PAUL TEMPLE

Paul Temple appeared in novels and a series of popular radio serials by Francis Durbridge decades ago. In some respects they seemed like the ideal marriage of the kind of breezily sophisticated manor house mystery, ala Lord Peter Wimsey and the like, with a more pulpy, action flavour ala, say, Bulldog Drummond, the stories involving a little more shooting and cliff hangers than the simple arm chair detective mystery.

Paul Temple and his wife Steve are the usual upper middle class sophisticates (with a butler, yet!) — he writes mystery novels, but also acts as a consulting detective and is friends with the Police Commissioner. Many of the old serials are still rerun on BBC Radio and available on CD (with various actors essaying the role, though Paul Coke is often regarded as the definitive Paul). As well, in 2007-2009, the BBC decided to re-do some old serials for which the original recordings were lost. So they used the old scripts, but with new actors (and apparently, even restricting themselves to technology that would’ve been available at the time) with Crawford Logan as Paul and Gerda Stevenson as Steve.

I’ve listened to a few (both the old and the modern-era recreations) and they’ve all been eminently enjoyable, well produced and well acted. Usually eight half hour episodes per mystery, they’re full of twists and turns, mysterious clues and red herrings, that’ll keep you interested (though sometimes off-puttingly violent with them finding the bodies of people beaten to death!) — mixing, as I say, Agatha Christie whodunits with more of a gritty, pulp fiction aspect (there’s often some mysterious master criminal or gangster lurking behind the crimes, as opposed to the crimes being motivated by passion or personal larceny). Granted, they do tend to blend into each other, the stories recycling similar themes and formulas (often involving an early clue being a name scrawled in a diary, or on a memo, that no one can account for, and the search for some mysterious gang lord whose identity is revealed in the end) — but that maybe makes them better for repeated listens since you‘re unlikely to remember how the story plays out because you’re probably muddling it with the others! The constant twists and revelations (or revelations that the previous revelation was a lie!) mean that it can be a bit silly…but that’s part of the fun.

I have a particular fondness for Paul Temple and the Madison Mystery, but that may simply be because it was the first one I ever heard — but I also liked the atypical idea (for a crime story) that the initial death is entirely natural. A man dies of a heart attack on a cruise…but his death triggers a chain of criminal events.

There are also audio books of some of the novels (as opposed to full cast serials) but that’s less of my focus — I’m not sure if there’s much overlap (ie: a full cast serial and an audio book of the same story). The series overall is definitely highly recommended.

Ring for Jeeves

P.G. Wodehouse’s comic/satire stories of the British upper classes, as personified by oblivious Bernie Wooster and his smarter, but reserved, butler Jeeves, have seen a few audio/radio versions (as well as TV). The novel Ring for Jeeves (itself I believe based on a play, Come On, Jeeves) was adapted into 2 one-hour episodes for BBC Radio in 2014. It’s a little atypical in that Jeeves has been lent out to another oblivious gentleman, Bill, so it’s not about Wooster — the only Jeeves story not involving Wooster (though Bill is essentially the same character type, so perhaps the switch was to allow more plot freedom since the status quo doesn’t have to be maintained by the end of the story).

It’s a manor house comedy full of exaggeratedly typical British gentry (tally ho!) living on the cusp of the end of the Age of Aristocracy (here the 1950s) as they are having to get real jobs and deal with dwindling fortunes. Bill is in the process of trying to sell his estate (possibly to a wealthy American woman) while also dealing with the misadventures resulting from an ill-fated foray into being a racing bookie (after he ends up owing more money to a winner than he actually has). And there is a bit of a “play” vibe to it, as most of the action takes place on the estate over just a few days.

Perhaps the curious thing about it is that some of the actors are often associated more with drama, yet the story itself is pure light-hearted farce. But that results in a mixed effect. On one hand, you could argue the characters and dialogue demand a little more camp and OTT…on the other hand, maybe it lends the characters and situations a little more grounding, so that the whole doesn’t float away on a cloud of total frivolity. By that I don’t mean that the actors aren’t playing it as comedy — they are! — it’s just the characters can still seem a bit like, well, people, too. As such, maybe not as funny as it could be, but it’s maybe more slyly amusing and engaging than you might expect it to be. And where you have to pay attention to the dialogue to get the jokes.

