading of it by Paul Young produced for BBC Radio, and I think there may be a version read by Derek Jacobi). The Morse story is almost two tales — one is more a character drama of Morse laid up in hospital, and the other is the mystery (with flashback scenes). I enjoyed it more a second time through, buoyed by Shrapnel’s compelling performance, but didn’t find the mystery as twisty as in the other stories. So, still decent — but probably the lesser of the three plays.

But overall, the Morse radio dramatizations are top drawer.

The Highly Probable Noel Coward Mysteries

This was the umbrella title (or came to be the accepted title) for a 5 episode series of one-hour BBC Radio dramas from (I think) 2007 — whether they hoped to do more, or whether the one batch was all that was intended, I‘m not sure. Since the episodes go from the 1930s to the 1960s it‘s entirely probable they only intended these five. Anyway, writer Marcy Kahan imagines real life writer, actor, and bon vivant Noel Coward (played by Malcolm Sinclair) also acting as an occasional amateur detective and even spy (Coward did, apparently, do some work for British intelligence during WW II — though presumably nothing so dramatic). It’s all highly fictional, of course, but it’s obviously aimed at Coward aficionados, with supporting players like his assistants Lorn Lorraine (Eleanore Bron) and Cole Lesley (Tam Williams) and guest star characters often drawn from Coward’s real life circle of artists and celebritiy acquaintances.

Well performed by all and Kahan does capture a Coward-esque flavour to the milieu and the banter (even the opening credits tongue-in-cheekily introduce characters as Coward‘s “devoted” this and that). At the same time, like Coward’s work itself, it can often be clever…but that doesn’t mean it’s always laugh out loud funny. Of course that’s partly because, witty repartee aside, these are still mainly dramas. And the mysteries themselves, though perfectly okay, are unexceptional — often seeming as though the real point is just to hang with this (fictionalized) Noel Coward & friends and with the plots almost a secondary aspect!

Although essentially dramas (well, witty dramas) it might actually have benefited from a live audience who could chuckle at the dialogue…further evoking the sense of a Coward play.

For my money the best of the batch is the final — Our Man in Jamaica, with guest characters including Ian Fleming and Marlene Dietrich, and with Coward getting caught up in a plot with James Bond overtones. It’s the most fun because it deliberately takes itself the least seriously — more clearly a comic romp than the others which were more straight mystery-dramas but with Coward-esque badinage.

Ultimately a likeable, perfectly decent — and certainly well executed — series, but Coward fans are more likely to appreciate it than non-Coward fans (such as myself) for whom the characters and settings will have less resonance. The episodes include: Design for Murder, Blithe Spy, A Bullet at Balmain’s, Death at the Desert Inn. But, as I say, the one that most succeeded as an amusing romp was Our Man in Jamaica.

Professor CHALLENGER

Professor George Edward Challenger enjoys a kind of odd placing in popular fiction — that of an “almost” iconic character. He only appeared in a small handful of short stories and novels, but as they were written by Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, that makes him the 2nd most important character created by one of the most famous authors in the English language! As well, Challenger was a principle character in Doyle’s The Lost World, a seminal novel in adventure/fantasy fiction, and which has been adapted innumerable times to film and radio, with Challenger played (on screen) by, among others, Wallace Beery, John Rhys-Davies, Patrick Bergin and Bob Hoskins and on radio/audio by Armin Shimerman and others.

So within certain circles Challenger is an iconic character — yet other than The Lost World (which remains perennially in print), his other appearances tend to be more obscure (or simply get re-issued in hopes to cash in on the Lost World/Sir Doyle connection). Other than The Lost World I don’t think any other Challenger story has been adapted to film or TV.  And part of that is because I’m just not sure his other stories were really, well, that good. They are fantasy/early SF stories (rather than the secular mysteries of Sherlock Holmes) and Doyle himself seemed to approach them often with tongue-in-cheek — or at least so the rather vague and loose logic would imply, where “plot” and “character” could seem subordinate to simply presenting an outlandish concept. While Challenger himself was deliberately eccentric — a brilliant scientist but arrogant, bombastic, aggressive (assaulting those with whom he disagreed) — he was supposed to be outrageous, but as such not easily relatable (Doyle might have been better to treat the characters of The Lost World as a set cast, rather than simply re-using Challenger).

Anyway, at long last in 2011 the BBC produced two half hour adaptations of two of the original Challenger short stories, When the World Screamed and The Disintegration Machine. Bill Paterson is nicely cast as Challenger, capturing the jaunty tone and outrageous personality while keeping it grounded and real. But as I say, the stories themselves were uneven as simply stories. In the When the World Screamed Challenger attempts an experiment to prove the planet earth itself is a living being (told you the ideas were a bit scientifically dubious) while the other has him investigating the invention of a disintegration machine that authorities worry will be sold to foreign spies. In both cases the idea seems to take precedence over the plot, and they are tongue-in-cheek without quite being comedy. I’m not faulting the adapters, who do a good job, but the source material.

One wonders if these adaptations were all that was intended, or whether the producers had hopes to adapt all the Challenger stories as a series, maybe even climaxing with another version of The Lost World. Perhaps the longer stories might have had better developed plots (though years ago I seem to recall reading the short novel, The Poison Belt — or some of it at any rate — and not finding it that effective). Certainly with Paterson on board as a consistent element it might have been interesting to have tried a complete cycle of adaptations. But as it stands, the two radio dramas basically are interesting simply as chance to experience Doyle’s “other” hero, but fail to quite reveal themselves as lost classics.

Chiwawa

45 minute BBC Radio drama (from 2014) in which a well known author is embarrassingly “outted” for having posted on-line reviews (under the user name “chiwawa”) — reviews not only praising his own books, but dissing the books of competing writers. So his good-hearted personal assistant (Pippa Nixon) is offered a deal (and pressured) to falsely claim she was responsible for the posts.

A kind of quietly low-key drama/social satire that feels like it takes the themes of some old tale about morals and mores and rephrases it for the modern world — as if G.B. Shaw had written a play about the internet and 21st Century celebrity! Good performances (the cast including Fenella Woolgar and Michael Bertenshaw) and sharp, clever dialogue makes it all crisp and clippie — it’s a drama, but the sly dialogue is also quite witty. My main quibble is one of production — some of the voices of the female actors are similar to each other, so I had (a bit of) trouble distinguishing characters in some scenes. But other than that — quite good. Script writer Melissa Murray also wrote the radio play Theremin which I also quite liked.