She

BBC Radio adaptation from 2006 of the classic, Victorian fantasy novel by H. Rider Haggard, adapted by Hattie Naylor and directed by Sara Davis. A trio of Englishmen set out for the African interior to investigate stories (part of one character’s family legends) of a tribe ruled over by a mysterious — and immortal — white woman. Tim McInnerny stars as Holly and Mia Soteriou as Ayesha (“She”) with Oliver Chris, Howard Coggins, Ben Onwukwe and Janice Acquah.

I’ll admit, I have some ambivalence to the source novel (which I read years ago). Although a genuine classic of fantasy fiction, it’s kind of an odd story in that, though technically an “adventure” — it’s not really very exciting, being slow moving and more about the characters than the cliff hangers…without the characters necessarily being as well rounded as they need to be. So in that sense, I can’t fault the radio version for its presentation of the material (although the initial quest does seem a bit perfunctory as dramatized here, the characters seeming to find this “lost” civlizxation rather quickly).

McInnerny is fine as the lead character and narrtror, but some of the supporting roles aren’t as memorable (including Leo who, in a sense, is the more stereotypical handsome leading man role) — but, again, I think that relates to the novel as much as the tradio versiopn. And I’ll admit I didn’t feel Soteriou quite evoked the presence of She (admittedly, in a radio version, I’m not sure what sort of voice I’d want — though funnily I think Janice Acquah brought more personality to her supporting role). Bottom line: it’s suitably atmospheruc and a perfectly respectable, perfectly competent adaptation of the novel, and faithful within its time and format. And I suspect it’s a hard story to dramatize as there have been a few movie versions over the years — but few are well regarded.

The Red Badge of Courage

Stephen Crane’s classic American novel about a novice soldier during the U.S. Civil War has probably been adapted to audio more than once, but the version I heard was a feature length production from 2010 by The Colonial Radio Theatre. It’s a faithful, deliberately respectful version (according to the intro intentionally trying to maintain much of the language of the book — and utilizing the first person narration).

Admittedly, despite being a classic — or more likely, the reason it is a classic — is because it is a pretty straightforward story, about a young man experiencing the crucible of war, wandering through battles and the aftermath of battles, and less a “plot” with story twists and turns. And philosophically, it’s a brutal, unsentimental look at war without, quite, going so far as to be an anti-war story. Still, probably as good an audio production of the tale as you could want, with performances restrained enough to be effective, but with a slightly theatrical flavour, giving the thing an (appealing) Old School vibe, like watching some 1950s teleplay.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Funnily, I’m not sure there have been many other (or any other!) radio adaptations of the story in the modern/post-OTR era (other than talking books). So this is an hour long BBC Radio drama from 1985 and scripted by Glyn Dearman. It takes an unusual approach to the classic horror/mystery story by Robert Louis Stevenson — by actually sticking close to the source novel!

That is, though the story has been filmed and staged innumerable times over the years, usually the focus — logically enough — is on Jekyll/Hyde. But the original novel was actually written as a mystery, with another character, Utterson (here voiced by Bernard Hepton), as essentially the main hero, who finds himself investigating the strange events surrounding the sinister Mr. Hyde and trying to fathom the man’s connection to the respectable Dr. Jekyll who seems to be covering for him. It’s not really until half way through the novel that the solution is revealed — and then it retells the events from Jekyll’s perspective (such spilt-perspective mysteries were not uncommon in the 19th Century, including some Sherlock Homes novels).

So this radio drama decides to go back to basics, and tells the story as a mystery (though with the revelation serving as the climax of the story, as opposed to then launching into an entire second half detailing it). And even knowing the solution (as most people will) it’s an effective, intriguing approach (if only just as something different from the standard Jekyll/Hyde movies) — much as I found it intriguing when I first read the novel. And the production itself is well done, and briskly-paced. Obviously, the fantasy/horror aspect is less pronounced (since it only comes into play toward the end) but compelling nonetheless — and an interesting chance to perceive the story as Stevenson originally intended it, as a “mystery.”

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!

The Woman in White

There have probably been more than one audio adaptations of Wilkie Collins classic Gothic suspense-mystery (I think there was also a Canadian one done for CBC radio). This is a 2001 BBC Radio adaptation written by Martyn Wade and serialized over 4 hour-long episodes.

It should go without saying that a good adaptation should hold up regardless of your familiarity with the source — that is, I’ve heard (and seen) classic adaptations that receive much praise from fans of the source novel…but really aren’t that compelling (or even coherent!) if you don’t already have a predilection for the story. (I’m not saying an adaptation shouldn’t be true to the source, I’m saying it shouldn’t be a Cole’s Notes of the source). In this case, this is a superb, compelling drama, and I say that as someone who had never read the novel or knew the plot (obviously Collins’ novel deserves the credit, but they bring it to life brilliantly).

It’s a mix of mystery and suspense (and Victorian romance!) yet isn’t simply a “body in the library” type whodunit? but a more complicated tale of characters with mysterious secrets, shrouded pasts, and ambiguous agendas, full of chance encounters (beginning with Walter meeting the eponymous Woman in White at the beginning) and coincidences, and where you’re not really sure where certain things are headed — but you’re interested in finding out. It’s deeply atmospheric (and benefiting from Elizabeth Parker’s musical score), well-paced, and with strong performances, where the heroes are sympathetic, and even some of the villains interesting and even charming (notably Philip Voss as Count Flosco). And it nicely straddles being both a “smart”, refined drama and a pulpy, entertaining romp. And also drawing upon the usual themes of Victorian-era Gothics (including the limited rights of women!) without being incessantly unpleasant or aggravating — that is, I sometimes find these sorts of tales less than “fun” simply because the protagonists are simply forced to suffer an unending stream of cruelties and iniquities till the climax. But this strikes a balance, perhaps because the villains are initially more sly, and the menace more implied.

The story concerns two sisters, Marian (Juliet Aubrey) and the beautiful Laura (Emily Bruni), the latter entering into an arranged marriage with a sinister nobleman, and the private tutor, Walter (Toby Stephens). who loves Laura. Funnily, Marian (particularly as voiced by Aubrey) is the more interesting, strong-willed sister (Laura is more a romantic paragon). Marian is supposed to be the ugly — but kind-hearted — one, but you can’t help thinking Walter should ultimately fall for her instead (but he doesn’t, of course).

Top drawer stuff.