Martin Jarvis stars as Jeeves and Jamie Bamber as Bill, with Rufus Sewell, Joanne Whaley, and American actress Glenne Headly in the cast. It’s a good cast, with Sewell in particular delightfully atypical as an aging, oblivious, aristocrat. Of course, I can’t say I’m a devoted fan of the Wodehouse/Jeeves stories in general, but I did enjoy this as a kind of breezy, amusing romp.

Insp. Adam DALGLIESH

Insp. Adam DALGLIESH, P.D. James’ laidback, erudite police Inspector has come to BBC radio in a couple of forms in (to date) 4 productions — all adaptations of published novels, serialized in multi-episode forms. Robin Ellis played the character in Cover Her Face and Devices & Desire and Richard Derrington played him in The Private Patient and A Taste for Death.

Vocally, Ellis is evocative of Roy Marsden who played the character on TV in the 1980s, leading one to wonder if that was a factor in the casting (though funnily I think P.D. James suggested she wasn’t entirely happy with Marsden’s casting — not a mark against him, I don’t think, just that he wasn’t how she imagined the character). Still, if you were familiar with and liked Marsden’s performance (as I did), it’s easy to adapt to Ellis’ radio version. Derrington sounded a bit older, seeming more like, well, a real police inspector.

And while the two Ellis productions were full cast plays, the Derrington productions seemed more like a cross between a full cast play and an audio book, with a heavy use of narration (switching between different actors/perspectives), even narrating entire scenes as opposed to dramatizing them. I don’t know how much it was a creative choice, and how much a budget decision, the mix of narration with full cast scenes obviously cheaper than an entirely dramatized production. Part of the problem is that Derrington and the others are essentially narrating the scenes in character, so they can’t really slip into character voices, making the narrated scenes a bit dry. I found A Taste for Death a bit uninvolving as a result, with even the dramatized scenes feeling a bit too much like actors reading their lines. Though The Private Patient I recall finding interesting enough.

Still, all are perfectly decent mysteries though maybe with a caveat that James’ stories may almost be too convoluted and twisty for radio! That is, moreso than other mysteries-adapted-to-radio (Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, etc.) I did find it a bit hard to keep track of who and what — maybe because James’ stories employ large casts which can be confusing in radio (where you’re trying to keep track of character names and whose voice is who). Though equally that’s the appeal of the stories — they can seem a bit bigger and more literary than just a dime novel whodunit? And though a popular character, it could be argued Dalgliesh isn’t that distinctive — you might not realize Ellis and Derrington were playing the same person (without them being radically different either). Probably my favourite was the fully dramatized Cover Her Face. Trivia note: Hugh Grant plays one of the suspects in Cover Her Face — presumably before his stardom.

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.

V.I. Warshawski

V.I. Warshawski, Sara Paretsky’s tough talking Chicago female detective/lawyer, had been featured in a series of successful mystery novels when she was portrayed by Kathleen Turner in an ill-fated, ill-reviewed Hollywood motion picture. But though the movie bombed, it may’ve succeeded in boosting the character’s profile, because shortly thereafter BBC Radio did some multi-episode adaptations of Paretsky’s novels. Two — Deadlock and Killing Orders — featured Turner again (despite the movie’s bad reviews, most felt Turner herself was well cast in the role) with a British cast (adopting American accents) and another — Bitter Medicine — has Sharon Gless taking over the title role (though with the same supporting cast and bluesy theme music indicating the BBC saw it as part of the same series). A fourth was, I gather, just a dramatic reading by yet another actress.

The full cast productions are decent, though uneven, with some broad supporting characters (as performed and written) and though the liberal/political undercurrents are actually kind of refreshing in a detective genre that’s usually more A-political or even conservative (the stories make points about religion, medicine, abortion, feminism, etc.) it can seem a bit stridently over-the-top — pedagogical pronouncements rather than stemming from natural conversations.

