Test Drive

Sometimes it can feel like the editorial attitude taken toward radio drama in Canada (specifically at the CBC) over the years was that it should deliberately be the un-TV sort of programs…that is “low-key” concepts that probably wouldn’t last six minutes, let alone 6 episodes, on TV (unlike, say, British radio series which are often very much the kind of high concept, high drama things you’d do for TV). Not that this was always the case at the CBC, as it certainly produced some good thriller and sci-fi series. But this deliberately low-key vibe does seem to crop up from time to time — detective series about small scale crimes, mild comedies that are more just light-hearted. And case in point is Test Drive, a six episode “dramedy” written by Dave Carley chronicling the unassuming life of a Toronto car salesman from the 1950s to circa 2000 (the series aired 2003-2004).

The whole point in the various episodes (set sometimes years apart form each other) is to be kind of slice of life (the appropriately-named narrator, Earl, even self-deprecatingly remarks on how “ordinary” he is). Indeed, probably the best episode is among the most flamboyant…when he decides to run (unsuccessfully) for parliament.

The result is a series that is kind of too unassuming at times…yet with that said, it does grow on you. It’s a comedy-drama…though the “comedy” is often more just “light-hearted” and has a slightly broad, campy delivery at times. Gordon Pinsent narrates throughout in a kind of self-consciously “bumpkin-y” voice, though when he assumes the role proper in the final two episodes, he’s exceptionally good (Geoffrey Bowes plays the character in the scenes in the first four episodes).

Part of the point of the series is to chronicle not just Earl’s life (growing older, his kids aging, etc.)…but the changing world around him through the decades, and in that sense its very “Canadianess” is part of the appeal, making period references throughout (from a Toronto flash flood in the 1950s to Robert Stanfield’s political misadventures in the 1970s). So, not exactly riveting but, if you stick with it…mildly appealing. Others in the cast included Catherine Fitch and Andrew Tarbet.

Playing for His Life

45 min. BBC Radio drama from 2011 about mid-20th Century German tennis champion Gottfried Von Cramm (Geoffrey Streatfeild) whose fame and success allowed him to rebuff efforts to make him join the Nazi Party, and made the Nazis turn a blind eye to his friendship with Jews and his homosexuality — but such freedom was incumbent only upon his propaganda value and his continued international success on the tennis court!

Very well acted and an effective look at a historical figure, and a time, and an intriguing dramatic tension (winning or losing a match could have serious consequences for him personally) without maybe being more than a look at a historical figure and a period well-mined by dramatists over the years. Based more-or-less on fact (funnily, I think Von Cramm was married a few times, so I’m not sure whether it‘s known he was gay — or just speculation) but as such it’s not like it can veer off into unexpected directions, or offer surprise plot twists.

So — a solid, if modest, drama. In a sense, plays in a similar sandbox as another BBC Radio drama, Theremin — both about real people from the “other side” in a conflict (WW II or Cold War), but with Theremin the more compelling (perhaps because it was the more fictional!)

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.

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.

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.

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.

8

L.A. Theatre Works production recorded in 2012 of the play by Dustin Lance Black about the 2008 California court case involving Proposition 8 — a referendum proposal to ban same sex marriage (or more to the point: to strip that right that had previously been granted).

Part of the impetus for the play was that those arguing in favour of Equal Rights had wanted the trial broadcast to the public (as is often done in the U.S.) but the side arguing against gay marriage refused to agree (leading the makers of the play to present this as the story the anti-gay marriage side didn’t want the public to hear). The play is less a fictional dramatization than it is a recreation of key scenes and arguments, to essentially provide a public record of the trial (albeit trimmed to 90 min).

Initially intended both as an education in civil rights struggles and a fund raiser for Same Sex marriage rights, it was produced with all-star casts in New York and L.A. with this a recording of the L.A. show. Directed by Rob Reiner — yes, Rob Reiner — it’s a pretty heavy weight (all volunteer) cast, including George Clooney, Martin Sheen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Bacon, Brad Pitt, John C. Reilly, Jane Lynch (as well as her fellow Glee castmates Chris Colfer and Matthew Morrison) and others. Because it‘s a recording of a stage performance, the audience will sometimes cheer or applaud when the actor comes on — but you have to wait till they speak to know what famous actor the audience is responding to! (Or to pick up on the “in joke” — the audience laughs knowingly when the character of the virulently anti-gay activist Maggie Gallagher appears, but it’s only when you realize the openly gay actress Lynch is playing her that you get the deliberately ironic casting).

Admittedly, given the nature of the script, a lot of the actors don’t necessarily get to shine in performances. Though with stand outs including Sheen, Bacon and Reilly, the latter two in essentially “villain” roles, so getting more colourful — and ultimately humorous — parts, with Bacon, as the lawyer against marriage rights, stumbling and stammering over the dubious logic of his own argument, and Reilly playing a particularly eccentric witness.

Of course the play has a bias (it was intended as a fund raiser, Reiner and others were actually involved in funding the court case the play is portraying, and the audience applauds vigorously at key speeches) and is most appealing for those who already support equal marriage rights. Yet if you’re on the fence, but open minded, the play is an interesting chance to hear the arguments (or lack thereof) made on either side. And as an example of civil rights trial theatre (think Inherit the Wind or 12 Angry Men) it’s fairly compelling — with some good dramatic moments, good emotional moments, and good funny moments. Though since based mainly on the court transcripts and ancillary interviews, it’s not like there are character sub-plots, or even closed door negotiations to be revealed. But ultimately, tightly paced and an effective court room drama.

The CD contains probably an hour of extras, including interviews with some of the cast, Black and Reiner, and the real life lawyers who argued for same sex marriage rights — and against Proposition 8 — David Boies and Theodore B. Olson.

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.

Asha’s World

45 min. BBC Radio comedy (or maybe light drama) from 2011 by Bettina Gracias. Archie Panjabi plays Asha, a young Anglo-India woman whose traditionalist Indian mother sets her up on a blind date. Not wanting to go, Asha lets her man-hungry best friend go in her stead, pretending to be her. Confusion and complications ensue because of the switched identities…especially when Asha actually does start to get interested in the guy.

Enjoyable enough, with good performances from Panjabi and the rest. But it can feel a bit like, well, just a sitcom — and a mildly amusing one more than a knee slapping hilarious one. The fact that the play essentially comes down seeming in favour of arranged marriages (in that Asha does end up liking the guy) can be seen as a cultural statement, or simply a quirky narrative choice (though in this kind of story, honestly, you can kind of guess it’s going to go that way).

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.