The first I heard was KILLING ORDERS (6 eps) as Warshawksi investigates when an aunt she hates is, nonetheless, implicated in a counterfeit stock crime, which leads to powers in the Catholic Church and attempts on Warshawksi’s life. Kathleen Turner is good, and the serial decent enough — though a bit uneven, whether as a fault of the novel itself or an occasionally clumsy attempt to turn it into six half hour episodes: emotions can ping pong around in a given scene, awkward expository dialogue is crammed in, even the basic plot can be a bit confusing (dealing as it does with a mixture of corporate crime and mob hits). Still, holds your interest, and with the largely British cast (other than Turner) doing credible American accents. Turner does the voiceover narration in a kind of quirky, breathless way — almost as though muttering to herself under her breath more than the “narrator voice” way such pieces are usually read/played by actors — for an interesting effect. DEADLOCK involved her investigating an ex-hockey player cousin’s mysterious death while he was working on a loading dock, leading her to uncover maritime malfeasance.

BITTER MEDICINE (6 eps) involves death and corruption at a ritzy hospital, and has some similar problems of a tendency for characters to erupt emotionally with little provocation (particularly her love/hate relationship with a blustering cop) but the plot maybe seems a little smoother developed. Sharon Gless is certainly good and seems comfortable with the audio format. But though I can’t put my finger on why, she’s maybe not quite as compelling as Turner was in the role.

Admittedly, my mixed feeling toward all three serials may stem from the source books (few of which have I yet read). Like a lot of detective novel heroes, there’s nothing here that really makes V.I. — or her cases — stand out from any other hero/heroine.

PERRY MASON

Earl Stanley Gardner’s lawyer-detective first came to audio life in a 1930s radio series — though with curious results, as it was done as basically a soap opera, with Mason — and the crime element — present, but apparently not always dominant. When it morphed into a TV series, Gardner even refused to allow them to continue using the name, and it became…The Edge of Night (a long running soap opera). That seemed to be it for decades as far as “official”* audio productions (*more on that in a moment) until:

2010 when the Colonial Radio Theatre started producing full cast, feature-length adaptations of the original novels. Though faithful to the books, fans of the popular (and arguably character defining) 1950s-1960s TV series with Raymond Burr might be a little surprised at this version of Perry — he’s flintier and more hard-boiled, and even more willing to bend the law. But they’re actually being true to the original books. And in other respects — fans of the TV series will feel right at home (same sort of cases, same supporting cast of Della Street, Paul Drake, etc.) as should fans of Gardner’s books.

They only made five (so far) which is too bad –’cause they’re highly enjoyable! That’s thanks, obviously in part, to simply sticking to Gardner’s original stories, with twists and turns, and also to a rapid fire pacing that never allows it to get dull (without feeling rushed or like the story is getting muddled by cramming it into the running time). And the lawyer-angle — as opposed to the hero being a cop or detective — gives the mysteries an extra twist, the cases often nicely convoluted, not just beginning with a body-in-the-library sort of thing.

Admittedly, at times the performances can seem a bit like actors in a community theatre — a talented community theatre, but still not quite top drawer stuff. Though Jerry Robins — who also directed — was effective as Perry. But although I’m saying some of the performers were a bit uneven…it was still perfectly good and despite a hard boiled Perry, equally evocative of the TV series (with the audio Paul Drake even sounding like TV‘s Drake). They CDs are well worth tracking down. The plays: The Case of The Sulky Girl, The Case of The Howling Dog, The Case of The Luck Legs, The Case of The Velvet Claws and The Case of The Curious Bride.

There’s one final — unofficial — addition to Perry Mason-in-audio: a few audio tracks of the popular, seminal TV series starring Raymond Burr sometimes float about the internet, popping up on Old Time Radio sites, though not official “audio” productions. The ones I’ve come across are The Case of The Angry Mourner, The Case of The Silent Partner, The Case of The Drowning Duck and The Case of The Restless Redhead. Because these are just the TV soundtracks, some of the action will be a bit confusing (as dramatic music plays and you aren’t sure what the actors are doing) but the talky nature of the Mason scripts means they still work surprisingly well, benefiting, of course, from the good scripts and from hearing the signature and fondly recalled actors in the roles. The Silent Partner perhaps suffers the most from the lack of visuals (a few scenes where action is occurring) but even it you can follow, and the others are surprisingly effective as audio dramas.

Inspector ALLEYN

Inspector ALLEYN, Ngaoi Marsh’s early/mid 20th Century police inspector, has appeared in four BBC radio adaptations (between 2001 – 2006) as hour long mysteries, starring Jeremy Clyde.

Eminently enjoyable and well produced…albeit largely interchangeable with any other similar series, Alleyn himself of the familiar “gentleman” detective archetype and not especially unique or anything. The fact that they seemed to be produced by the same people (such as scripter Michael Bakewell) behind various Agatha Christie radio adaptations and similar things perhaps furthering the familiar vibe. But as I say: briskly paced and quite enjoyable, often appealingly ensconced in archetypal, almost cliched, English mystery milieus — one about a murder during a “murder game” at an English estate (A Man Lay Dead), another about back stage at a theatre (Opening Night), another involving a quirky family of quasi-nobility who live like the idle rich…even though they’re broke (A Surfeit of Lampreys)! The fourth takes place amid tourists in Italy (When in Rome).

The fact that these are novels shoe-horned into hour long plays might make purists balk, but whatever is excised in the translation, they work well in that format, well paced and well performed. Of course the fact that so many seem to revolve around a set location with a limited cast (even When in Rome, with Alleyn on assignment in Rome and getting caught up in murder involving a tour group) actually means they lend themselves to the format quite well — almost as though written to be turned into plays!

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett’s seminal detective novel, has had a few audio versions, all pretty faithful within the limits of their respective running times (including an hour long one for Lux Radio Theatre in 1943 starring Edward G. Robinson, a lengthy 2008 American version, a 90 minute adaptation in 2009 for BBC radio starring Tom Wilkinson…and hero Sam Spade was featured in a 1940s weekly radio series called The Adventures of Sam Spade).

The 2008 version from Hollywood Theatre of the Ear and Blackstone Audio starred Michael Madsen, Sandra Oh, Edward Herrmann, Armin Shimerman and others. It’s mainly an audio play, but does a quirky technique where the actors will read some of the text description where needed to introduce a character or clarify the action. At first, it’s a bit distracting (particularly as they read it in the third person, so Madsen both plays Sam Spade, yet will also read a narration saying how “Spade crossed the room”) — yet it actually becomes effective, too, with the added gimmick that the various actors read the narration that relates to their character, and generally remain in character while they do it! Madsen is suitably world weary as Spade and Herrmann steals the show as Casper Gutman — doing a dead on Sidney Greenstreet impression (the actor who played the role in the Humphrey Bogart movie version).

In general, a very nice, very faithful (it clocks in at around 3 ½ hrs), very witty (I hadn’t remembered how witty some of the banter is) very evocative presentation (great use of music and ambient sound) of a story that is so seminal and archetypal…even if you’ve never read or seen it, it’ll probably trigger feelings of déjà vu (in a good way). They pull off the trick — that a lot of such projects try, but with less finesse — of being both a serious, straight-faced drama, while also being slightly hammy and tongue-in-cheek, as much a fun homage to the hard boiled/film noir genre as a mystery for its own sake.

The 2009 BBC Radio version was adapted by Michael Bakewell and starred Tom Wilkinson as Spade (when British actor Wilkinson adopts an American accent he sounds a bit like Jack Nicholson, which might have been deliberate casting — Nicholson having starred in the classic PI movie, Chinatown). It’s a perfectly good, perfectly agreeable version — and also remains faithful to the source material (albeit, at less than half the length of the other, and without lifting descriptive passages from the book). It also goes for a broad/evocative style (jazzy score, and the announcer introducing the story is deliberately meant to sound like something out of 1940s radio) without sliding too much into camp.

But it ultimately is a bit too broad at times, some of the actors seeming too much like they are playing archetypes (particularly Bridgitte, as played by Jane Lapotaire) or, in the case of Wilkinson, playing it real, but without quite putting his own stamp on the role. Peter Vaughn as Caspar Gutman is arguably the most effective (I guess it‘s just a good part!) — in this case, precisely because he doesn’t sound like Greenstreet so makes the part his own.

Ultimately the BBC Radio version is an entirely sound production, but maybe does feel a bit like a respectable go round with a classic novel, whereas the 2008 American version is more atmospheric and feels like a production for itself alone. Admittedly, it has the advantage of length, and that I heard it first!

MODESTY BLAISE

The female James Bond, Modesty Blaise began life as a newspaper strip, was spun-off into a series of novels by her creator, Peter O’Donnell, and has appeared on screen occasionally…in, unfortunately, usually lesser efforts, poorly regarded. Her radio adventures have likewise been Spartan (including a single voice reading of the Willie Garvin focused short story, “My Date With Lady Janet”). A 1978 radio serial of six half-hour episodes based on Last Day in Limbo starring Barbara Kellerman as Modesty and James Bolam as her sidekick Willie Garvin. And then in 2012 came an adaptation of the novel A Taste for Death.

Looking at the most recent first, A Taste for Death runs approximately 75 min (initially serialized in fifteen minute chapters, but the whole runs together smoothly enough). Although faithful to the source, it was a little underwhelming. How much that’s a problem with the adaptation, and how much the source novel (which I haven’t read) I’m not sure. Perhaps the biggest problem up front is that if you didn’t know it was called a Modesty Blaise adventure…you might not realize Modesty was the main character! One of the principle characters, sure — but not the “main” character. It’s hard to even judge Daphne Alexander’s performances in the role, because she is given so little to work with (and in audio, it’s important to remember even if a character’s in a scene, if she doesn’t speak…she’s not really “in” the scene) — likewise sidekick Willie Garvin. I don’t know if that’s because they thought it would be neater to play up the mystique of the lead characters by viewing them through the eyes of others, or whether turning a novel, where you could internalize the action, or follow Modesty in solo action scenes, into a radio series meant the characters were short changed. Or whether it was simply the problem with squeezing it into 75 minutes! Likewise, the plot itself just wasn’t that exciting, or offered much intrigue (the villains are simply after buried treasure…a rather mundane goal) — again, though, that might have been a problem with turning an action story into audio…there were scenes where the action/adventure stuff took place off stage and we’re just told about it. When you have a scene of Modesty discussing building a pool on her estate but only get a verbal recap of some action scene…there’s a problem! Still — it’s certainly not bad, with decent performances and a nice music score that evokes a 1970s spy movie, and you certainly get a better feel for the character from this than some of the movies. But it just feels a bit lacklustre.

Much, MUCH more effective is the 1978 Last Day in Limbo — and a shame that it currently seems to have fallen out of circulation (I heard a rather scratchy bootlegged version, but you can look around for it on the internet). Totalling app. 3 hrs. which means it can take its time, letting the story unfold, the characters and their motives develop, and it can indulge more in dramatizing the action scenes and creating suspense. And there’s no doubt Modesty and Willie are the principal characters, at the centre of most of the scenes. And though it’s something where the audience knows what’s going on long before the heroes (as we keep cutting to the bad guys) it actually works to create suspense, as we watch the heroes slowly piece it together, making deductions that we know are closer to the truth than they can imagine, etc. — contrasted with the villains only gradually waking up to the danger they face having landing on Modesty’s radar! The score is mainly used just to bridge the scenes, but like with A Taste for Death, is evocative (including a few bits that sound a lot like something borrowed from the 1960s TV series The Prisoner…perhaps deliberate since the plot involves a colony of kidnapped people!)

Funnily, though Last Day in Limbo was recorded years before A Taste for Death (and by completely different creative teams), in terms of the character’s chronology, it takes place after, with supporting characters in Last Day in Limbo having first appeared in A Taste for Death. It’s not necessary to following either story, but is kind of neat if you end up hearing them, as I did, A Taste for Death first and then Last Day in Limbo. Of the two, Last Day in Limbo is the superior, both in terms of simply being a suspense-adventure story, and in terms of capturing the quirky relationship of the lead characters…and certainly shows that done right, Modesty Blaise can make a credible leap to audio. Though A Taste for Death certainly isn’t terrible.